Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.
So last week, we approached the brink of the French Revolution and discussed the tensions that would shape the course of events inside Saint Domingue once things started going nuts back in the Metropole. But in this early phase of the revolution, events in the colony would not be defined by the great tension between master and slave, but rather the tension between the whites and the free coloreds over what it meant to be a citizen. As the great writer, historian and general man of letters C.L. James put it in his seminal work, “The Black Jacobins”, it was the conflict between the whites and the coloreds that, quote, woke the sleeping slaves. So to understand how the French Revolution affected the colony of Saint Domingue, we should probably do some quick background on this great moment in the history of Western civilization. What was the French Revolution? Why did it break out? What was at stake? Who were its leaders?
Though Saint Domingue’s principal port city of Le Cap was always about two months behind on the news, that news did come in daily and in detail. So through the late 1780s, the colonists were well informed about the monarchy’s financial troubles and the movement to convene the Estates General. And indeed, the big whites, in particular, were very well connected because the maritime bourgeoisie, the guys making a fortune in the colonial trade, were some of the principal players of that movement to convene the Estates General. But though they were economically linked and in constant contact, that did not mean the maritime bourgeoisie back in the Metropole and the big whites of Saint Domingue saw eye to eye. The big whites wanted free trade. The maritime bourgeoisie wanted to maintain the Exclusive. The big whites wanted self government. The maritime bourgeoisie wanted to make sure that the Metropole maintained control of colonial policy. But one thing they absolutely agreed on was that the slave plantation system had to be maintained at all costs. And with every idealist and their mother coming out of the woodwork preaching liberty and equality, the slave issue was going to become an issue.
When the king formally called for the Estates General to meet, these idealists did indeed start coming out of the woodwork. Mostly drawn from the ranks of the liberal nobility, they coalesced around our old friend Jacques Pierre Brissot. Not yet the war mongering de facto leader of the Girondin faction, Brissot was still at this point an idealistic journalist who was an early adopter of abolitionism following his residency in England and tour of the United States. In 1788, he formed a club called the Society of the Friends of the Blacks that soon had a number of very prominent members, including the Marquis de Condorcet, who had already published an article calling for an end to slavery in 1781; the hero of two worlds, the Marquis de Lafayette; and then the coming great erator of the revolution, the Comte de Mirabeau. Of particular importance for today’s episode was a liberal Catholic priest named Henri Grégoire, usually referred to as the Abbe Grégoire. A passionate and committed liberal theologian, Grégoire’s principal hobby horse prior to the revolution was lobbying on behalf of the Jews. But it would soon become apparent to him that anything he said on behalf of the Jews also applied to the free coloreds of Saint Domingue, and he would become their principal ally inside the National Assembly.
As the primary electoral assembly started to gather in early 1789, the Friends of the Blacks lobbied to have the issue of slavery inserted onto the various grievance lists. But for the moment, everyone had far more immediate problems than the plight of African slaves on the other side of the world. And all the campaign really accomplished was convincing colonial interests to be on hyper alert for anything that smacked of abolitionism.
Back in Saint Domingue, the big whites started holding secret and unauthorized meetings in mid-1788 to discuss how to take advantage of the political situation back in the Metropole. These Provisional Assemblies met in all three provinces, but restricted themselves to white property holders, excluding both the small whites and the free coloreds. The first thing on the agenda was: Do we try to get into the Estates General, or do we stay out of it?
If the ultimate goal was colonial self government, sending delegates might tacitly acknowledge the right of the Metropole to govern our internal affairs. But the benefits of having a voice seemed to outweigh the drawbacks, and in late 1788, the Provisional Assemblies elected a slate of colonial delegates and then drew up their own grievance list to present to the Estates General. These lists included an end to military rule, the establishment of civilian justice, the right to vote on internal legislation and taxes that would only be subject to the will of the King, and a colonial committee in Versailles who would be elected by us, the colonists. They also explicitly opposed any dismantling of the racial laws which they saw as essential to maintaining the insanely lucrative slave plantation system.
