“Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be based only on considerations of the common good.” “The aim of every political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of Man. These rights are Liberty, Property, Safety, and Resistance to Oppression.” The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (26 August 1789)Footnote 1 did not seem to allow master/servant hierarchies based on personal dependency. Yet, its impact was ambivalent, as I shall show in this article, which aims to expand historical knowledge on free and unfree domestic service regulation in France and the French West Indies.Footnote 2 While an important aspect of such regulation is the regulation of people's status, special attention will be paid to slavery and the servants’ exclusion from citizenship. Dependency, race, and gender are crucial in my analysis. Servants are contextualized in a wider range of different but partially overlapping types of dependent people (slaves, serfs, indentured servants). As race was decisive in justifying slavery and excluding some people from citizenship, information is also provided on unfree and free black and coloured people. Given the association of women with dependency and their long-lasting exclusion from the franchise, commonalities and differences of male and female servants and slaves with women as a whole will be considered in a gendered perspective. By focusing on people excluded from citizenship for a longer/shorter period, the article also contributes to citizenship history.
In the first section, I will sketch the status of different dependent people under the Ancien Régime. I will then analyse how the Revolution affected it with an intersectional analysis of the changing relationships of dependence, race, and gender, focusing on serfs and servants in metropolitan France (second section), on black colonial slaves (third section), and on female slaves and servants (fourth section). The Revolution led to a feminization of dependence in metropolitan France as well as in the French Caribbean, making dependence more gendered among both white and black/coloured people.
I will report the events affecting servants, following wide-ranging research, especially on parliamentary debates, whereas in the case of black/coloured people and women I will mainly exploit existing literature. While such literature is huge, the originality of the article lies in bringing together issues often analysed separately, and in studying both metropolitan France and the colonies. Far from expressing a “methodological nationalism” that naturalizes the nation state,Footnote 3 this choice allows me to overcome Eurocentric perspectives, investigating the “French imperial nation-State” and the French Revolution as an Atlantic revolution.Footnote 4 However, I will also provide some comparison with the American case (fifth section). The article moves towards a global approach to the history of domestic service and, to a lesser degree, slavery,Footnote 5 contributing to challenge clear-cut oppositions between free and unfree labour, both in general and as features of Western and non-Western societies, respectively.Footnote 6
The French Revolution created a transcontinental political arena where tensions between principles and practices were particularly rife. Some phases/measures had a real “revolutionary character”: the Revolution abolished serfdom and slavery, and enfranchised male domestiques. It provided powerful arguments to support later claims of rights. Yet, colonial slavery was first replaced by bonded labour and then reintroduced. Male domestiques were enfranchised briefly and only on paper; they would actually be enfranchised when slavery in the French colonies was abolished (1848). Women were excluded: mistresses and maids had to wait until 1944 to become full citizens. This makes it impossible to establish clear-cut distinctions between pre-revolutionary and post-revolutionary times, and in part challenges the difference between metropole and colonies, although the latter witnessed extreme violence. There were similarities between colonies and households, which, even in metropolitan France, remained sites of inequalities affecting both the private and public sphere.
