In 1783 Olympe wrote her first play, Zamore et Mirza, ou l’heureux naufrage, and submitted to the Comédie Française. The actors liked it and accepted it. Unfortunately, her later dispute with Beaumarchais over Le Marriage Innatendu de Chérubin, meant that the Comédie just sat on her play and refused to put it on. The contract she had signed with them meant that it could not be played elsewhere in Paris. So Olympe took the play elsewhere, with her own theatrical troup, which included her son, and performed it in private theatres and in the provinces. In 1786, she had the play printed for the fist time. Two years later, she printed it again, with a postface, her “Réflections sur les hommes nègres” in which she explained what the philosophy behind the play was. Why are black people treated like animals, she asked?
[I] clearly observed that it was force and prejudice that had condemned them to this horrible slavery, that Nature had no part in it and that the unjust and powerful interest of the Whites was responsible for it all.
In 1788, Olympe was already sensing a change for the better in politics, and felt it her duties to show the world that if they wanted to redress injustice, slavery was the place to start:
When will work be undertaken to change it, or at least to temper it? I know nothing of Governments' Politics, but they are fair, and never has Natural Law been more in evidence. They cast a benevolent eye on all the worst abuses. Man everywhere is equal.
As she pointed out in January 1790, in an open letter to an (anonymous) American colonist attacking her play, at the time she wrote Zamore and Mirza, there was no organised French abolitionist movement. The Societé des Amis des Noirs did not yet exist. She ponders in that letter, whether it was her play that caused Brissot and the others to create that society, or whether it was just a happy coincidence:
I can therefore assure you, Sir, that the Friends of the Blacks did not exist when I conceived of this subject, and you should rather suppose that it is perhaps because of my drama that this society was formed, or that I had the happy honour of coincidence with it.
In fact, Brissot did take note of the play, and in the winter 1789, he made use of his growing influence to persuade the actors of the Comédie Française, finally to put it on. Unfortunately, the actors bore a grudge, so they arranged for the play to be put on on the last day of the year, after which Parisians would be returning to their family homes to celebrate the New Year. The contract required that a play make a certain amount of money in the first three days if it was to stay on the program. The first night was a success – but a political rather than an artistic one. People came to support it and to protest against it, and they were so loud about it, that few could hear the actors. Fortunately the text was in print, and reviewers at the time noted that they’d had to refer to the printed version to know how the play ended.
Those who protested against the play most vociferously were the colonists, who had strong financial interest in the laws regarding slavery staying as they were. One such colonist wrote to Gouges, imputing that she was but the tool of Brissot’s society, and that her play was a call for the slaves of America to revolt. Gouges responded in an open letter, (1790) arguing, as we saw, that it was she, not Brissot, who’d first given voice to the abolitionist in France, and that her play did not incite revolution, but that it enjoined the French people and the colonists to see that all men were equal and abolish slavery, and the slaves to trust in the new laws and wait for a better future.
Two years later, these accusations came back when the slaves and the free people of colour of Saint-Domingue revolted.
In 1788, despairing that her play on slavery, Zamore and Mirza, would never be produced – the ComédieFrançaise had taken it on two years previously, but were holding it hostage for obscure reasons – Olympe decided to publish it on her own account. The title page announces that the book was printed in Paris, and that it may be bought at the author’s own house, rue du ThéâtreFrançais. At the end of the book, she added a short (7 pages) essay, entitled: “Réflexions sur les hommes negres.” In this piece she gives an account of how she first became interested in the fate of slaves in the colonies, and what she sees as a fundamental flaw in pro-slavery arguments : namely, there are no natural differences between human beings based on their skin colour.
Here are extracts from her argument:
“As soon as I began to acquire some knowledge, and at an age where children do not yet think, the first sight of a negro woman led me to reflect, and to ask questions about colour.
Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint George was born in Basse-Terre, Guadeloupe on Christmas day 1745. His father, George de Bologne, was a prostestant planter, married with one daughter Elizabeth, and his mother was his father’s Senegalese slave, Nanon. According to the Black Code of 1685, had Boulogne not already been married, he would have been obliged to marry Nanon. Joseph was a ‘mulatto’, or a man of colour of the first degree.