When these delegates arrived in France, they got together with absentee owners in Paris and formed a political club called the Club Massiac to lobby for their interests. And the most important member of this new club was Moreau de Saint-Méry. As France’s leading authority on the Caribbean colonies, Moreau de Saint-Méry was back in Paris doing research for his massive description of the colony. And by joining the Club Massiac, he lent his considerable reputation and authority to the cause of the big whites. When the Estates-General met in May 1789, the would-be colonial delegates presented themselves uninvited and set about lobbying for inclusion in the Third Estate. But of course, things spiraled out of control on day two of the Estates General, and before you know it, the door to the Third Estate meeting hall was being locked and everyone’s booking it down to the tennis court to pose for Jacques-Louis David’s great painting. Although they were not yet technically members of the Assembly, the wouldbe colonial delegates followed them, got into the tennis court and took the oath along with everyone else. Since these colonial representatives were in many cases drawn from the ranks of the nobility, their solidarity during this crisis endeared them to the Third Estate delegates. And when the three Estates truly merged into the National Assembly at the end of June 1789, the colonial petition for seats was taken up.
But the colonials had not endeared themselves to all the delegates, certainly not any of the Friends of the Blacks. Mirabeau in particular, wasn’t going to let these guys in without blasting them with both barrels. When the colonists ask for 18 seats, which was about the right number based on their total population, Mirabeau thundered in a famous speech, “You claim representation proportionate to the number of the inhabitants. The free blacks are proprietors and taxpayers, and yet they have not been allowed to vote. And as for the slaves, either they are men or they are not. If the colonists consider them to be men, let them free then and make them electors and eligible for seats. If the contrary is the case, have we, in apportioning deputies according to the population of France, taking into consideration the number of our horses and our mules?” It was an uncomfortable line of attack for everyone, especially for the 150 odd National Assembly delegates who had direct economic interest in the colonies. On the one hand, ‘we’re here to defend our rights and our liberties’, but on the other hand, ‘I don’t want my cash cow to stop pumping out sugar’. On July 4, 1789, the assembly compromised and Saint Domingue was granted six seats, two for each province, all of them big whites.
Mirabeau’s attack on the exclusion of the free coloreds in particular was not merely abstract, because as the big whites were lobbying for inclusion, the National Assembly was also being lobbied by a small clique of free coloreds who were absolutely chomping at the bit to put their right to full quality front and center. In fact, one of their principal leaders had been in France since 1784, lobbying the royal officials to repeal the racist laws of Saint Domingue. And this man’s name was Julien Raimond.
Julien Raimond was the quintessential, prosperous freeman of color, born in 1744 in Saint Domingue, South Province. His mother, Marie, was a free mulatto. That is, her father was a white indigo planter, and her mother was a freed black slave. Raimond’s father, Pierre, meanwhile, was the quintessential recent white immigrant, looking to immediately better his position by marrying into a prosperous mixed family. Marie was both better educated and held considerably more property than the illiterate Pierre, and he was really marrying up when he won her hand. The marriage produced five sons and three daughters, all of whom would be soon classified quadroon, that is, three white grandparents and one black grandparent. The family was prosperous enough that Julien was sent back to receive an education in France, probably just after the end of the Seven Years War. And when he returned to Saint Domingue 1766 as an ambitious 22 year old with a fully modern education, he discovered that life for the coloreds was changing rapidly for the worse, and he was not happy about it.
But still, the Raimonds did very well for themselves down in the South Province. The family specialty, pioneered by Pierre and Marie, was to buy rundown plantations abandoned by failed or dead whites, fix them up, and add them to the family’s little indigo empire. But this meant that the Raimonds were also the type of colored family most offended by the Metropole’s decision to implement a racist social and political structure. They were one of the most prosperous families in the South Province, period. So why is our race now being marked down on legal forms? Why does it matter? Why do we constantly have to prove that we are actually free when we want to marry or bequeath our private property? Why do whites now lurk outside of church services and weddings, looking to catch us wearing clothes and jewelry that is now, for some reason, illegal for us to wear? This whole racist apparatus is immoral, obnoxious and counterproductive.
