Month: March 2015

The Religious Question

With an impending constitutional republic, the National Assembly of revolutionary France was charged with determining which minorities were entitled to equal rights.  Some minorities had a significantly more difficult time than others.  One area of particular debate was religion.

Should these religious minorities, many of whom were unable to freely worship in pre-revolutionary France, be permitted full citizenship?

Non-Catholics (Protestants)

Initially Protestants were denied equal rights and freedom to worship as they saw fit.  Prior to France’s Revolution, each province of France had been ruled differently, with one similarity.  Wherever one went, Protestants were discriminated against.

This discrimination extended to elections and public posts, effectively making Protestants a second class citizen.  It’s important to remember that Protestant inequality was not from a formal constitution, but rather from a monarchical decree.   Protestant’s experience with legal rights boiled down to a cycle of gaining rights through different edicts, to ultimately losing said rights, to regaining rights again from the National Assembly.

Francis I (r. 1515-1547) The King of France during the Protestant Reformation, Francis I began the persecution of Protestant minorities in France.

Francis I (r. 1515-1547) The King of France during the Protestant Reformation, Francis I began the persecution of Protestant minorities in France.

A strong argument for extending legal rights to Protestants was that, unlike Jews, practitioners of Protestant faiths were still French.  The individual still spoke French and adhered to the same social customs as other French natives.  Additionally, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen sought to provide liberty to all men, not exclusively Catholics.

Pierre Brunet de Latuque, a lawyer from the Bordeaux region of France, argued strongly in favor of incorporating rights for Protestants.  Brunet challenged, “If private interests were not constantly distorting the sovereign principles of justice, those who seek by such criminal grounds to exclude Protestants from public positions would better enter, Sirs, into the spirit and even the text of your decrees…”  Brunet continued to state that following prior decrees to the letter would severely hinder France as many qualified men were Protestant.


Separate from other Protestants, Calvinists faced unique challenges on their road to equality. Calvinists first gained the right to worship freely with the Edict of Nantes.  King Henry IV issued the Edict as an end to the war of religion between Catholics and Calvinists in 1598. This freedom lasted only until 1685 when Louis XIV initiated a campaign to convert all Calvinists. After 100 years of their worship being illegal, Calvinists found reprieve in 1787 through Louis XVI’s Edict of Toleration.

While Calvinists experienced a victory with the Edict of Toleration, no political rights were granted.  Furthermore, years of economic dominance in the textile industry led many French citizens to be critical of Calvinists.  Yet if the Declaration of the Rights of Man and citizens were truly the inspiration for change, then Calvinists were due rights.  Count de Clermont Tonnerre gave an impassioned speech in 1789 in defense of incorporating Calvinists (and all Protestants) into political equality.  The argument stated, “either you admit a national religion, subject all your laws to it, arm it with temporal power, exclude from your society the men who profess another creed and then, erase the article in your declaration of rights; or you permit everyone to have his own religious opinion and do not exclude from public office those who make use of this permission.”


The Jewish question in France lasted until 1791; it was then that Jews were able to celebrate freedoms guaranteed under a new constitution.  Discussions surrounding what to do with the Jewish population had persisted as remarks concerning non-Catholics did not apply to Jews, but were strictly applied to Protestants.  Struggles faced by Jews prior to 1791 were countless as the French populace sought to virtually exclude Jews from society.

Having already lived for hundreds of years as a persecuted group, the Jews in pre-revolution France were restricted from holding respectable labor positions, buying land or property, or even living among the regular population.  This created a self perpetuating issue; the lack of labor opportunities forced the Jewish people to rely on usury (money lending) as a means of providing for themselves.  Usury practices caused disdain towards the Jews.  Just as with the Protestant struggle for rights, Jews faced a battle against a Catholic majority that, for the most part, did not want Jews at all.

Unlike the Protestant (and Calvinist) minorities, the Jewish people were not viewed as French.  Judaism provided its own rules, customs, and even language that many Jews were loyal to.  The common belief stated Jews attempted to be a separate people, therefore the French constitution should allow them to be separate people.  Count de Clermont Tonnerre again made a case in defense of the persecuted minority.  According to the Count, Jews should be treated as individuals and not as a community; naturally, each individual was due the same rights as any other free man in France.