SERVANTS AND OTHER DEPENDANTS UNDER THE ANCIEN RÉGIMEFootnote 7
“In France, where there are no slaves, all domestics are free.” Domestics “can leave their master when they judge it appropriate”. If they leave before the appointed time, he “has only recourse to damages and interest”, the Encyclopédie explained.Footnote 8 This was rather “modern”: at that time, people generally conceived freedom as liberty to start rather than leave a job.Footnote 9 The entry mentioned few exceptions.Footnote 10 Yet, according to the law, there were more. In 1565, the master's written permit to leave was introduced; unemployed servants without it could be punished as vagrants.Footnote 11 According to the 1567 and 1577 police regulations, servants must work for a year if their masters so wished; those hired to perform specific tasks had to accomplish them. Servants who left without permission (except for legitimate reasons) could be sentenced to complete the work or to pay for the damage.Footnote 12 During the 1720s, several ordinances tried to fix contract renewal on St Martin's Day (11 November), and, more effectively, to prevent farm servants from breaching their contract.Footnote 13 According to a Répertoire, in large cities masters did not retain servants who asked to leave, it being easy to replace them. But in small towns and in the countryside, it was “important to maintain in all their strength the regulations which compel[led] servants to complete the time of their commitment”.Footnote 14 As for apprentices, eighteenth-century contracts usually established that the master/apprentice intermediary should return runaway apprentices to their masters.Footnote 15
Other entries in the Encyclopédie contradicted the alleged absence of slaves in France. “Galérien” mentioned (mainly Muslim) slaves among galley oarsmen;Footnote 16 “Esclave” described the legislation that allowed colonial slaves to be brought to the metropole without freeing them.Footnote 17 From the late Middle Ages, the “Freedom Principle” established that slaves setting foot on French soil became free.Footnote 18 Ignored in the case of enslaved oarsmen,Footnote 19 it was challenged by colonial slavery.Footnote 20 1685 slavery regulations (Code Noir) did not address the metropole despite colonial enslaved domestics arriving with their masters.Footnote 21 In 1716, however, a royal edict allowed slaves to be brought to France to learn a trade or religion with the permission of the colonial authorities and subject to registration with the Admiralty. Otherwise, the slaves became free. Once trained/educated, slaves should have been returned to the colonies (but many were not). A 1738 edict limited residence to three years and established that slaves brought without the colonial governor's permission or not registered with the Admiralty would be sent back.Footnote 22 The Paris Parlement did not register these edicts: within its jurisdiction, the Freedom Principle remained the rule. From the 1750s, slaves on French soil claiming freedom before Paris's Admiralty Court were freed. Nonetheless, slave numbers grew.Footnote 23 France became “a public market where men [were] sold to the highest bidder”.Footnote 24 Race mixing was also a concern.Footnote 25 An Admiralty ordinance (1762) – shifting the focus to colour – established that “negroes and mulattos” should be registered, prohibiting their sale.Footnote 26 In 1777, the Déclaration pour la police des noirs (1777) forbade “blacks, mulattos, and other people of colour” from entering France to prevent blood degeneration in the metropole and revolution in the colonies (slaves returning from the metropole brought with them a spirit of liberty).Footnote 27 Nonetheless, they continued to arrive.Footnote 28 Despite anxieties, there were probably only 4,000–5,000 blacks in France.Footnote 29
France had about 28 million inhabitants, with perhaps one million serfs.Footnote 30 They were “attached to the soil” and “deprived of their personal liberty and the prerogatives of property”, being “themselves among the feudal possessions”.Footnote 31 In the 1770s, Voltaire and the lawyer Christin campaigned for the Mont-Jura's serfs, advocating the abolition of serfdom. In 1779, a royal edict, only partially enforced, abolished serfdom in the royal domains and the biens engagés, goods sold by the king with the right on the part of the king to buy them back at any time, or, according to another definition, pawned in exchange for money.Footnote 32
The term engagés also had a different meaning, i.e. people who engaged themselves for three to four years to pay their passage to the colonies. They were subject to criminal sanctions for contract breaching. They could be sold,Footnote 33 but following the idea that freedom implied liberty to start a job, the engagement contract was considered free.Footnote 34 Yet, many engagés were vagrants and prostitutes recruited forcefully.Footnote 35 About 30,000–40,000 engagés migrated to the French colonies.Footnote 36 In 1774, the scheme was suppressed. It had proved unsuccessful as a way of balancing out the white population and black slaves, the import of whom was booming.Footnote 37 By the late eighteenth century, there were 500,000 slaves in Saint-Domingue,Footnote 38 about 700,000 in the whole French Antilles, mainly employed in sugar plantations but also in domestic service.Footnote 39
There were similarities and, in some cases, even overlaps among slaves, indentured servants, serfs, servants in husbandry, apprentices, and domestic servants. The engagés’ contracts were similar to those of people who “colonized” uncultivated land in France (but in the colonies the engagés could be passed onto other masters without their consent).Footnote 40 They were considered “white slaves”, although they could not be punished as severely as black slaves. Both might work as domestics, thus being simultaneously engagés and domestiques, or slaves and domestiques;Footnote 41 typically, colonial slaves brought to France were domestiques.Footnote 42 On the other hand, domestique was an “umbrella term” that might refer to very different people. Apprentices and farm servants, for instance, might be regarded as such. Consequently, people likely to be regarded as domestiques were ubiquitous.Footnote 43 Furthermore a “domestic footprint” characterized many work relationships other than domestic service.Footnote 44 About ten per cent of the urban population could thus be classified as domestiques: the largest category of workers, ranging from the maid-of-all-work to the house-steward.Footnote 45 “Labels” classifying people were performative, aiming not only at describing, but also at shaping social reality, keeping people in what the hegemonic groups considered as “their place”. This did not prevent efforts to modify the power balance using different labels or manipulating them.Footnote 46
While the Encyclopédie (1755) stated that the domestiques were free, according to the Encyclopédie méthodique (1791) many of them were in “true servitude”.Footnote 47 Domestic service was a “kind of slavery, seemingly voluntary but in fact real, due to the need to make a living”.Footnote 48 The Encyclopédie méthodique was published during the Revolution, when servitude and slavery became metaphors for the injustice that revolutionaries tried to destroy. What happened to servants, serfs, slaves of flesh and blood?