In 1759, the whole family, legitimate and unlegitimate, moved to Paris. Joseph received a first class education and distinguished himself in fencing and music. He made use of both skills during his lifetime, as a musician first, and as a soldier during the revolution.
His musical career was both brilliant and thwarted. As a successful composer and a protege of Marie Antoinette, he was offered in 1775 the directorship of the Academie Royale, the Paris Opera. But two of its leading sopranos reportedly complain that they would not work under the leadership of a black man, so he was not appointed.
The gossip columnist of the Correspondance wrote the following:
No sooner were Mesdemoiselles Arnould, Guimard, Rosalie, and others informed about the news [that Saint-Georges had been proposed as music director of the Opéra], they presented a petition to the Queen, assuring her Majesty that “their honor and their delicate conscience could never allow them to submit to the orders of a mulatto.” Such an important consideration makes all the impression it is expected to make, but, after many projects and discussions regarding the matter, the question has been decided by the king, who in the end took it upon himself to have the Opéra managed on his behalf by the Intendants and Treasurers of the Menus Plaisirs
`You can listen to Boulogne's music here:
As his father had been raised to the aristocracy (taking the name Saint George) shortly before the family traveled to Paris, Joseph was welcome in high society. He was a close friend of Madame de Montesson and manager to her private theatre. There he met Olympe de Gouges, with whom he became friend. Perhaps the two collaborated in the Club des Amis des Noirs, of which they are sometimes said to have been founding members. Saint-George travelled to England in the late 1780s, and an attempt was made on his life there, perhaps because of his involvement with abolitionist movements.
During the revolution he was made first captain of the national guard in Lille, then Colonel of the Black Legion, where he commanded black soldiers, amongst whom Alexander Dumas (père)’ father. His connections with the Duke d’Orleans and Dumouriez caused him to be suspende and emprisoned for 18 months, after which he traveled to Haiti to take part in the revolution there. He came back to Paris at the end of the 18thcentury and died in 1799 of bladder disease.
The first motto of the French Revolution was ‘Liberty, Equality’. Fraternity came later on, and was one of several third words that attached itself to the first two.
The republican concept of equality was derived from that of liberty. To be free was to be free from domination. But those who have a lower status find it harder to escape domination. Hence, a republic requires that all should be equal in the eyes of the law, and that all should have the same status as free citizens.
Unfortunately it turns out to be frighteningly easy to move from ‘equal political status for all’ to ‘equal political status for some’ and ‘equal status of some sort, but not political for some’. Women were excluded from the start from the Constitution. And people of colour who had benefitted from equal status in the colonies before the revolution found their equality reduced from ‘political’ to merely ‘civic’, and with no safeguards against the constant and illegal attacks on their civic liberties.
One way to read this is to decide that ‘political equality’ is really too abstract to play the role of guarantor of republican liberty. What constitutes the real threat to liberty, what causes some people to be dominated by others, is economic inequality. The very poor have no choice but to sell themselves to the rich in whatever capacity the rich demand. And once sold, they have no choice but to put up with their employers’ capricious demands, because to protest would result in starvation for the whole family.
So were Revolutionary republicans hypocritically ignoring the real causes of domination, and proposing an empty concept of equality that had no real grasp on the population they sought to address?
That’s not true. But nor is it the case that French 18thcentury republicans believed in economic equality. They simply believed that great inequality was harmful, and that excessive wealth would be better redistributed to the poor.
One example of an argument that great inequality causes domination and that wealth should be distributed in such a way to avoid it, but without any attempt at economic equality comes from Grouchy who proposes the following in her Letter VII:
Let us suppose that laws should no longer support wealth inequality: then, even if justice and humanity were to be satisfied, cupidity, which takes more time and effort to eradicate, may persist. However is it not likely that the natural inequality caused by differences in behavior, degrees of intelligence, by the greater or lesser fecundity of families would result in the random distribution of three-quarters of resources and an equal distribution of the rest? Let us imagine, for instance, a country of six million families, and a land income of twelve hundred millions: each family would have two hundred pounds in annuity from the land. Even supposing that natural inequality absorbs three-quarters of that sum on behalf of the rich, wouldn’t fifty pounds remain for each family? Take a look at our peasantry, my dear C***, and ask yourself whether among those who have a fifty pounds income, many are reduced to a pressing need. It is well known, on the contrary, that as soon as they own two or three acres of crop, they earn a reputation for being well-off, and the average worth of two or three acres of the best soil for wheat, is around fifty pounds.