Hunt, Lynn, ed. The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief Documentary History. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1996.

Free Blacks and Slavery

Similar to the complications of rapidly terminating feudalism- the new ideas circulating about the Rights of Man challenged the current structure revolving around slavery and freed black individuals. We see a paradox of a large oppressed group of people, the 3rd estate living without rights, without a voice and in many cases, extreme poverty.

The Debate
Many people were very excited to see the end of the era of slavery, but were fearful of implications to the economy- or that sudden abolition would “jolt commerce too violently” (Hunt p.102). This fear is categorized by being in the shadow of those nations, which would continue to use slave labor and therein, generate a lot of money. This would leave France disadvantaged to those countries who still relied and reaped the benefits of free labor- making France’s resources more expensive and therefore, less competitive. It’s assumed that assimilation would be an important element to non-white participation in the new declaration. There were many assumptions that abolition meant that free black individuals and slaves wanted these rights as well but some assumptions were that freed slaves would want to return to their native homelands.

It seems like hypocrisy to make statements such as “God has created all men free; that this liberty should only be hampered by chains that they give themselves voluntarily, to prevent the strongest from making a attempt on the liberty, the life or the property of the weakest” (Hunt p.102), yet still oppress a large portion of the population. This quote demonstrates the complicated nature of this movement- how can the weakest, those who do not own property, those who have been inhumanely forced into slavery be protected from the strongest or even the slightly stronger? Propositions were that people “imported” aka seized or stolen, were to be freed after ten years time and another was to divide them into classes by age, which is arguably unjust and problematic.
Many of the positive arguments towards abolition, freedom and equality were to strike out the possibility of future revolts and develop a more peaceful and equitable society, yet the trepidation remained that the economy would collapse without the continuance of free labor.

Gradual Emancipation

 Largely due to the fear of ruining the economy and commerce, abolitionists tended to favor gradual emancipation as a means to full emancipation and equality of the enslaved. Although practical, this idea of “gradually” freeing other human beings is arguably immoral. However, nevertheless, gradually eradicating slavery was more favorable in the eyes of all, abolitionists and those who did not necessarily believe in freeing the enslaved. Abolitionists thought of several ideas of how the enslaved could be gradually emancipated. For example, an abolitionist suggested that the enslaved could be freed after serving 10 years, and instead of being a slave, the person would be more of an indentured servant. Additionally, the Society of The Friends of Blacks suggested that instead of tackling slavery in France as it is, they would begin by eliminating the slave trade, which was eventually accomplished in 1807. By stopping the slave trade, no more slaves would be imported into the country. However, they suggested that instead of importing more slaves to feed slavery, slave-owners could treat the enslaved with more kindness so that they would produce more offspring to feed slavery. “If they [slave-owners] treated them [the enslaved] with kindness and as good fathers of families, these blacks would multiply and that this population, always growing, would increase cultivation and prosperity” (108). Here, the Society is equating the happiness of slaves to a more prosperous economy, which only feeds into the point that preserving the French colony was the most important.

Preserve French colony- commerce/trade

France had colonial possessions in the Caribbean later called Haiti, Africa, and part of Asia. Slavery used to be legal and normal practice in the society. Slaves in the French colonies worked for sugar, coffee, and cotton plantations. Ultimately, slavery linked to French colonial empire prosperity.

Slavery was a huge business for the people who already prospered from the slave trade. They were against abolishing slavery due to the fear of losing their wealth and power in the French colonies. Even before French revolution in 1789 began, some people criticized the slave trade and slavery in the French colonies. However, in general, the public was less concerned about slavery, and more concerned about keeping racial purity in the colonies. As a result, they wanted to segregate based on race, which greatly affected the free Blacks and mulattoes in the colony. Vince Oge, a mulatto and slave-owner, argued for the rights and equality of mulattoes to whites. However, the French feared that giving rights to free lacks and Mulattoes would cause more slave uprisings.