REVOLUTION! SERFS AND DOMESTIQUES
On 5 May 1789, the Estates General convened in Versailles. A few weeks later, the Third-Estate representatives proclaimed themselves a National Assembly: on 20 June, they swore they would give the country a constitution. In the countryside, especially after the storming of the Bastille (14 July), the “Great Fear” of an aristocratic anti-revolutionary conspiracy led to riots and pillages.Footnote 49 Serfs participated in such actions,Footnote 50 which persuaded the National Assembly to abolish feudal rights, including serfdom (4–5 August).Footnote 51 This led to the final disappearance of serfdom.Footnote 52
According to the abolition decree, “all citizens, without distinction of birth, [were] eligible for any ecclesiastical, civil, and military office and dignity”.Footnote 53 Nonetheless, the domestiques were excluded from the newborn National Guard.Footnote 54 The armed defence of the nation was becoming a feature of proper citizens. Unsurprisingly, the domestics’ request to participate in the National Guard intermingled with that of citizenship. “The People in a condition of domestic servitude are men and Citizens like their Masters. It is therefore neither logical nor fair to refuse them what is being granted to all masters”, some servants maintained.Footnote 55
On 28 August 1789, Paris's domestiques demanded their own assemblées. Despite the Déclaration des droits, issued two days earlier (26 August), their request was rejected with reference to existing laws.Footnote 56 “Servants were juridically incapable of forming corporations. They were considered to be members of the family they served, under the paternal authority of its head, and they therefore had no independent juridical or social standing.”Footnote 57 Some servants also suggested measures to fight servant poverty and poverty-linked crimes, to gain the trust of the public (by setting up an employment office and a fund to cover illness and unemployment).Footnote 58 They were ready to withdraw their earlier request to expel foreign domestiques as a means to fight unemployment.Footnote 59 Nonetheless, on 29 August, about 3,000 unemployed servants rioted demanding such expulsion.Footnote 60 The guards dispersed them.Footnote 61
A month later, the committee that prepared the Constitution included among the requisites for political participation “not being, for the moment, in a servile condition, that is to say in personal relationships which were absolutely incompatible with the independence necessary to exercise their political rights”.Footnote 62 The principle was accepted as follows: “Not being in the condition of a domestic, that is to say of a waged servant” (serviteur à gage).Footnote 63 Slaves and servants had been excluded from citizenship since antiquity. The reasons for excluding them changed over time, but dependency, seen as something that made free choice impossible, remained crucial.Footnote 64
The exclusion hurt (at least) some domestiques. On 12 June 1790, a man from a deputation of household staff, possibly Jean Visse, was allowed to address the National Assembly. His words reveal that some stereotypes could be shared by their victims: “it is difficult to reconcile the exercise of freedom with the regime of domestic service”. But they also show the servants’ wounded dignity: “Are we not French?”. Furthermore, they disclose a profound awareness of the socio-economic conditions that compelled the poor to serve: “need has established a dependency that a certain class of men cannot avoid”. He was on slippery ground: recognizing the servants’ limited freedom meant supporting exclusion; underlining their free will meant crediting them as people who, by choosing subjection, were unworthy of citizenship. He resorted to a subtle argument – need – urging the Assembly to intervene in a revolutionary way in its causes, presented as a “disorder”: “Your wisdom, gentlemen, will put an end to this kind of disorder”. The response of the president of the Assembly was patronizing.Footnote 65
