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.
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Voltaire, an 18th-century philosopher, 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 lives 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 labour 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 favour 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 colour of people’s skin suggests only a slight difference. The beauty of nature lies in the fact that all are 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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