The Abolition of Negro Slavery or Means for Ameliorating Their Lot, 1789

The passage of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, explicitly cited in this pamphlet, did not go unnoticed by those who favored abolition of the slave trade and eventual emancipation of the slaves. Yet even the most determined adversaries of slavery worried about the consequences of immediate abolition, especially for the French economy. As a result, advocates of abolition put forward a variety of proposals for gradual emancipation and restructuring of the colonial economies. Their proposals gained little support in the National Assembly, where the planters in the colonies had many supporters.


At a time when a new light has come to enlighten minds in all Europe; when the French National Assembly has already destroyed the hydra of feudalism in the kingdom; when it has established the Rights of Man and recognized that 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 an attempt on the liberty, the life or the property of the weakest; then slavery should only continue to exist for criminals condemned according to the laws. In consequence liberty ought to be restored to that multitude of unfortunate beings, our brothers though of different color, whom European greed has kidnapped annually for nearly three centuries from the coasts of Africa and condemned to an eternal captivity, hard work, and harsh treatment.

The political interests and property rights that would be infringed if freedom was suddenly restored to the Negroes of our colonies are without doubt great obstacles to fulfilling the wishes that humanity has made in favor of these unfortunate Africans. If the French nation entirely prohibited the Negro slave trade, if it broke at the same time the chains of all those who live in our colonies, that would jolt commerce too violently; that would risk the loss of the plantations in the colonies and the immense shipping that they feed. . . . Moreover, if France alone undertook something similar, it would render itself a tributary of the other nations that possess sugar colonies and which would keep their slaves. . . .

I propose making Negro slavery like the condition of soldiers by providing an enlistment for a definite time at the end of which freedom would be restored to them. It cannot be concealed that the enlistment of a soldier is a veritable slavery, since from the moment that he contracts his engagement until its expiration, he cannot break it without being punished by death; during all this time he is neither master of his time nor of his actions; he is subject, on pain of punishment, to blindly obey the orders of his superiors; he is subjugated to fatigue, danger, to exposing himself often to an almost certain death. . . .

Being able to be kept similarly in slavery only for a limited time, the Negroes will be therefore no more slaves than a soldier: like him they will be obligated to obey during the duration of their enlistment; they will be subjugated to work of another type, it is true, but proportionate to their strength. . . .

To carry out this proposition, it would be necessary to promulgate a law that would decide: (1) That from such and such an epoch the blacks transported from Africa to our colonies could only be sold on the condition that the inhabitants who bought them would restore their freedom at the end of ten years and give at that time to each Negro a sum sufficient to pay his passage to return to his country. . . . (3) In regard to the Negroes currently enslaved in the colonies, one could divide them into ten classes for every dwelling. One would put into the first class the oldest tenth and the youngest, and the others in proportion to their age in the intermediate classes. At the end of a fixed year freedom would be restored to those of the first class and thus in the same manner as indicated above successively from year to year to those of the other classes. By this means at the end of ten years all the current slaves will have recovered their freedom, except for those who freely took up new enlistments as previously explained. . . .

Nevertheless, if according to the representation of the inhabitants of the colonies, whom it is suitable to consult before ruling on this subject, this sacrifice on their part is judged too great, could not the state accord them a compensation proportionate to the individual value of the blacks to whom freedom would be restored? There are more than 500,000 slaves in our colonies. If the compensation was set at 500 livres, French money, by head, this would amount to 250 million livres; that is to say, 25 million a year for ten years.

Source: The materials listed below appeared originally in The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief Documentary History, translated, edited, and with an introduction by Lynn Hunt (Boston/New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1996), 101–103.