By 1784, Julien Raimond was done. He left his family and property behind and sailed to France with the single goal of convincing the colonial administrators that they were making a bad mistake. Over the next two years, he submitted four lengthy memos that outlined just how beneficial the coloreds were to colonial productivity. And in keeping with the neoclassical times, he sprinkled his work with allusions to Roman virtue. The coloreds were industrious and hardworking and imbued with a special moral rectitude. He also harped on the benefits of a single rule of law for all subjects of the King, playing right into the current debates about the mishmash legal codes that jammed up French law. But most especially, Raimond swore that the big white argument that separating out the coloreds would ensure the survival of the slave plantation system had it backwards. If you want the prophets of your slave empire to keep coming in, you need to treat colored masters like me the same as the white masters. And Raimond himself owned over 100 slaves. The response from the colonial officials was welcoming but noncommittal. As I mentioned last week, racial apartheid was not extended further during the 1780s, and that was probably due in part to Raimond’s influence. But the outright repeal of racism he was seeking did not come. Influential whites back in the colony were happy to contradict Raimond’s reports and tell the Metropole that the coloreds are fine. It’s not as bad as he says. Everything is fine.
But Raimond was not the only prominent free colored back in France, and he was joined by one of the wealthiest, if not the wealthiest, free colored man in the colony: Vincent Ogé. Ogé was born free and had invested profits from his career as a merchant and plantation manager in the North Province into property and plantations of his own. And just like Julien Raimond, he hated the entrenching racism. But Ogé himself commanded quite a bit of personal respect in Le Cap, and he was one of those guys that the letter of various race laws did not really apply to, and whites tended to treat him as an equal.
So both Raimond and Ogé were still in France when the big revolutionary boulder got rolling down the hill in 1789. Both were in constant correspondence with their free colored brethren back in the colony, and they knew that the big whites had engineered secret delegate elections that excluded the coloreds. In March 1789, Raimond formally petitioned the Royal Ministry for free colored seats in the Estates General. But the Ministry ignored the petition until after the Estates General had convened, whereupon they said no. But by then, events had taken on a life of their own.
Ten days after the big whites had won their seats in the National Assembly on July 4, 1789, the Bastille fell. But the fall of the Bastille was not nearly as big of a deal for the free coloreds in Paris as what happened in August 1789. First, there was the delirious night of August 4, which saw the National Assembly renounce feudalism and all obsolete rules that put some men over other men. Free colored ears perked up because what was colonial racism but the aristocracy of the skin?
In the midst of that night, one of the Friends of the Blacks got up, the Duke de La Rochefoucauld and proposed abolishing slavery along with everything else, but the motion was studiously ignored. A few weeks later, on August 26, Raimond appeared before the Club Massiac to request their support for free colored representation to, in effect, create a unified colonial lobby of property holders. But the Club rejected the offer, hoping to maintain white supremacy. But of course, on that very same day, the National Assembly unleashed what was sure to be a lethal cannon blast to the guts of racial apartheid when they almost unanimously adopted Lafayette’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, which began so so unequivocally “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights”. This was then hopefully followed by another thundering speech from Mirabeau in which he said “There are not and cannot be, either in France or in any other country under French laws, any other men than free men, men equal to one another”. The implications of the Declaration of the Rights of Man were obviously enormous for both the free coloreds and for the slaves. But like I said, a good 10% of the National Assembly delegates were directly tied to the colonial trade, and most of the rest understood that in a kingdom facing a massive financial crisis, you don’t mess with the one clear moneymaking operation going and that was slave manufactured sugar and coffee. If the Declaration of Rights was really as universal as they were making it sound, they were going to destroy slavery. Forced to rule on whether the declaration applied in the colonies, the National Assembly courageously set the matter aside for a later date.