On the same day, a decree dissolved all military corps except the National Guard, excluding “passive” citizens (and thus also domestics) from military service.Footnote 66 For servants, the outcome of the first year of the Revolution was disappointing. Far from being removed, their dependence and lack of freedom and equality were seen as reasons to exclude them from citizenship. Attacks on the aristocracy and economic crisis had boosted unemployment. Servants had protested and made proposals, unsuccessfully. Only the abolition of liveries supported their dignity (19 June 1790).Footnote 67 Other measures implied a “negative” emancipation: “clerks or administrators, people who had been subject to feudal power, secretaries, carters or farm managers employed by owners, tenants, or sharecroppers” should not be considered domestiques and not be excluded from active citizenship if they had the other requisites (20 March 1790).Footnote 68 On 12 August 1790, “librarians, tutors, craftsmen who have completed their apprenticeship, shop assistants, and bookkeepers” were also declared not to be domestics.Footnote 69 While some domestiques presented themselves as a corps (“body”),Footnote 70 these measures showed how blurred the notion of domestique was.Footnote 71
The Constitution, approved on 3 September 1791, reserved suffrage to “active” citizens, i.e. people born or naturalized French, aged at least twenty-five, domiciled in the city or canton by the time established by law, who paid taxes valued at three working days, who were enrolled in the municipal National Guard, and who were not domestics.Footnote 72 The active/passive citizens distinction was abolished when the insurrection of 10 August 1792 (which also involved servants)Footnote 73 caused the Legislative Assembly to suspend the king and to hold elections for the Convention, charged with preparing another constitution. Yet, the domestiques were not enfranchised.Footnote 74 Their exclusion was also explicit in the decree on elections in the colonies, where, notwithstanding some male white servants, domestic staff were mainly female and/or freed slaves, often creole.Footnote 75 Being a domestique was increasingly demeaning.Footnote 76 Some people who felt unjustly considered as such protested,Footnote 77 and the authorities clarified that only those employed in personal services were excluded, not those working in industry, trade, or agriculture.Footnote 78
Others who considered themselves domestiques claimed citizenship. On 28 August 1792, a deputation of domestiques was allowed to address the Assembly.Footnote 79 Why were servants excluded?Footnote 80 The view that only citizens with property loved their fatherland was typical of aristocratic systems, and not founded on men's rights. In France and America, loving freedom and equality sufficed for one to be considered a patriot. The sophisms used to exclude the domestiques could also apply to a millionaire's factory workers. Servants were craftsmen living with their employers. Their love of their fatherland and freedom came before their love of their masters. They were sans-culottes enragés; all sans-culottes were brothers, and all patriots active citizens. “Nature, our common mother, makes us servants of one another. A man is worth a man.”Footnote 81 Signed by twenty-seven people, the petition had been written not by a servant, but by revolutionary baron Anacharsis Cloots.Footnote 82 A few days later, a certain Mr Picho asked in the “name of all citizens in a state of domestic servitude” that “the equality of men be complete and that the large class of service people be allowed to enjoy all the inalienable and inviolable rights of man like all the other members of society”.Footnote 83
These requests went unheeded. Yet, things were changing. On 15 February 1793, Condorcet, on behalf of the comité de Constitution, argued that dependence preventing free choices was a legitimate reason for exclusion, but such dependence would not exist “under a truly free Constitution, and in a people where the love of equality is the distinctive feature of public spirit. The social relationships that would presume such humiliation cannot exist between us”. Equality should be “used to remove what remain[ed] of this dependence”, instead of enshrining dependence in the laws.Footnote 84 In winter-spring 1793, many proposals advocated the enfranchisement of servants.Footnote 85 According to Saint-Just's, “the law does not recognize masters among citizens; it does not recognize domestic servitude. It recognizes an equal and sacred commitment of care between the man who works and the one who pays him”.Footnote 86 According to this revolutionary perspective, servants and masters were men with equal dignity linked by an economic exchange. Furthermore, on 10 June 1793 the law on commons partition established that the partition be made per head for all inhabitants, including domestiques.Footnote 87
