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.


  1. I did not find it surprising that slaves were not emancipated in the first place once the National Convention wrote a new constitution. Obviously, as it was in many other countries, slaves are a cultural norm and provide large economic incentives within a country. However, I think both played a large part. During a revolution, a stimulated economy is very important. At the same time, it is easy for the only people to truly be for the emancipation of slaves to be the slaves and a few others. Slaves make others lives a lot easier. I do wonder if the National Convention would have been more successful if they had fully supported the rights that they laid out in the new constitution. Perhaps the slaves would have been more readily supportive of the new government system and policy’s, in turn, propelling that government farther.

  2. Shane Sandberg

    March 7, 2015 at 1:43 pm

    I think that the National Assembly’s reasons for ignoring giving rights to slaves was extremely strange. One of the points that you made was that the National Assembly was concerned that if they gave the slaves freedom that there would be an uprising. But, there were already uprising seen in the areas where the French people had slaves so their argument is flawed.

    The idea of gradual emancipation makes sense but I can definitely understand how it was perceived as being immoral. Once the National Assembly did decide to grant them freedom, the stipulations implemented were just as stringent and difficult for a slave to actually obtain.

  3. Great information here. The section about gradual emancipation is interesting. In all actuality, there is much to be said about it. Based on past knowledge of Africa, instituting immediate freedom often has drastic consequences. It may sound appalling, but too much freedom too quickly is bad. Infrastructure has to be developed to accommodate the new population. Likewise, the newly freed population has to be educated in order to truly be free and not strap themselves.

    Based on all that, can we say that gradual emancipation in this case was immoral?

    • I do not think in this case that gradual emancipation was immoral because there needs to be structure and systematic approach in order to avoid chaos.

  4. After reading this post I have a question. Did Hunt explain what happened to France’s economy that was so dependent on the slave trade? How was it affected ?

  5. I do have a question about former slaves turned free, did Hunt make any indication that if these free blacks moved to another country, would they automatically be considered slaves again? Because the abolition of slavery in 1794 is quite radical.

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