The Rights of Slaves
During the enlightenment and the French Revolution, controversies arose over the issue of slavery. The trading of slaves was increasing. In 1783, under five thousand slaves were being transported and by 1792, the number was well above thirty thousand. Slaves were transported from Africa to small islands where they worked in fields producing sugar, cocoa, coffee and tobacco for France. After the Declaration of the Rights of Man, adopted by the French National Assembly, stated that “All men are born and remain free and equal in rights”, controversies developed over whether this applied to slaves. Those addressing the issue argue that slavery affects economic, social and political order.
Reasons were given to justify slavery. People defend slavery on the grounds that it had economic importance, not only for the colonies but for the French economy also. A delegate from Bordeaux argues that the wealth of France can be credited to the colonies and without the support of the slaves, the colonies will be lost and France’s economy would collapse. France needed the colonies and the colonies needed slaves, therefore, the argument was made that in order to keep the colonies, the slaves needed to be kept. A delegate of the owners of property in the French Colonies of America believes that the slaves benefited by living in the colonies. They were living under a more “humane” government and were working under more mild conditions.
Advocates against slavery, such as Rousseau, felt that the use of slaves was inhumane and that it was degrading to the human race. Jacques Necker, in his speech, opening the meeting of the estates general, said that he believed that slaves are being used as a barbaric object of trade. He mentioned that slaves were equal to the French in their thought and their ability to suffer. Olympia de Gourges reasoned that everyone is equal. By discriminating against slaves, he felt that it throws off a balance of nature. Louis de Jaucourt believed that all humans deserve to have dignity , and in order to achieve this every one needs liberty. Slavery was consitered undignified and therefore was against the laws of nature.
The slaves did not receive any political representation in the government. Count Mirabeau, in his speech for the National Assembly, demanded to know how twenty white people had the authority to represent slaves, when they were elected by white people. He didn’t believe that they should be excluded. Maximilien Robspierre feels that the declaration of the Rights of Man applies to the slaves. He was not willing to accept the planters threats to the Assembly to change the laws to their private interest. Even economic disaster was preferable to him. The rights of the slaves was more important.
Charles de Lameth appears to have a solution which often is used in difficult situations. In a speech in 1790, he suggested to form a committee to study the problem and come up with a plan. He was obviously stalling for time, hoping for a compromise. The Rights of man inevitably took president over economic issues. There is often a conflict between money and profit and the dignity and the liberty of men. France was struggling to find the right solution during the enlightenment and the French Revolution. The enlightenment and French Revolution ideas did not correspond to the economic realities in the colonies.