On 24 June, after the Jacobins defeated the Girondins, the new Constitution was approved. It did not exclude servants. Article 18 stated: “Every man can pledge his services and his time; but he cannot sell himself or be sold; his person is not alienable property. The law does not recognize domestic servitude; only a bond of care and gratitude can exist between the man who works and the one who employs him.”Footnote 88 It forbade slavery and unveiled a revolutionary view of domestic work. The requisites to enjoy citizenship were inclusive.Footnote 89 Yet, their final version, unlike the first, required people to be “domiciled” in France – i.e. to own or rent the house where they lived – to prevent rich men from hiring domestics to vote for them, a requirement that excluded servants who lived with their masters.Footnote 90 Thus, the 1793 Constitution enfranchised servants, but restricted their access to vote.Footnote 91 It was never applied.Footnote 92 The 1795 Constitution reintroduced the suspension of political rights for domestiques à gages.Footnote 93 Such suspension, only formally abolished in 1806 in cantonal assemblies,Footnote 94 was confirmed in 1837.Footnote 95 Male servants would be enfranchised when universal male suffrage was introduced (5 March 1848). Yet, they could not be elected to municipal councils until 1930,Footnote 96 nor be jurés until 1932.Footnote 97 Article 1781 of the 1804 Civil Code (repealed in 1868) also violated equality: in cases of disagreement over wages, without written evidence the master's statement under oath would be accepted, ignoring the servant's.Footnote 98
Notwithstanding the Déclaration des droits, during the Revolution the domestiques never really enjoyed full citizenship. The freedom and equality principles aroused new suspicions: seeing them as people who choose not to be free, many considered them unworthy of citizenship. Nonetheless, new ideas emerged. To state in a constitution (although never applied) that the law did not recognize domestic servitude showed a glimpse of a world without masters nor servants.
EQUALITY AND FREEDOM FOR BLACK SLAVES, TOO?
In Bordeaux, on 25 August 1789, a crowd of servants gathered demanding a doubling of salaries, a placement office, the right not to wear liveries, and that “the coloured servants who harmed white domestics” be dismissed and sent back. The cavalry dispersed them. Some were punished.Footnote 99 In this port city, crucial for the connection with the colonies, black people were numerous. What was the impact of the Revolution on slavery? The question is relevant when dealing with the regulation of domestic service because some domestics in France and many in the colonies were slaves. Furthermore, the revolutionary emphasis on freedom created new commonalities between service and slavery.Footnote 100
In eighteenth-century France, opposition to slavery and the slave trade gained momentum. Condorcet argued for gradual abolition, to prevent disorder.Footnote 101 Olympe de Gouges maintained that “human beings are everywhere equal”, denouncing the slave trade.Footnote 102 The Société des Amis des Noirs was founded (19 February 1788).Footnote 103 In spring 1789, its president, Condorcet, sponsored the creation of a commission to abolish the slave trade and slavery,Footnote 104 and contended that the colonies’ deputies, representing only white people, should be excluded from the Estates General.Footnote 105 On their very opening day (5 May 1789), the Minister of Finance Necker denounced the huge share of the royal trade subsidies enjoyed by the slave trade; it could be halved.Footnote 106 On 27 June, de la Rochefoucauld asked the deputies to address black people's freedom.Footnote 107 Abolitionist texts were being published.Footnote 108 The Amis des Noirs planned a motion on slave trade abolition (the first step towards slavery abolition).Footnote 109 Yet, money and products linked to the slave trade and slavery were fundamental for the French economy.Footnote 110 The supporters of colonial interests would defend slavery strenuously. In summer 1789, some of them founded the influential Club de l'Hôtel de Massiac.Footnote 111
Meanwhile, in Martinique a slave rebellion started, prompted by the false news that the king had abolished slavery. The Declaration of Rights was still unknown in the colony, unlike Condorcet's plans to put slave trade abolition on the National Assembly's agenda. The rebels had more radical views. “We know that we are free”, they wrote in a letter signed “we, the Blacks” (Nègres), accusing the colony's authorities of not enforcing the alleged abolition. “Well, remember that we nègres are numerous, and we want to die for this liberty.” Slave owners did not free them. The uprising started. Rebels were dispersed and punished.Footnote 112 In Saint-Domingue, too, several slaves believed they were free; others asked for three days a week free from plantation work. Slave gatherings were taking place, and one slave tried to kill his master, arguing that “now we are all equal by order of the King”.Footnote 113