In September 1787, Manon Roland was staying at Le Clos, the Roland family home in the countryside. She and her husband were about to take possession of the house, and she was beginning to renovate it, while Roland was working nearby in Lyon. Eudora, their daughter, was six years old.
It’s very cold here, but our rooms are comfortable even without a fire, and one could easily spend the winter here. All that is missing are chairs, which will come on Friday, weather permitting, and the top of the book case, which would not fit on the first cartload. Our child is quite well behaved with me. I have established a schedule, and I think this is an excellent method. We wake up together at six: we get dressed, read catechism and do some needle work, all this together until eight. Then breakfast together, great happiness and play till half past nine. Then we go back upstairs and I write, while the child sews or knits till half-past eleven. Then play for her, but indoors, till twelve. At twelve, she chooses a book to read, then music lesson. Lunch at one. Play until three. Upstairs again then work or reading till five (keeping the readings short). A collation at five, then play till six, or later if we go out; otherwise we go in and she has another music lesson. She dines and goes to bed between seven and eight. I dine after eight and go to bed an hour later.
Around the time that the guillotine was first tried, Sophie de Grouchy was finishing a draft of her Letters on Sympathy. The letters are a both a commentary and a response to Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments in which the Scottish philosopher argued that morality arises out of our reactive attitudes and the sympathythat human beings naturally feel for each other. For Grouchy sympathy develops from the first relationship an infant experiences, that is from the proximity with another living body, and the dependence it develops with it.
Because sympathy is developed through contact with others, it is natural that the Letters discuss crowd psychology:
Amongst the effects of sympathy, we can count the power that a large crowd has to affect our emotions [...]. Here are, I believe, a few causes of these phenomena. First, the very presence of a crowd acts on us through the impressions created by faces, discourses, or the memory of deeds. The attention of the crowd commands ours, and its eagerness, forewarning our sensibility of the emotions it is about to experience, sets them in motion.
This passage is reminiscent of the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca’s Letter to Lucilius, in which he describes the powerful – and worrying – effect that crowds can have on the wisest, calmest of individuals. He writes how, on occasions when the emperor forced him to attend gladiator shows, his blood was raised and he too wanted to shout that one should die and another live.
To consort with the crowd is harmful; there is no person who does not make some vice attractive to us, or stamp it upon us, or taint us unconsciously therewith. Certainly, the greater the mob with which we mingle, the greater the danger.
Grouchy tried to pinpoint the cause of this response. It is the overwhelming presence of living bodies, all in one place, all speaking, moving, twitching in their own way, but at the same time all focusing their attention on the same point, which both confuses us and takes over our own sense of direction: we too want to look where they look, and we too are getting excited with the anticipation of what will happen there.
The description of the effect of crowds in the Letterson Sympathyalso touches on the paradox of tragedy – why do we enjoy tragedy so, if we find other’s pain distasteful? The question is as old as Aristotle, who saw in tragedy a way to educate one’s emotion, to learn to understand and manage them. This is also where Grouchy is going here:
In any case, we know that the spectacle of physical suffering is a real tragedy for the masses, a tragedy they seek only through a dumb curiosity, but whose sight sometimes arouses the kind of sympathy which can become a passion to contend with (Letter 4).
No doubt Grouchy also has the spectacle of the public execution in mind here. When she first drafted the letters, executions were most commonly hangings, and they were always public, in France as elsewhere. People came to watch, and bought snacks and souvenirs, as they would at the theatre. And as we know, a year after writing this, she mingled with the crowds going to the guillotine, in order to visit her husband in hiding.
Not many in the eighteenth century agreed that women should be writers of anything other than gossipy letters. But even those who did found it hard to agree as to when was the best time for a woman to become a writer.
A woman who had the misfortune not to be married or have children could write at any time, provided she did not disturb her relatives. Hence Jane Austen would get up early, before her family’s breakfast, and write at the dining table. Afterwards there was household tasks to attend to, of course, and any other time she could take up a pen was devoted to writing letters to family members who were away.
