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.
In Sense and Sensibility, one of Austen’s least likable characters, Fanny Dashwood, explains to her husband why she feels it would be a bad idea to offer his fathers’ widown and his three half sisters a modest annuity of 100 pounds:
People always live for ever when there is an annuity to be paid them; and she is very stout and healthy, and hardly forty. An annuity is a very serious business; it comes over and over every year, and there is no getting rid of it. You are not aware of what you are doing. I have known a great deal of the trouble of annuities; for my mother was clogged with the payment of three to old superannuated servants by my father's will, and it is amazing how disagreeable she found it. Twice every year these annuities were to be paid; and then there was the trouble of getting it to them; and then one of them was said to have died, and afterwards it turned out to be no such thing. My mother was quite sick of it.
Thankfully for the family, one of the daughters marries a rich man, and there is, at the end of the story, no prospect of them starving.
But annuities were the rather arbitrary mean whereby widows and spinsters lived, and this was also true of those who had been in service, and retired, or lost their place through their master’s death. The continuation of these people who were in control of a sufficient sum was wholly dependent on the good will of a rich relative, whether of their own or of their employer.
Sophie de Grouchy was no Fanny Dashwood. She cared for her old nurse all her life. She paid her an annuity, but also lived with her and cared for her when she was sick.
When Condorcet died, Sophie, in charge of managing his (small) assets on behalf of their daughter took on his obligations. She paid sums of money to Condorcet’s old servants, M and Mme Thibaud, and M Parquet, to his secretary, Cardot, and his secretary’s brother. She records that she took on these obligations because she knew that this had been Condorcet’s intention. She adjusted the payment according to the needs of the payees – the Thibauds asked for an annuity to be paid to their daughters, Parquet and Cardot chose a life annuity for themselves and Cardot’s brother a single sum, which he could put towards his commercial entreprise.
Sophie also notes that she carried on paying the annuities of D’Alembert’s servants until their death. D’Alembert had been Condorcet’s close friend so she felt obligated towards them.
If Sophie de Grouchy struggled financially during the Terror, and in the years following it, because hers and Condorcet's wealth had been confiscated, she clearly did not stay poor long. In 1805, she purchased her castle for her 15 year old daughter, Eliza.
The castle, Bignon-Mirabeau, is in the Loiret, an hour and a half's drive from Paris with no traffic, but a more substantial journey in a horse-drawn carriage. The castle was named after its previous owner's family: the Marquis de Mirabeau had been born there, and had sold it in 1789, shortly before he died. Owning a castle during the revolution was no easy feat. Its first buyer abandoned it and run away to England. Its second one had it less than ten years.
Two years after she received the castle as a gift, Eliza married an Irish man, the son of a friend of her parents, Arthur O'Connor. The castle stayed in the family, which, over the generation acquired the family name La Tour du Pin. It can be visited today, and among the exhibits, one can see a collection of mementos of Sophie de Grouchy's life, including a self-portrait miniature.
For more information on the castle, see here.
It is highly unlikely that Sophie, Olympe or Manon ever did take a holiday by the sea. And if they did, they would not have done so together, Nonetheless I will ask you to stretch your imagination and picture them together, in Dieppe (the first French seaside resort), in the summer of 1791. Their children would be there too – Manon’s Eudora, just turned ten, Sophie’s Eliza, five, and Olympe’s adult son, Pierre Aubry with his wife. And then let's leave them there together, dipping their toes in the water and relaxing before going back to face the Terror. This is also what I'll be doing for the next two weeks - relaxing, and hopefully not facing the Terror - and won't be posting until I get back at the end of July. Have a great summer!
Letter to Sophie Cannet, 5 July 1776.
Twenty-two year old Manon's letter to her convent friend, Sophie, is very reminiscent of Seneca's Letters to Lucilius. And just like him, she believes that although the Stoic sage must be self-sufficient, that is no reason not to value friendship.
Of course she did not know then that her capacity for self-sufficiency would be tested - and found to be quite strong - during the long weeks she spent in prison, awaiting death.
On 19 June 1792, the Jacobin club of Marseilles wrote to Jerome Petion, the mayor of Paris warning him that the King, with his corrupt civil list, was a threat to French Liberty, and that they were ready to come and lend a hand. A few days later, a deputation of 500 Marseillais set off for Paris on foot – over 700 km. Their leader, a captain from Montpellier, sang for them a war song celebrating the Revolution, written by Rouget de Lisle. On 30 July, the Marseillais entered Paris singing that same song.
One can only imagine what 500 hungry, thirsty, and possibly ill soldiers suddenly entering the Capital must have been like. And of course, they had come for a reason, to confront the King and defend Liberty. So it’s no surprise perhaps that on 10 August, they took part in the massacre of the Swiss guards in the Tuileries.
But before they did, 400 of them made a stop at the Hotel des Monnaies, the home of the Condorcets. The building is not small, nonetheless, making space for, and serving 400 scruffy soldiers must have been a challenge. But if it was, Sophie met it well. According to her biographer, Guillois, she was the ‘Queen of the party’, and that:
she charmed them so well that she could have, had the Gironde listened to her, saved, with the help of the Marseillais, Coutnry and Liberty.
One problem with republicanism as it was understood in the late 18thcentury, from a feminist perspective, is that like its ancestor, Roman republicanism, it is a very performative sort of political theory. To be a republican citizen means running around the clubs and the Assembly, getting oneself elected, or electing others, giving speeches, or going to listen to them, writing, printing, distributing, reading pamphlets. And aside from a few pictures of fishwives on their way to Versailles, or the infamous tricoteuses during the Terror’s trials, the imagery of the revolution is very male.
