Viefville des Essars, On the Emancipation of the Negroes (1790)

This project to free the slaves in the French colonies was presented to the National Assembly. The defensive tone and rhetorical structure that emerge in the course of this document demonstrate the power of the interests opposed to even cautious steps toward emancipation.


Freedom is the first right that man receives from nature. It is a sacred and inalienable right, and nothing should take it from him. Slavery is therefore nothing more than an abuse of power.

France has had the good fortune of seeing [slavery] disappear from its continent. But unjustly, it had the cruelty to establish it in its colonies. It is a violation of all the laws of society and of humanity. If ever there is an opportunity to banish this barbarous abuse from French soil, if ever an opportunity presents itself to break the chains of slavery, it is no doubt now at a moment when man is more imbued than ever with the truth that all men are equal in the eyes of their Creator and before the eternal law that an invisible hand has inscribed in their hearts. It is at this moment that all their efforts to abolish and erase to the last trace of their former enslavement come together.

Gentlemen, it seems to me that the time has come to present to you possibly the largest, the most noble, and most dignified of projects for posterity which alone could immortalize this august body—the abolition of slavery.

Raise up the nature of man degraded and demeaned, return man to his dignity, restore to him his basic rights . . . this is an action worthy of French generosity. Atone for so many centuries of this affront to humanity, and, if possible, erase all crimes of cupidity. It is an act worthy of our sense of justice.

Already a rival nation, which has so many claims to our esteem, has taken care of this matter. Let us take heed of its generous scope. The task of setting this important example is up to France, it is up to you Sirs, and it will earn you the homage and veneration of the whole world. I admit it . . . the heart is seduced and drawn to such a beautiful and noble enterprise. It is so very pleasant to exercise charity by placing alms into the hands of the poor and spread happiness there. It is impossible not to feel, I would not say pity and compassion, but rather tenderness, and a powerful interest in those poor unfortunate people, those unhappy victims of our excesses and of our insatiable and cruel avarice.

There is no kind of cruelty or barbarity to which they [the slaves] have not been exposed, nor is there any hideous crime which we have not committed towards them. The most horrendous of means are used to make the slave trade profitable. We incite war and carnage in their country, and by the lure of a few trivial items, we purchase the awful right to enchain them and treat them like a vile herd of cattle . . . .

[He then traces the horrors of slave ships and chattel auctions. Then Essars begins enumerating the reasons for abolishing the slave trade and concludes with a draft of the law abolishing the trade:]

Article I. Slavery shall be and shall remain abolished in every country under French rule in the manner described in the following articles. Men, arriving there, shall be free and shall there enjoy all of their rights.

II. The slave trade is and shall remain abolished upon publication of this decree. All Blacks who arrive or who are brought to French colonies or to any other part of the realm, by any means or by any person, shall be free six months after said publication.

III. All of the slaves currently residing in the French colonies shall be successively freed and placed at liberty over a sixteen year period, one-sixteenth each year, the first being freed upon publication of this decree.

IV. Slaves above the age of seventy shall be the first to be freed. However they shall remain the charges of their masters who shall be required to feed and care for them, or to provide an annual stipend for their feeding and care in a charity home that shall be built for that purpose.

V. Married slaves who have the most children shall be the next to be freed, and freedom shall be granted to all members of the family at the same time. As freed fathers and mothers, their children can not be slaves.

VI. Children on a property below the age of fifteen having neither father nor mother shall continue to be raised and fed until the time established for the complete end of slavery. Then, steps shall be taken to provide for their subsistence and any payments that may be due to the masters that have fed them, without their making a profit from it.

VII. All Blacks who have worked for twenty years on the same property or who are forty years of age and not able to earn a living and who prefer to remain shall be fed. This shall also apply to the disabled and ill on a property. If they do not like their masters, their subsistence shall be paid for in the charity home to be built.

VIII. The slaves who shall be freed shall enjoy, from that moment on, all of the benefits of the law to contract, sell, purchase and make commerce as well as all of the other rights of a citizen.

IX. From this day, the Black Code is and shall remain abolished and repealed as inhuman and barbarous. It is forbidden for property foremen, masters, and slave drivers to punish [Blacks] or have them punished, or to arbitrarily strike them or have them struck by reason of their authority for any motive or pretext. And it is forbidden for any person to claim the right to inflict any sort of punishment on [the Blacks], and from this moment on they are placed under the protection of the law.

X. A legal system shall be established in each quarter that shall be made up of eight notables who, without remuneration, will deal exclusively with the problems concerning the Blacks in conformance with the law which shall be passed. The notables must be a majority of five in order to pass judgment.

XI. The master who has reason to complain about his slave may not dispense his own justice as stated in Article IX at the risk of punishment in accordance with the requirements of the case. He shall be required to refer to the system of justice previously mentioned.

XII. Blacks shall be allowed to marry amongst themselves regardless of their master's opposition. That is to say those who profess the Catholic religion in accordance with the conventions prescribed by the Church and the laws of the realm, the others following the conventions established for non-Catholics. The master to whom the man belongs shall be obliged to purchase the woman should she belong to another master, or, if he prefers, may sell the other master his Black at a set price, in order that [the couple] may live together. They shall be given a separate cabana.

XIII. It is expressly forbidden to require the wife to work during the last six weeks of her pregnancy and during the first six weeks after delivery.

XIV. The master who best treats those living on his property shall receive a reward that shall be decided by factoring in how many children where born there and the number and gender of his slaves.

XV. Property belonging to all persons of color who die without children and without having disposed of their property shall be given to the black family having the most children who have neither property nor means of subsistence. If the property is large, it shall be divided in as many portions as deemed necessary for each family. The poorest, and those with the most children, shall receive preference.

XVI. If there are infertile or abandoned grounds that are applicable, they shall be divided and distributed as those identified in the previous Article and it shall be passed to new colonists if deemed necessary for the first year of ground clearing.

XVII. The commissioners chosen and appointed to oversee the execution of this decree, shall see to the means of ensuring the subsistence of the newly-freed slaves, in order to attach them to the soil through ownership, and to [seal] the principles of humanity and justice, with all that those ideas can bring to the safety and prosperity of the colonies.

Source: Jean-Louis Viefville des Essars, Discours et projet de loi pour l'affranchissement des negrès ou l'adoucissement de leur régime, et réponse aux objections des colons (Paris, n.d.).