Additionally, the French government had successful economic prosperity due to the slave trade, which accelerated the demand to have more slaves in the colonies. The French also sought to maintain the cherished interest of their lifestyle, which undoubtedly required slavery. As a result, the French colonists feared that the slaves would begin to demand for freedom, justice, and dignity of men. In order to manage the French colonies, Code noir, or slave code, was passed by France’s King Louis XIV. Code noir was created to control the enslaved’s behaviors and the actions of slave-owners in the colonies. They could prevent the revolt of the slaves and influenced of revolutions.


  A large part of why the National Assembly was so hesitant to grant the rights laid out in the new constitution was because they feared the possibility of a slave uprising. This was a valid concern of people at the time since the slaves on Saint Domingue had already spoken up or acted out on several instances. The National Assembly recognized that they had no real reason to withhold any rights but they still did so in order to protect who they identified as their own people mainly the masters of the island. In order to circumvent the revolution that was brewing, the government tried several things. One of these was to carry on and act as though the French Revolution had nothing in common with the desires of the enslaved people. Another tactic was to emancipate the slaves and hope that the problem would be solved, however there was still inequality and the people were re-enslaved shortly after obtaining freedom. These different measures were taken with the hope that a rebellion by the enslaved people of Saint Domingue could be avoided, but as long as there was an imbalance of power, there was bound to be a rebellion.

Actual Emancipation of 1794

In the years leading up to the abolition of slavery, many slaves were revolting, especially in the colonies.  One colony in particular, Saint Domingue, had a huge impact on the country of France.  In Saint Domingue, there were massive slave revolts that were causing the Legislative Assembly to question their views on rights for free blacks.  In order to not lose this colony all together, emancipation of the slaves was needed to keep the peace.  News of these emancipations in Saint Domingue eventually traveled back to France.  Once the news reached the National Assembly, it raised feelings of anger among the members.  Most of the original members of the Society of the Friends of Blacks had either fled the country or were killed.  Three representatives from Saint Domingue, a free black, a mulatto, and a white, went to Paris to talk to the Assembly on February 4, 1794.  Their speech created much enthusiasm and the Assembly voted to abolish slavery in all of the colonies.  After this, the National Convention decreed that all men residing in the colonies were French citizens and would have all the rights assured by the constitution.


Works Cited

Hunt, Lynn. The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief Documentary History. Boston:
Bedford of St. Martin’s, 1996. 100-118. Print.

Women’s Rights and the French Revolution

Women’s Rights and the French Revolution

A faut esperer qu'eu se jeu la finira bentot

A faut esperer qu’eu se jeu la finira bentot

“For this exclusion to not be tyranny one would have to prove that the natural rights of women are not absolutely the same as those of men or show that they are not capable of exercising them” (120).

In France around 1790 there was a massive movement for the recognition of freedom for all people. The French Revolution was an incredibly important time for not only France, but also for Europe and European colonies. Incredibly important actions were being implemented in the drive towards the rights of citizens. Not only were the rights of the common man being discussed, but also the rights of the colonial slaves, religious minorities, and even women.

The discussions of women’s rights was, perhaps for the first time, being brought to the discussion table with a view that women deserve the same rights and opportunities that would be given to men. Up until this time women were treated as second-class citizens and often viewed as the property or a commodity of a husband, father, or society in general. Women had a very difficult time arguing their points but there are still sources today that help establish how these women were treated and how they were doing their best to end the tyrannical oppression forced upon them by men in their society. “The prejudices with which our sex has been surrounded – supported by unjust laws which only accord us a secondary existence in society and which often force us into humiliating necessity of winning over the cantankerous and ferocious character of a man, who, by the greed of those close to us has become our master – those prejudices have changed what was for us the sweetest and most saintly of duties, those of wife and mother, into a painful and terrible slavery” (123).