But Raimond and Ogé and the other free coloreds could see no way that the Declaration of Rights would not apply to them. So, rejected by the Club Massiac, the free coloreds in Paris created their own club, the Society of American Colonists, to press for inclusion in the National Assembly to defend what were now clearly their rights as citizens.
Meanwhile, back in those American colonies, news of the Bastille finally arrived in September 1789 to general rejoicing amongst the white colonists. The big whites could practically taste independence, while the small whites believed that their lot was about to improve dramatically in any new order. And among those small whites was a healthy contingent of recently arrived immigrants from the Metropole. Remember that the recent harvest in France had been awful, especially that winter of 1788-1789, and hopeless men had emigrated to the colonies looking for salvation. When word of the Bastille hit, the colonial whites immediately followed the lead of their countrymen back in the Metropole. The once hated militias were recast as National Guard companies and patriotic whites eagerly joined up. The revolutionary cockade was now supported proudly, and the Provisional Assemblies that had elected delegates to the Estates General came out fully into the light and started asserting a self proclaimed sovereignty.
Opposed to the revolution in Saint Domingue were, of course, the royal officials, led by the Governor General and the intendant, whose authority was now everywhere being sneered at, and also the free coloreds. For them, the revolution looked like it would mean the final triumph of white supremacy in the colony. The big whites made no secret that self government meant white government, and the small whites were openly salivating over the prospect of confiscating and redistributing free colored property amongst themselves. So, where once royal officials had been able to exploit the tension between the big and small whites, the revolution now made them a solid, patriotic block. So the royal officials started to look at the free coloreds. But in October, the intendant had to flee the island, probably one step ahead of a good old fashioned lynching.
Right around the same time, October 1789, the first word of the Declaration of the Rights of Man arrived, which threatened to upend not just white supremacy, but the institution of slavery. The response by the patriotic whites was swift and decisive: they outright banned the circulation of newspapers from France to prevent the spread of this incredibly dangerous idea. I mean, my God, what if the slaves found out? But you couldn’t keep a secret in Saint Domingue. Slaves working the docks talked to slaves driving the wagons talked to slaves on the plantations. Julien Raimond’s brother wrote back to him and said that at least some of their slaves knew that the blue, white and red cockades that the whites now proudly wore meant liberty and equality. Uh oh. The whites and Saint Domingue were also not above using murderous force to stop the spread of the idea that men are born and remain free and equal in rights. In November, a group of free coloreds in the South Province petitioned local white leaders to abolish the race laws, now that the Declaration of Rights had been proclaimed. Not only did the whites refuse, but after they determined a prominent white lawyer had helped the coverage draw up the petition, a gang of small whites tracked down the lawyer and lynched him in fine patriotic fashion.
By that point, though, the revolution back in France had already hit its next major turning point when the women came and dragged the royal family back to Paris. Having failed to get the Club Massiac to join them, the Society of American Colonists turned to the Friends of the Blacks to support their continued bid for representation in the National Assembly. Raimond did not want abolition at all, but he was not above exploiting liberal idealism to his own advantage. He said, if you want to tear down slavery, you need to start by establishing the equality of the free coloreds. The best way to help your cause is to first help mine. The Friends of the Blacks agreed to this strategy and the next 18 months were defined not by arguments about slavery, but by arguments about the free coloreds.
On October 22, 1789, a small delegation representing the free colors were allowed to make their case to the National Assembly, who said that they would always hear petitions from their citizens, which was a good sign. This delegation included Raimond, Ogé and a white lawyer who actually presented their case. The delegation made the virtually unassailable argument that the Declaration of the Rights of man absolutely 100% had to apply to them. How could it not? But they also made a rather blunt appeal to the nation’s pocketbook. To demonstrate their patriotism, the free coloreds of Saint Domingue pledged 6 million livres to the nation. For an assembly convened specifically to address a financial crisis, this was no small thing. Then they left it to the National Assembly to decide. And wouldn’t you know it, the Abbe Grégoire was chair of the Credentials Committee. Grégoire forced through approval of the Colored Petition, but when it hit the full assembly, he was shouted down. There was widespread fear that free colored rights were the first step to dismantling slavery, and it didn’t help that that’s pretty much the argument Grégoire himself was making. The National Assembly again courageously refused to make a final decision, and the coloreds were forced back into political limbo.
