Slavery

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. Voltaire, an 18th century philosophe, 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.

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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
livres 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 labor 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 favor 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 color of
people’s skin suggests only a slight difference. The beauty of nature
lies in the fact that all is 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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