Lynn Hunt, the author of The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief Documentary History, stated that, “women were not considered a persecuted group in the same way as slaves, Calvinists, or Jews” (11). Women did however, face many prejudices before and during the French Revolution. One such prejudice was that women were defined by their sex and marriage and not by their occupations. So, because they were defined by their sex, wom</p><br /><br /><br /><br />
<p>Represents the suppression of women during the French Revolutionen were seen as physically weaker than men. More importantly men believed that do to the woman’s nature she was unsuited for a political life and that women did not have the intellectual capacity to comprehend political issues Enlightenment thinkers also strongly believed that a woman’s role was located in the “private sphere of the home” and because of this the women did not have time for the political sphere (11). Men also believed that if women involved themselves with the political sphere, they would neglect their own sphere in the home and their ultimate role as women.

Women were attempting to make a point as to what they deemed should be explicitly any citizens right and what they should have access to which included: the right to become educated, equal rights in marriage, the right to hold public office and to be treated with the same respects as their male counterparts. Not only did women want access to these rights, but women were also willing to take the responsibilities that would come along with the rights. “Either no individual in mankind has true rights, or all have the same ones; and whoever votes against the right of another, whatever his religion, his color, or his sex, has from that moment abjured his own rights” (120).

Despite the fact that women did not overall benefit from the French Revolution, certain individuals rose up to assist in the battle for women’s rights. One of the individuals was a man named Condorcet, a newspaper journalist. Condorcet strongly believed that men and women were equal and that women deserved to have the same rights. Even though Condorcet does see the difference between men and women, he still argues that the biological and educational differences do not make women more weak or less than men. Another key player was a woman named Etta Palm D’Aelders. Etta Palm D’Aelders was a member of the Cercle Social and the Confederation of the Friends of Truth. D’Aelders fought for the rights of women through the means of public speaking and believed that women can only be happy about the constitution if it also includes them, not just favoring the men at the expense of women(123). D’Aelders main focus was concentrated on injustices that many women faced by having to dedicate their lives to men that did not treat them as equals but as prey and slaves. “Our life, our liberty, our fortune are no longer ours; leaving childhood, turned over to a despot whom often the heart finds repulsive, the most beautiful days of our life slip away in moans and tears, while our fortune becomes prey to fraud and debauchery… From now on we should be your voluntary companions and not your slaves” (123).

Olympe De Gouges was one of the most important key players for women’s rights. De Gouges was a woman writer who supported women’s right through the use of pamphlets. Her most famous pamphlet was the The Declaration of the Rights of Woman which was addressed to Marie Antoinette. De Gouges uses this pamphlet to recreate the Declaration of the Natural Rights and changes it to include women as equals to men. Articles one through seventeen is an entire list of rights that she believes women should have (125). Ultimately in the end De Gouges ended up being sent to the guillotine for her beliefs and was condemned for being an “Unnatural” woman and a counter revolutionist (124). The last key player is a man by the name of Prudhomme. Prudhomme was a bookseller and published numerous underground pamphlets throughout the course of the Revolution. He supported women’s rights through the publication of his newspapers. Prudhomme writes that, “Long ago, in the time of the Gauls, our good ancestors, women had a deliberative vote in the Estates of the nation; they voted just like men and things did not go so badly” (130) this statement attempts to distinguish the fact that historically women did have the same rights as their male counterparts and were able to participate freely in their society.

The Revolution was about exploitation and wanting to change the makeup of society since the First and Second Estates had all the power. The women did not get anything out of the Revolution, their voices held little sway in what was happening in their beloved country, the Revolution called for a change for the better which women did not receive. Most importantly, why were the lives of the women not changed whatsoever during the French Revolution? Was it because women lacked certain physical abilities compared to men or because men did not view women as intellectually smart enough to have certain rights? For whatever the reason, de Gouges stated it best: “Oh women! Women, when will you cease to be blind? What advantages have you gathered in the revolution?” (127) Women may have not been given the rights that they well deserved after the French Revolution, but the thinkers who strongly believed in rights for women can be credited for planting the idea in people’s minds, in turn making the rights of women something to be questioned.

Works Cited:
Hunt, Lynn. The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief Documentary History. Boston:
Bedford of St. Martin’s, 1996. 119-131. Print.
“French Revolution Digital Archive.” : A Faut Esperer Qu’eu Se Jeu La Finira Bentot [estampe].
Web. 1 Mar. 2015. <>.