It was not until March 1790 that the National Assembly finally got around to making some decisions about colonial policy. The principal issue at stake was whether the new Constitution of France would apply in the colonies. A Colonial Committee was created to make recommendations and, wouldn’t you know it, this committee was dominated by either men holding colonial property or men with a vested interest in maritime trade. So you just know where this is headed. The Committee president was none other than our old friend Antoine Barnave, he of the Feuillant triumvirate, and he was in the bag, most especially for the maritime bourgeoisie. The Colonial Committee concluded that the colonies would not, repeat, not be governed by the Constitution of France. Instead, they would have their own assemblies who would pass laws that govern their internal affairs. But that said, Barnave and the Colonial Committee critically defined trade policy as an external affair to be administered by the Metropole. The Committee also said that elections to the new Colonial Assembly would follow the active passive citizen distinction, so electors had to be property owning men over the age of 25. When this was presented to the full National Assembly, the Abbe Grégoire said, “Well, clearly that means that property owning free coloreds qualify, and I’d like you to please state that specifically so there’s no misunderstanding.” But again, he was shouted down. What the delegates wanted was do not face the race question, please. So it’s fine how it’s written. Let’s move on.
Meanwhile, back in the colony, things were progressing in fine revolutionary fashion. In January 1790, Saint Domingue received permission from the Royal Ministry to elect a colony-wide assembly. The whites of Saint Domingue took this to mean that self government was on the way. In February, the Provisional Assemblies commenced with elections. But without any guidance yet from the National Assembly, voting was thrown open to all whites over the age of 25 who had resided in the colony for more than one year. This meant that the small whites were now in, while the free coloreds were out. The big whites had decided to throw their lot in with the poor whites rather than the property coloreds. And it was a decision that many would soon regret.
Now, I have seen this new elected body called both the General Assembly, which is, I believe, what the colonists themselves called it, but also the Colonial Assembly, which is what everyone else, including practically every book I’ve read on the subject, calls it. So I am going to call it the Colonial Assembly.
This assembly convened in April 1790 in the city of Saint-Marc, which was in the West Province and roughly equidistant from Le Cap and Port-au-Prince. The point of meeting in Saint-Marc was that it removed the assembly from any threat posed by the main royal army garrisons, which were located in Le Cap and Port-au-Prince. The delegates numbered about 200. And as we’ve seen in assemblies like this in previous revolutions, it was the most committed and passionate who were willing to invest time in serving in the assembly, and so the Colonial Assembly wound up being pretty bold and self confident. Some arrived cautioning against sending signals that they were aiming for independence, but the majority brushed off those concerns. They started drafting a constitution claiming the right to full self government and then provocatively started voting down all the restrictions in the Exclusive one by one. But the aggressive antics of the Colonial Assembly led to friction within the white community. The Provisional Assembly of the north continued to sit after its more radical members had gone off to the Colonial Assembly. And so those that remained behind skewed more conservative. Many of them were traders, merchants and lawyers with deep ties to the merchant houses back in France. If the Colonial Assembly started running too far too fast, their business interests might be put in jeopardy. So over April and May 1790, there actually opened up a little three way conflict amongst the whites in the colony: the uber patriot Colonial Assembly in Saint-Marc, the more conservative North Province Provisional Assembly, and then the remaining royal bureaucrats still trying to maintain a semblance of authority.