The supporters of slavery emphasized this unrest in their virulent campaign, arguing that abolition would be disastrous for France (abolitionists presented it as beneficial).Footnote 114 Olympe de Gouges's antislavery piece was cancelled after three performances following violent attacks.Footnote 115 Amid these tensions, the Amis des Noirs submitted their address advocating abolition of the slave trade,Footnote 116 but Mirabeau was not even allowed to deliver his speech.Footnote 117 The National Assembly decreed that the laws approved for the kingdom did not apply to the colonies. It would not intervene in any area of commerce (alluding to the slave trade) and guaranteed the colonists’ properties (including slaves). The principles of the Déclaration des droits sounded like empty words.Footnote 118 Slavery was untouched. Slave trade subsidies continued.Footnote 119 There were still slaves even in France, although their status was increasingly unclear.Footnote 120 Some continued petitioning the Admiralty Court for their freedom.Footnote 121 On 12 October 1790, the National Assembly decreed that it would not change people's status in the colonies without a request from the colonial assemblies: this meant retaining slavery and the discrimination of free blacks and people of mixed descent (gens de couleur).Footnote 122
The latter, whose status had worsened over time, suffered from innumerable discriminations.Footnote 123 Those who lived in France were children of wealthy colonial families sent there to be educated or trained, former slaves who had become free domestiques, and people born in France to mixed parents.Footnote 124 In March 1789, some gens de couleur from Saint-Domingue asked to be represented at the Estates General; in August, the Société des citoyens de couleur was formed. Its members campaigned to enjoy the Rights of Man and to elect their deputies.Footnote 125 They did not question slavery but asked that children of free men and female slaves be free and their mothers be freed; they requested the right to go and stay in France, and full restoration of the free-soil principle.Footnote 126 They pursued a new colonial order: white and coloured slave owners should foster the gradual improvement in conditions among slaves.Footnote 127 White colonists resisted these requests. From 1790, clashes unsettled Saint-Domingue.Footnote 128 The National Assembly meanwhile approved ambiguous and contradictory decrees. However, on 28 September 1791, the free-soil principle was restored and skin colour was declared irrelevant – in France – as regards citizenship.Footnote 129
Colonial slaves who could not set foot on French soil were making their way towards freedom. “Here, Sirs, a new order of things begins”, deputy Tarbé wrote in a report on Saint-Domingue. “The uprising of the blacks breaks out.”Footnote 130 While the first slave actions had taken place in January 1791 after the gens de couleur uprising led by Vincent Ogé and Jean-Baptiste Chavannes,Footnote 131 the insurrection began on 22–23 August 1791.Footnote 132 A network of African, creole, black, and mixed-descent slaves (both domestic and plantation ones, often commandeurs), maroons, and some free people of colour had prepared the revolt, probably launched with a voodoo ceremony.Footnote 133 A slave culture was developing, intermingling African elements and European revolutionary values: an executed insurgent had “pamphlets printed in France [claiming] the Rights of Man” in his pocket; “on his chest he had a little sack full of hair, herbs, bits of bone, which they call a fetish”.Footnote 134 The insurrection spread. Anything that had to do with slavery was destroyed and white people were killed.Footnote 135