Considerations of respectability only applied to respectable women, of course. So Olympe de Gouges, widowed, living under her assumed name instead of her husbands (Aubry), bringing up her boy alone, assisted financially by her lover, and pursuing a career as a playwright could write when she wanted to. This is probably why her biographer lists over 140 pieces penned by Olympe in the last five years of her life. (Her writing career began 1788 and she died in 1793)
Little is known of Sophie de Grouchy’s writing habits, except for a report from her aunt that as a twenty year old, staying in a convent finishing school in Normandy, she spent so much time reading and translating that she made herself ill and damaged her eyesight. Given that the social life of the school was quite active – the idea was for the young women to be presented to society and hopefully find husbands – Sophie probably worked during the night, by candlelight. The only obstacle standing between her and her work then was her social life, and it is likely that even when she married and became a mother this carried on, i.e. that her activities as a saloniere were the only thing that stopped her from writing when she wanted to. Her daughter, Eliza, had a wetnurse, so that Sophie was not bound by the usual duties of motherhood.
Manon Roland was firmly opposed to wet-nursing, being a follower of Rousseau, and a middle class woman, less able to ‘adopt’ a nurse, i.e. invite a woman to become a permanent member of the family and live under their roof until she could be retired.
Manon also had some duties at home. Even though she had servants, they had to be trained, supervised, their work had to be done for them when they were sick and big jobs, such as laundry, had to be shared, and dinner had to be ordered, and prepared by herself when she wanted something done in a particular manner. And most importantly, children – in her case a daughter, Eudora – had to be educated following Rousseauian precepts. But none of this, Manon reflected, ought to take particularly long, so that a good mother and housewife ought still to have plenty of time for study and writing.
Those who know how to organize their work always have leisure time. It is those that do nothing that lack the time to do anything. Moreover it is not surprising that women who spend their time in useless visiting and who think they are badly dressed if they have not spent a great deal of time at their mirror, find their days too long through boredom and too short for their duties. But I have seen those we call good housewives become unbearable to the world and even their husbands through a tiresome attention to little things.
Manon’s stance was not unlike that of Mary Wollstonecraft, who claimed that a married middle class woman with children was in an ideal position, once her children were at school and no longer needed her full time attention, to take up science, literature or the arts.
And did they pursue a plan of conduct, and not waste their times in following the fashionable vagaries of dress, the management of their household and children need not shut them out from literature, nor prevent their attaching themselves to a science, with that steady eye which strengthens the mind, or practicing one of the fine arts that cultivate the taste (VRW).
Both in Roland and Wollstonecraft’s case, however, the life plan that would allow women to write while mothering young children relied very much on a reformed, republican and proto-feminist model of family life in which only necessary household duties were perfomed - the ‘vagaries of dress’ to be avoided and ‘if men do not neglect the duties of husbands and fathers’.
I expect a woman to keep her family’s linen and clothing in good order, to feed her children, order, or herself cook dinner, this without talking about it, keeping her mind free and ordering her time so that she is able to talk of something else, and to please, at last, through her mood, as well as the charms of her sex
So what would an 18th woman who wanted to write but had no expectations that a revolution would bring about major changes in her household duties do?
This was the case of Hannah Mather Crocker, born in Boston in 1752, writer of several books and pamphlets, including “Observations on the Real Rights of Women” a work in which she cites Wollstonecraft amongst others. Crocker, although she had always been philosophically inclined, only began to write in earnest once her ten children had left home, remarking that this period in a woman’s life was :
a fully ripe season to read, write, meditate and compose, if the body and mind are not enfeebled by infirmities.
In other words, if bringing up ten children hasn’t left you a mental and physical wreck, now is the time to pursue a literary or philosophical career!
Many republican philosophers of the French Revolution, including Olympe de Gouges, Manon Roland and Sophie de Grouchy, understood the liberty they fought for as the absence of domination, rather than, as later liberal thinkers would, the absence of interference. The two are distinct in several ways, but one way in which they are is this: someone who is dominated, under the power of another, whether a slave, or a wife, or even a child, may well be free from interference at the same time = - but this does not make them free.