Now, at almost the same moment that the Colonial Assembly completed its final draft of Saint Domingue’s new constitution, in May 1790, the National Assembly’s colonial decrees arrived. Self government for men of property trade policy dictated by the Metropole. The Colonial Assembly was outraged, especially the language about who counted as a citizen. The small white delegates were not about to be disenfranchised in favor of the coloreds, who they called a bastard and degenerate race. And then everyone took issue with the Metropole claim to sovereignty over trade and said, “Yeah, we don’t think so. In fact, guess what? Saint Domingue’s ports are now open to free trade with everyone.”
This was all finally too much for the Royal Governor. And for the first time in forever, he actually had support from a number of big whites, who had concluded that the Colonial Assembly was an embarrassment. Already, more than half its members had started resigning or slipping away. When the remaining hundred odd delegates tried to brazenly blow off the home government, the Royal Governor ordered troops to march north from Port-au-Prince to disperse the assembly. At the same time, troops and militiamen from Le Cap marched south to support the action. When the troops closed in on Saint-Marc, the assembly delegates knew that they had to make a run for it. But to where? The answer, much to everyone’s surprise, turned out to be anchored in Saint-Marc’s Harbor. The crew of a small warship called the Leopard mutinied against their captain in support of the Colonial Assembly. 85 of the assembly delegates hurried on board the Leopard and the ship immediately sailed for France, where the delegates planned to protest the tyranny of the Royal Governor.
After their voyage across the Atlantic and then from the coast to Paris, the Leopardins, as they became known, were granted an audience with Barnave in the Colonial Committee in October 1790. But instead of feeling the revolutionary love, the Leopardins were bawled out for their borderline treason, and the actions of the Colonial Assembly were denounced. But that said, the 85 men were allowed to stay on in Paris, where they all joined the Club Massiac to help steer colonial policy in the direction they envisioned: de facto independence and white supremacy.
In that same October of 1790, while the white Leopardins were getting yelled at, a free colored revolt broke out back in Saint Domingue. And it was this revolt, this ultimately failed revolt, that would set the stage for full blown revolution, which will break out in the summer of 1791. This all important free colored revolt was led by none other than Vincent Ogé. Unlike Raimond, Ogé had lost patience with the political tap dancing of the National Assembly. When the colonial decrees of March 1790 finally came, Ogé became convinced of two things.
First, the wording absolutely granted full citizenship to him and his property brethren. Over 25? Check. Property? Check. What else do you need?
Second, the whites are going to conspire to exclude us, and no one is going to fight for the rights of the free coloreds, but the free coloreds themselves.
So, in July 1790, Ogé quietly slipped out of France, heading first for London, where he met with the famed abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, who pledged money and credit for Ogé’s operation. Then Ogé possibly sailed to the United States, where he would purchase arms, and from there down the Atlantic coast, landing in the North Province, again in secret, in October 1790. Ogé passed through Le Cap up to the mountain fringes that border the Northern Plains, where he planted a proverbial flag and started calling for supporters to rally to his cause. He immediately attracted a couple of hundred men, but that would be it. Ogé launched his bid for colored equality in the middle of a driving rainstorm, which killed any attempt to concentrate a force, and, of course, Saint Domingue’s terrain made linking up free colored insurgents in the North, West and South Provinces nearly impossible anyway.
Ogé made it very clear and communicate to the Provisional Assembly in Le Cap that this show of armed defiance was about securing for the coloreds to the rights that they had been explicitly granted by the National Assembly, that this was not about freeing the slaves. But he also intimated that should the whites persist in their racism, he might be forced to arm the slaves to help him win. It was this threat, more than anything else that got the whites out of bed. The Le Cap National Guard mustered and advanced on Ogé’s position. Outmanned and outgunned, this little colored insurgency was scattered after a brief skirmish. Ogé himself and a few of his followers fled across the border into Santo Domingo. But they were picked up by the Spanish authorities and extradited back to Saint Domingue. He was held in captivity for three months while he and the other captured participants were prosecuted. In February 1791, Ogé was sentenced to death. But not just death. He was broken on the wheel and then beheaded.
