French Views of Slavery

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