This point is clearly illustrated by the narrative of Olaudah Equiano, 18thcentury African writer and abolitionist, who toured England in the 1780s, speaking, amongst other places, in Newington Green, Mary Wollstonecraft’s home at the time. In 1789, Equiano published his Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the Africanand Wollstonecraft reviewed it for the Analytical Review(she was on the whole enthusiastic but felt the discussion of his religious beliefs at the end was rather boring). Equiano had been sold as a child to an English navy officer, and when they were not at sea, he lived in his master’s London house, where he was taught to read and write, and even baptized by the lieutenant’s daughter.
Because he was treated kindly, and accepted as one of the family by his master’s daughter, Equiano developed a sense of security, thinking of himself as something other than a slave:
For though my master had not promised it to me, yet, besides the assurances I had received that he had no right to detain me, he always treated me with the greatest kindness, and reposed in me an unbounded confidence.
And yet, one day, after months of fighting alongside each other, the lieutenant sold him. Equiano was told to board a barge from where he would join a ship sailing to Montserrat in the Caribbean:
I made an offer to go for my books and chest of clothes, but he swore I should not move out of his sight; and if I did he would cut my throat, at the same time taking his hanger. I began, however, to collect myself; and, plucking up courage, I told him I was free, and he could not by law serve me so. But this only enraged him the more.
The ship captain introduced himself as his new master, leaving no doubt, this time, as to what the relationship would be:
'Then,' said he 'you are now my slave.' I told him my master could not sell me to him, nor to any one else. 'Why,' said he,'did not your master buy you?'
This is a clear example of someone who thought they were free, because they were allowed to educate themselves and work for money (even though Equiano gave his wages to his master, he seemed to have been under the illusion that it was for his upkeep, and he managed to retain enough to buy books). The lieutenant did not interfere with his efforts to better himself; he encouraged him by letting him be educated with and by his daughter. He acted kindly and generously. And yet, at a moment’s notice, with no explanation, he sold him off to a violent man, to an uncertain (but certainly miserable) fate. And even then it took young Olaudah a while to realize that he had not been, at any point, free, that his sense of freedom had been but an illusion, and that all along he had been under the power of his master, depending on his goodwill (or laxity). As soon as that good-will was exhausted, simply because the master needed money, the lack of freedom became painfully apparent.
Three arguments from white colons against granting people of colour the rights of active citizenship
Although the Club des Amis des Noirs wanted the abolition of slavery, the question that was debated in the National Assembly in 1791 was whether free people of colour should be granted active citizenship.
In 1791 white colons proposed to the National Assembly that a distinction should be established in the colonies between free people of colour and white people, introducing several classes drawn in accordance to degree of black ancestry, which was assumed to be correlated with appearance of whiteness.
An edict of 1685 granted any person who had been freed from slavery the same rights as those subjects who had never been slaves in the first place. Therefore, to introduce a distinction in 1791 would be to go back on this edict.
Free people of colour were people born of a free mother and father, and had at least one black ancestor.
Active citizenship meant the right to vote. The proposed distinction would have given free people of colour civil rights, but not political ones.
The arguments presented by white colons against granted free people of colour full rights of citizenship were of course appalling, both in their logic and their content.
Here are a few examples:
1) From:Motifs de la motion faite a l’Assemblée nationale le 4 mars 1791, par M. Arthur-Dillon, Depute de la Martinique.
Arthur-Dillon (1750-1794) was an English born aristocrat who inherited leadership of French regiment. Fought for American and French revolutions. Having sailed to Caribbean he met and married Louise de Girardin de Montgerald, Comtesse de la Touche. The couple had six children. Arthur-Dillon eventually came back to Paris as depute of Martinique.
In a speech for the National Assembly he writes about the dangers of the opinions of the Club des Amis des Noirs.
“They have no knowledge of the place and want to destroy at once political ties that only time and a long period of calm could weaken. Allowing men of colour to be represented at the Assembly would result in an immediate insurrection of the colonies against France.”
This argument: ‘you don’t know what it’s like there’ was one most commonly used by white colons.
2) From: Essai sur l’execution du decret du 15 mai 1791, concernant les gens de couleur par un habitant planteur de l’Amerique.
The anonymous planter argues that the decree that PoC born of free mothers and fathers should enjoy civil and political rights “will bring about the subversion of the colonies because the prejudices which keep slaves in bondage will be certainly destroyed by this act as politically flawed as it is contrary to the principles of humanity properly understood.”