The execution of Ogé set off a firestorm on both sides of the Atlantic. Inside Saint Domingue, the free coloreds took it as proof that there could be no justice for them unless they fought for it. Throughout the colony, colored families started to arm themselves and organize themselves. If open war did break out, they were not going to go down without a fight. Meanwhile, the insurrection itself convinced the whites that the coloreds were just as dangerous as they had always suspected, and that the next thing you know, they’re going to be arming the slaves to come massacre us all. And though that had never been a tool anyone had previously wanted to use, Ogé’s threat to arm the slaves planted a dangerous seed in everyone’s head, and soon enough, they would all be enlisting the slaves to fight their battles.
The reaction back in Paris, meanwhile, would have even greater consequences. The society of American colonists and their allies and the Friends of the Black had been on the defensive for a year now and were able to finally retake the high ground. They denounced the barbarous murder of a wealthy, prominent and well respected citizen who had done nothing but fight for the rights that had been granted to him both by God and the national assembly, and for the crime of fighting for this liberty, he had been tortured to death. The Ogé incident reopened colonial policy, and in May 1791, the National Assembly began its longest, deepest, and most contentious debate on the issue.
Speaking on behalf of the white colonial, interest during this debate was Moreau de Saint-Méry. He argued that it was pointless to try to use the Ogé affair to reopen the debate, because it was now absolutely settled that matters of race and slavery in the colonies were internal matters to the colonies. If the National Assembly took this moment to renege on that deal, it would be catastrophic for relations between France and her colonies. In response to this, a relatively obscure delegate named Maximilien Robespierre stood up and famously said, “You urge without ceasing the rights of man, but you believe in them so little yourself that you have sanctified slavery constitutionally. The supreme interest of the nation and of the colonies is that you remain free and that you do not overturn with your own hands the foundations of liberty. Perish the colonies if the price is to be your happiness, your glory, your liberty.”
And this last line is usually more famously reported as “perish the colonies” rather than a principle. Julien Raimond was then allowed to make a speech in defense of colored rights, but he took a different tact, saying bluntly that the National Assembly must recognize colored citizenship if they hope to keep the slaves enslaved.
As is often the case with these things, the final conclusion to this weeklong debate enraged everybody. The delegates agreed that literally putting the word ‘slavery’ in the constitution didn’t look too good, and so they changed it to ‘unfree persons’. Critics of Robespierre contend that it was only the word ‘slavery’ he was objecting to anyway, and so this was actually a win for him. Supporters of Robespierre, meanwhile, contend that he was after far more, but he had to unhappily settle for this meaningless rewording. Now, this was all going in favor of Moreau de Saint-Méry and the Club Massiac. But then, at the very last minute, the National Assembly was stricken with a conscience. How could they so adamantly demand the Declaration of the Rights of Man be the preamble to their constitution, while leaving free men of color to their fates?
So just before the vote was taken, Jean-François Reubell, the future director, offered an amendment: Any free colored worn to two free parents was a citizen, full stop. This amendment passed overwhelmingly, and three commissioners were selected to go to Saint Domingue and ensure its implementation. And suddenly, there it was. The gauntlet had been thrown down.
Now, the Reubell amendment only affected a few hundred free coloreds. Freed slaves continued to form the bulk of free colored mothers. But this was still a major blow against the idea that race per se had anything to do with citizenship.
Next time, however, we will see that it was not so much the matter of citizenship for a few hundred coloreds that drove the big whites into revolt when they found out about the Reubell amendment, but the precedent that if it chose to do so, the National Assembly would legislate on colonial internal affairs. When news of the Reubell amendment hit Saint Domingue in July 1791, it will immediately spark a white revolt in the colony. This white revolt will soon be met by a counter revolt by the free coloreds who now have a decree from the National Assembly to righteously defend in the face of white treason. And while the whites and the coloreds were duking it out, slaves in the sugar plantations of the Northern Plains would quietly begin to meet and plot, and in August 1791, launch a spectacular uprising of their own that would change the new world forever.
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