Political participation is not the sort of think that you can easily do if you are responsible for the upkeep of a house and the upbringing of children. And Roland, we know, took her domestic role very seriously indeed. So how did she reconcile her perception of herself as a wife and mother on the one hand and as a republican on the other?
Part of the answer was that she thought that taking care of home and children was best done as a couple – with her husband fully engaged in the upbringing of their daughter Eudora, and once left in charge of her for several weeks while Manon was in Paris and Versailles. Another answer is that Manon changed her mind when it became apparent to her that the Republic needed her to be active. And she changed her mind again after the September massacres when she decided that the French did not deserve a Republic.
But none of this is enough to give a full account of how she did reconcile her belief in the important of domesticity with her republicanism. One more promising clue lies in the essay she wrote for the Academy of Besancon, in which she described the role played by Spartan women in promoting the republic:
More sedentary, more enclosed ordinarily in republican governments, left to domestic tasks, nourished by this patriotism which elevates the soul and sentiments, they laboured towards the citizen’s happiness and that of the state, through the peace and order reigning inside their homes, and the care they take to cultivate in their children the germs of courage and virtues that must be perpetuated as well as liberty. Focused on their families, they could not set any other ends for themselves than that of being cherished for the qualities that are needed in the home and that they would be recommended for. The love of little things, seeking vain distinctions is a feature only of superficial societies, where each brings pretensions devoid of real merit to sustain them.
What the Spartan women did on this account was to nurture virtues in the family, and that would have carried some weight with an 18th century republican. Whereas we now understand philosophical republicanism mostly in terms of its concept of liberty as non-domination, in the 18th century, it was also veyr much a theory of participation (hence the performative aspect that is so problematic) and of virtue. And what Roland could assert without contradicting herself, is that women who took their domestic duties seriously did in fact participate in the republic, by modeling and nurturing civic virtues.
While in hiding, Condorcet started to write an apology (Justification) which was meant to explain and justify his role in the revolution, and show that he had been wronged by his persecutors, the Jacobins. Sophie, sensing that this work would be of little value philosophically or personally, urged him to give it up, and instead to turn back to a work he had begun several decades before: a history of the progress of human nature.
Although we do not have any hard evidence that they wrote together, it seems likely that some of the passages in particular are hers, and that others are the product of a collaboration between husband and wife. We do not have a final manuscript that corresponds to the first edition by Grouchy, which suggests that she added some paragraphs herself. The only existing manuscript, dedicated to Sophie, is very messy, and would have required much editing to make sense of the marginal annotations and in text corrections. Several of the differences concern women and the place of the family in human progress. Perhaps these were ideas she and Condorcet had discussed and that she knew he wanted included. Perhaps these were points she had suggested to him in their discussions.
In March 1794, Condorcet run away from his hiding place in order to avoid getting his hostess arrested. He died a few days later in a village prison, but was not identified until several months after his death, so that his wife remained ignorant of his whereabouts. When several months later his remains were identified, the Convention commissioned three thousand copies of his new book, Esquisse d’un Tableau des Progrès de l’Esprit Humain from Pierre Daunou. Sophie de Grouchy prepared the edition and it was published in 1795. This edition was reprinted and revised at least twice by Grouchy (alone and with collaborators in 1802 and 1822), and it was translated into English the year it was first published, and John Adams owned a copy
In 1847, the Académicien François Arago, noted that the 1795 edition contained passages which were absent from Condorcet’s final manuscript, produced a new edition with extensive revisions, which, he said, was closer to the original manuscript which he’d obtained from Grouchy and Condorcet’s daughter, Eliza O’Connor, and which he thought more accurate because in Condorcet’s hand. Arago’s edition is now regarded as authoritative. Not only was Grouchy’s name deleted from the work – where it did belong, perhaps as co-author and at the very least editor – but with it the emphasis she had brought on the role of women and the family in human development.
One specific way in which Rousseau’s views on the family were influential during the revolutionary period was his argument that mothers should nurse their own children, rather than sending them out to wet-nurses. This view was very popular among women especially as it was seen by many as reinstating women in society, granting them a form of authority, which stemmed from their ability to nurture future citizens.
Despite Rousseau's lack of arguments and his reliance on romantic notions of the mother-infant relationship, many French women writers, including Manon Roland, agreed with him that breastfeeding one’s own child was a moral duty.
But these women were not immune to the sort of difficulties that mothers often experience when they breastfeed. That included Manon. Her difficulties were only minor – an illness early on which meant she was too weak to produce milk – and seems to have been able to avoid depression.. But she had to employ the services of her nurse while she was ill and her husband was in Paris on business, and this bothered her:
We mustn’t pretend otherwise: she will have the child more often than I at first, especially during this unfortunate convalescence when I am deprived of my strength. She will have her smiles, also. And I, although I will no longer be in pain, will not be repaid by her first caresses for which I would forget anything. This is still making me cry – I cannot forgive my own weakness. My child will not know my breast, she will not throw herself upon it with this urgency, so touching for mothers: why has my milk gone?!”
A few weeks later, Manon found a way of getting her milk back. She hired the services of a ‘femme à tirer’ a sort of lactation consultant, who came twice a day to massage her breasts and draw milk. Manon noted an improvement - a permanent drop of milk on the tip of her breasts – and hoped that the milk would soon thicken. In the end she succeeded in breastfeeding her daughter, keeping careful records of her growth, lest her milk was not rich enough.
This is where I live blog about my new book project, an intellectual biography of three French Revolutionary women philosophers.