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The issue of slavery has been touched upon often in the
course of history. The institution of slavery was addressed
by French intellectuals during the Enlightenment. Later,
during the French Revolution, the National Assembly issued
the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which declared the
equality of all men. Issues were raised concerning the
application of this statement to the French colonies in the
West Indies, which used slaves to work the land. As they
had different interests in mind, the philosophes, slave
owners, and political leaders took opposing views on the
interpretation of universal equality.
Many of the philosophes, the leaders of the Enlightenment,
were against slavery. They held that all people had a
natural dignity that should be recognized. Voltaire, an
18th century philosophe, pointed out that hundreds of
thousands of slaves were sacrificing their lives just so
the Europeans could quell their new taste for sugar, tea
and cocoa. A similar view was taken by Rousseau, who stated
that he could not bear to watch his fellow human beings be
changed to beasts for the service of others. Religion
entered into the equation when Diderot, author of the
Encyclopedia, brought up the fact that the Christian
religion was fundamentally opposed to Black slavery but
employed it anyway in order to work the plantations that
financed their countries. All in all, those influenced by
the ideals of the Enlightenment, equality, liberty, the
right to dignity, tended to oppose the idea of slavery.
Differing from the philosophes, the political leaders and
property owners tended to see slavery as an element that
supported the economy. These people believed that if
slavery and the slave trade were to be abolished, the
French would lose their colonies, commerce would collapse
and as a result the merchant marine, agriculture and the
arts would decline. Their worries were somewhat merited; by
1792 French ships were delivering up to 38,000 slaves and
this trade brought in 200 million livres a year. These
people had economic incentives to support slavery, however
others were simply ignorant. One man, Raynal, said that
white people were incapable of working in the hot sun and
blacks were much better suited to toil and labor in the
intense heat. Having a similar view to Raynal, one property
owner stated that tearing the blacks from the only homes
they knew was actually humane. Though they had to work
without pay, this man said slave traders were doing the
blacks a favor by placing them in the French colonies where
they could live without fear for tomorrow. All of these
people felt that the Declaration of the Rights of Man did
not pertain to black people or their descendants.
All people were not ignorant, however. There was even a
group of people who held surprisingly modern views on
slavery; views some people haven't even accepted today. In
his Reflections on Black People, Olympe de Gouges wondered
why blacks were enslaved. He said that the color of
people's skin suggests only a slight difference. The beauty
of nature lies in the fact that all is varied. Another man,
Jacques Necker, told people that one day they would realize
the error of their ways and notice that all people have the
same capacity to think and suffer.
The slavery issue was a topic of debate among the people of
France. The views of the people, based on enlightenment,
the welfare of the country or plain ignorance were tossed
around for several more years until the issue was finally
resolved. In the end the philosophes, with their liberated
ideas, won out and slavery was abolished.


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