Barnave, "Speech for the Colonial Committee of the National Assembly" (8 March 1790)

Here Antoine–Pierre Barnave, a well–connected and influential lawyer from Grenoble, represented those interests that wanted to hold onto France’s rich colonial possessions. He wanted to treat the colonies separately from mainland France in order to exempt them from the Constitution as a means of maintaining the production of those colonial products that were such a large part of France’s commercial wealth. His proposals were adopted almost without debate.


The interest of the French nation in supporting its commerce, preserving its colonies, and favoring their prosperity by every means compatible with the interests of the metropole has appeared to us, from every angle of vision, to be an incontestable truth. . . .

Abandon the colonies, and these sources of prosperity will disappear or diminish.

Abandon the colonies, and you will import, at great price, from foreigners what they buy today from you.

Abandon the colonies at the moment when your establishments there are based on possessing them, and listlessness will replace activity, misery abundance: the mass of workers, of useful and hardworking citizens, will pass quickly from a state of ease into the most deplorable situation; finally, agriculture and our finances will soon be struck by the same disaster experienced in commerce and manufactures. . . .

You should only, you can only speak here one language, that of truth, which consists in disavowing the false extension that has been given [to some of your decrees]. You have not been able to change anything in all of what concerns the colonies, for the laws that you have decreed did not have them in mind; you have not been able to change anything because public security and humanity itself would offer insurmountable obstacles to what your hearts might have inspired in you [the abolition of the slave trade or slavery itself]. Let us say it then at this moment, since doubts have been raised: you have broken no new ground. This declaration will suffice; it can leave no alarm remaining. It is only just to accompany it with an arrangement suitable for reassuring the colonies against those who, with criminal plots, would seek to bring trouble there, to excite uprisings there. These men whom some have affected to confuse with peaceful citizens occupied with seeking through reflection means for softening the destiny of the most unfortunate portion of the human race [the slaves], these men, I say, only have perverse motives and can only be considered as enemies of France and of humanity. . . .

Here then, Sirs, is the project for a decree that your committee has unanimously voted to propose to you:

The National Assembly, deliberating on the addresses and petitions from the cities of commerce and manufacturing, on the items recently arrived from Saint Domingue and Martinique, addressed to it by the Minister of the Marine, and on the representations made by the deputies from the colonies,

Declares that, considering the colonies as a part of the French empire, and desiring to enable them to enjoy the fruits of the happy regeneration that has been accomplished in the empire, it never intended to include them in the constitution that it has decreed for the kingdom or to subject them to laws which might be incompatible with their particular, local proprieties. . . .

Moreover, the National Assembly declares that it never intended to introduce innovations into any of the branches of indirect or direct commerce between France and its colonies [thus it leaves the slave trade untouched] and hereby puts the colonists and their properties under the special protection of the nation and declares criminal, toward the nation, whoever works to excite uprisings against them. Judging favorably the motives that have inspired the citizens of the said colonies, it declares that there is no reason to pursue them for any charge [there had been widespread agitation among the planters to establish greater independence from Paris]; it expects from their patriotism the maintenance of public peace and an inviolable fidelity to the nation, the law, and the king.

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 (Bedford/St. Martin's: Boston/New York), 1996, 109–11.