“There are no Slaves in France”: The Political Culture of Race and Slavery in the Ancien Régime

Through an anecdote that forms the first and last words in “There Are No Slaves in France,” Sue Peabody relates that, even in contemporary France, the mere suggestion that slavery once existed in the hexagon, evokes indignant outrage. In their effort to project a commitment to “liberty,” the judicial and legislative institutions of the ancien régime endeavored to confine slavery to France’s colonies across the Atlantic. As Peabody reminds us, though, these same institutions very consciously and calculatedly introduced a more enduring and pernicious legacy, racism.

Just how sensitivities over slavery morphed into a spate of racist laws in the eighteenth-century is at the crux of Peabody’s work. Though it was published eight years ago, “There Are No Slaves in France” remains the only English-language text to synthesize an examination of slavery and race in ancien régime France. If this were the work’s only value, it would fill a rather large lacuna in the literature on the period. However, “There Are No Slaves in France” situates the subject within the philosophical currents of the time and the conflict between the Parlement of Paris and the monarchy that gnawed at the fabric of the ancien régime until it unraveled in the French Revolution.

In 1685, the same year that he revoked the Edict of Nantes, Louis XIV spread Catholicism to slaves in French colonies through his issuance of the Code Noir. Comprised of sixty articles, the Code also restricted whatever freedoms slaves had and regulated the behavior of their masters. Slavery, however, did not exist in France; according to the “Freedom Principle,” a colonial slave became a free individual once s/he touched French soil. It was not until 1716 that a royal edict, produced by the regency government, addressed the status of slaves on French soil. According to the terms of the Edict of 1716, slave masters could bring their slaves to France without fear of the latter claiming their freedom provided the slave owner fulfilled certain procedural requirements. In addition, they had to affirm that they brought their slaves to France either for religious instruction or occupational training. The edict, however, remained in an ambiguous state, as the Parlement of Paris (whose jurisdiction covered nearly one-third of the kingdom). If unregistered, enforceability of an edict was, at best, a dubious proposition, especially since the Admiralty Court of France (which maintained appellate jurisdiction from provincial admiralty courts, the juridical authority over colonial affairs) did not recognize a royal order that was not registered by the Parlement of Paris.

As discussed by Peabody, the reticence of the Parlement of Paris to register the Edict of 1716 and the royal Declaration of 1738 (which provided that slaves whose masters did not follow procedure were no longer to be granted their freedom in France, but to be confiscated au profit du roi and deported to the West Indies where they would either labor at public works or be sold into slavery) were, in all likelihood, manifestations of a larger conflict over spheres of authority between Parlement and the monarchy. Parlement’s response to the royal orders on the status of slaves in France was the residuum from its dispute with the monarchy over the latter’s enforcement of the Papal Bull Unigenitus that condemned the Jansenists, and Parlement’s defense of the dissident sect. In its consideration of both Jansenism and slavery, the Parlement of Paris positioned itself as the defender of France’s historic liberties.

In the cases examined by Peabody, lawyers for the slaves persuasively advanced France’s historical antipathy towards slavery as underpinning their clients’ claims to freedom. However, as Peabody explains, their arguments were based on a “national myth of liberty,” that had no basis in reality. Whether the judges who granted freedom to the petitioning slaves were swayed by this argument, or premised their rulings on either the slave owners’ non-compliance with procedures or the ambiguous legal state of the unregistered Edict or Declaration, is impossible to determine. On the other hand, in at least one case arising in a jurisdiction where the regional parlement (at Rennes) registered the Declaration of 1738, the Admiralty Court at Nantes (within Rennes’s jurisdiction) enforced it in ordering a petitioner-slave deported au profit du roi to the West Indies.

The vast majority of cases that came within the jurisdiction of the Parlement of Paris resulted in the petitioning slaves being granted their freedom; but because ancien régime magistrates rarely coupled their decisions with legal findings, lawyers navigated the juridical wilderness with creative arguments. In Francisque v. Brignon, a 1759 case before the Parlement of Paris, counsel for an enslaved native of India raised the race card in arguing that qualitative differences based on physical characteristics, history, and geography between natives of Africa and the Indian subcontinent justified the enslavement of the former and the freedom of the latter.

The foregoing case coincided with a shift in the emphasis in discourse on slavery from freedom to race. Though the number of enslaved and freed nonwhites in France was extraordinarily small (estimated by Peabody to be between 4,000 and 5,000 for the entire century), in 1762, the procureur du roi, Poncat de la Grave, warned of rising numbers of nonwhites and the perils posed by multiracialism, referring to it as disfiguring the French nation. However, not all nonwhites were disdained equally. On one level, Poncat de la Grave’s concerns were rooted in a foucauldian model of sexualized discourse. On another level, though, his statement that “every bourgeois and worker has his slave,” could be interpreted as trepidation over the obliteration of ancien régime signifiers of social distinctions. Regardless, though, after 1762, previous outrage over efforts to transport the institution of slavery to France transmogrified into fear of repercussions over the presence of nonwhites in France.

As the focus shifted from the status of slaves to the identity of nonwhites, Louis XVI produced, in 1777, the final piece of legislation covered by Peabody, the Déclaration pour la police des Noirs. This law prohibited the entry of all nonwhites into France, and affirmed that slaves brought to France by their masters before the law’s promulgation could not initiate proceedings for freedom. In contrast to the laws of 1716 and 1738, the Parlement of Paris registered the Declaration of 1777; yet, as Peabody states, while even the most determined supporters of freedom wanted to rid France of the nonwhite population that served as a constant reminder of slavery, the Admiralty court judges continued to free slaves who brought suit for their freedom. Within a decade and half, however, royal decrees on slavery and race, as well as the court system of the ancien régime, were amongst the casualties of the new sensibilities and institutions ushered in by the French Revolution.

In the final analysis, “’There Are No Slaves in France’” is a study in the tensions that simmered beneath the surface of eighteenth-century France; institutional tension reflected by Parlement’s claim to represent the last rampart in defense of liberty and the philosophical tension that pit liberty against equality. In Peabody’s view, the Parlement of Paris’s position on slavery was, an extension of its stance against royal despotism, enlightened or otherwise, in other matters. After René Maupeou instituted his infamous judicial reforms of 1771-1774 at Parlement’s expense, lawyers who represented slaves seeking freedom, whether their motivatation was financial, reputational, or ideological considerations, refused to practice law. Parlement and its defenders believed the conflict could be confined within the parameters of the ancien régime, but they failed to realize the enormity of the subtext. In the end, the forces they unleashed were inevitably bound to yield results, during the century’s closing decade, more profound than they imagined or desired.

However, there is a more subtle point, one implied, but not directly stated in Peabody’s study. Throughout the eighteenth century, liberty was the watchword of the enlightened community, and opposition to slavery, regardless of the identity of the slave, was something of a litmus test. When the slavery morphed into race, and elimination of the root (the presence of nonwhites in France) meant elimination of the branch (the prospect for slavery in France), advocates of freedom did not transform into defenders of racial equality. If we project the base of this argument onto the French Revolution, we are afforded a portal into the thought processes that influenced the revolutionaries to privilege liberty over equality as the revolutionary project’s most identifiable and pervasive principle.bedeviled

In conclusion none of this is to say what is unstated is the strongest point of the book. On the contrary; while Peabody’s study is a lucid presentation of the struggle over slavery in eighteenth century France through its legislative history, cultural antecedents, and court cases, it is also an invaluable examination into the processes that so thoroughly enveloped slavery and race in the larger context of the contentious political and judicial culture of the last decades of the ancien régime.