The institution of Slavery The issue of slavery hasbeen touched upon often in the course of history. Theinstitution of slavery was addressed by French intellectualsduring the Enlightenment. Later, during the FrenchRevolution, the National Assembly issued the Declaration ofthe Rights of Man, which declared the equality of all men.
Issues were raised concerning the application of thisstatement to the French colonies in the West Indies, whichused slaves to work the land. As they had different interestsin mind, the philosophes, slave owners, and political leaderstook opposing views on the interpretation of universalequality. Many of the philosophes, the leaders of theEnlightenment, were against slavery. They held that allpeople had a natural dignity that should be recognized.
Voltaire, an 18th century philosophe, pointed out thathundreds of thousands of slaves were sacrificing their livesjust so the Europeans could quell their new taste for sugar,tea and cocoa. A similar view was taken by Rousseau, whostated that he could not bear to watch his fellow humanbeings be changed to beasts for the service of others. Religion entered into the equation when Diderot, author ofthe Encyclopedia, brought up the fact that the Christianreligion was fundamentally opposed to Black slavery butemployed it anyway in order to work the plantations thatfinanced their countries. All in all, those influenced by theideals of the Enlightenment, equality, liberty, the right todignity, tended to oppose the idea of slavery. Differing fromthe philosophes, the political leaders and property ownerstended to see slavery as an element that supported theeconomy.Order now
These people believed that if slavery and the slavetrade were to be abolished, the French would lose theircolonies, commerce would collapse and as a result themerchant marine, agriculture and the arts would decline. Their worries were somewhat merited; by 1792 Frenchships were delivering up to 38,000 slaves and this tradebrought in 200 million livres a year. These people hadeconomic incentives to support slavery, however otherswere simply ignorant. One man, Raynal, said that whitepeople were incapable of working in the hot sun and blackswere much better suited to toil and labor in the intense heat.
Having a similar view to Raynal, one property owner statedthat tearing the blacks from the only homes they knew wasactually humane. Though they had to work without pay, thisman said slave traders were doing the blacks a favor byplacing them in the French colonies where they could livewithout fear for tomorrow. All of these people felt that theDeclaration of the Rights of Man did not pertain to blackpeople or their descendants. All people were not ignorant,however.
There was even a group of people who heldsurprisingly modern views on slavery; views some peoplehaven’t even accepted today. In his Reflections on BlackPeople, Olympe de Gouges wondered why blacks wereenslaved. He said that the color of people’s skin suggestsonly a slight difference. The beauty of nature lies in the factthat all is varied. Another man, Jacques Necker, told peoplethat one day they would realize the error of their ways andnotice that all people have the same capacity to think andsuffer.
The slavery issue was a topic of debate among thepeople of France. The views of the people, based onenlightenment, the welfare of the country or plain ignorancewere tossed around for several more years until the issuewas finally resolved. In the end the philosophes, with theirliberated ideas, won out and slavery was abolished.Category: History