He goes on to explain:
“The prejudices of slaves are precious; we must preserve them carefully. We can even say that each time we touch them, we will accelerate the subversion of the colonies in proportion to the gravity of the attempt against them”.
“They believe themselves to be bound to servitude because they are black and because they came, or their parents did from a foreign land where slavery exists. Thinking of themselves as men, as it were, or a different species, they are become familiar with the superiority of the white, in whom they see benefactors who free slaves and better the lives of those who are not white. Last, their state, made sweeter by habit, is only bitter for a few markedly bad individuals”.
He also notes, more sensibly, perhaps, if only because this is an argument that can be engaged with:
“There is nothing as dangerous as an excessive population of free men in a country where only slaves cultivate the earth, and which is fed mostly form outside, and whose near totality of production is not edible.”
This argument was often cited, not only by colons, but by the abolitionists who recognized that this was an economic consideration worth taking into account. Olympe de Gouges responded that freed slaves would be more willing to cultivate the earth once they had a stake in it.
3) From: Réponse d’un ami des Noirs a la lettre de M.***, habitant de Saint Domingue. Paris, 16 Novembre 1791.
The author blames revolts in Saint Domingue (Haiti) on the Club des Amis des Noirs, and specific members he refers to only by their initial. He claims that the true friends of black people are ‘all men who are just and humane, all planters who work to sweeten, through their goodness, the necessary dependence of the laborious and faithful negro, and only punish the guilty negro regretfully.’
He goes on to make a most counter-revolutionary analogy:
"It is possible to love the Blacks like the French love the people, who, because they have more passions than lights, think they serve the cause of liberty and equality when it only defiles itself with crime and precipitates its fall into an abyss of misery, and is nothing but the instrument of the fanatics and the factions.”
The view that black people are not to be seen as human in the same way as white people are was actually shared by the National Assembly in 1791, who granted the colons that black people were like children, in a state of prolonged minority, and that the state ought to act towards them as a parent, making decisions on their behalf. (Projet d’instruction pour les colonies relativement aux Decrets des 12 et 15 )
Having interested myself in Olympe’s anti-slavery writings, and Brissot’s Club des Amis des Noirs, I was delighted to find a series of texts relating to the citizenship of ‘People of Colour’ of Saint Domingue (now Haiti) written in 1791.
Why the quotation marks? Because it turns out that ‘Person of Colour’ in 1791 meant something rather different from what it does now.
Specifically, it did not mean a black person.
The author of the text, Julien Raimond, identifies himself as a person of colour in the text in which he argues that free men of colour ought to be granted the status of active citizens in the colonies. They deserve this status as much as the white men, he says, because like them, they are free. So first, Raimond does not ask that slaves should be granted the status of citizens, nor indeed that slavery should be abolished.
Secondly Raimond argues that all men of colour, regardless of their degree of whiteness, ought to be granted the same status, as otherwise, brothers and sisters, parents and chidlren, would be turned against each other. In order to make this argument, he says that he needs to explains what he means by ‘People of Colour’ and ‘degree of whiteness’.
A child issued of a white man and a black woman is a mulatto (mulatre).
A child issued of a white man and a mulatre is a quarteron, or second degree.
A child issued of a white man and a quarteron is a tierceron, or third degree.
A child issued of a white man and a tierceron is a metis, or third degree.
The colour of the skin of a metis, Raimond says, is indistinguishable from that of a white person.
Any person belonging to that group is referred to as a ‘Person of Colour’.
Julien Raimond himself was the son of a mulatto, Marie Bagasse, and a planter. He became a wealthy slave owner. In 1785 he moved to Paris and eventually became a member of the French National Assembly during the Revolution and helped Toussaint Louverture write the first Haitian Constitution.
Raimond notes, without commenting on it, that prejudice means that couplings will always have to be of a white man with a woman of colour.
This is part of the reason why citizenship should be granted to all free people of colour, regardless of their degree of whiteness: a brother and a sister, both tierceron, will otherwise risk belonging to different classes. The sister might marry a white a man, in white man, and then her metis children will become citizens, and they will look down on their cousins who are not.
This is where I live blog about my new book project, an intellectual biography of three French Revolutionary women philosophers.