On 28 March 1792, the Assemblée Législative eventually decreed equality between whites, free black, and mixed-descent people in the colonies. Some deputies pursued racial equality, others searched for allies to restore slavery in Saint-Domingue.Footnote 136 There, the civil commissioners sent by the Assemblée – Sonthonax and Polverel – tried unsuccessfully to unite whites and free men of colour.Footnote 137 In May 1793, the new Governor, Galbaud, arrived and allied with pro-slavery colonists against the commissioners. Meanwhile, the British attacked the French West Indies to prevent the slave rebellion from spreading to Jamaica and to stop the Spanish invasion of Saint-Domingue supported by slave rebels (spring–summer 1793).Footnote 138 On 21 June, Sonthonax and Polverel granted freedom and the rights of French citizenship “to the black warriors” who would fight with them.Footnote 139 Many blacks joined them. At the end of June, Galbaud and several thousand colonists fled to the US. On 24 August, in Le Cap, 15,000 people voted in favour of emancipation.Footnote 140 Sonthonax decreed the end of slavery in the north of Saint-Domingue (29 August 1793), as did Polverel shortly afterwards in the south and west. On 31 October 1793 slavery was completely abolished.Footnote 141 The principle that “Men are born and live free and equal in rights” was law in the colony. This is “France's Gospel”, Sonthonax declared.Footnote 142
Abolition was not gradual, as had been planned by the Amis des Noirs, but sudden, due to the plantation owners defending their privileges, the slave uprising, the Spanish and British invasions, the commissioners’ need for soldiers. The Revolution turned the armed defence of the nation into a crucial feature of citizenship. This was even more so for slaves: fighting for the revolutionary republic proved an avenue to freedom and, for males, to enfranchisement, too. Elections took place in Saint-Domingue on 23 September 1793. Newly freed slaves may have voted.Footnote 143 There was a perfected “pigmentational” balance among the elected: three blacks, three whites, and three of mixed blood. Jean-Baptiste Belley – a symbol of black emancipation thanks to his portrait by Girodet-Trioson (1798)Footnote 144 – was one of the three sent to Paris.Footnote 145 Through the sudden abolition of slavery and the enfranchisement of male slaves, the colony had strained the principles of freedom and equality to a point unforeseen in the metropole, possibly transforming the “compass of universalism itself”.Footnote 146
However, things were changing in France, too. On 15 May 1793, the coloured soldiers’ legion created in September 1792 was dissolved: the soldiers refused to go to the colonies, fearing they would be enslaved.Footnote 147 Some of them demanded the abolition of slavery. The metropole and the colonies were part of the same nation, but black slaves were excluded from the prerogatives granted by the Revolution. “Why, then, this difference, in rights, between equal men?”Footnote 148 On 3 June (the day after the Girondins’ arrest), the Jacobins received a delegation of blacks, promising slave liberation; then the Convention and the Commune of Paris also received them.Footnote 149 The new Constitution, approved on 24 June, banned slavery: “Every man can pledge his services and his time; but he cannot sell himself or be sold; his person is not alienable property” (article 18). Yet, the Constitution's enforcement was postponed. Slavery was abolished when the Saint-Domingue's deputies took their seats (3 February 1794). By confirming their election, the Convention implicitly confirmed the abolition of slavery in Saint-Domingue.Footnote 150 The day after, abolition was extended to all French colonies.Footnote 151 The decree contemplated neither a transitional phase between slavery and freedom nor compensation for slave owners. This meant freedom was regarded as more important than property rights, delegitimizing slavery completely. Initially, measures to enforce abolition were taken. A decree allowed pro-slavery activists to be arrested (9 March 1794).Footnote 152 After months of conflict against the colonists and the English, a general freedom was proclaimed in Guadeloupe (11 December 1794). Abolition was (partially) enforced also in Guyana, but not in Martinique, under English occupation, nor in the Indian Ocean colonies: the English controlled the maritime routes and the colonists opposed it.Footnote 153
The 1793–1794 general freedom was ambiguous: many rebel slaves had already freed themselves; freed slaves were paid but were required to work for their former masters without having the freedom to quit.Footnote 154 However, when the Convention abolished slavery, the slave revolt leader François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture, until then allied with Spain, joined the republican French army. He was appointed colonel and then general – the first black general – and French Governor's Lieutenant. The war with Spain ended in 1795. An armistice with Britain was signed in 1798. Louverture developed an independent policy, even proclaimed a constitution that, although recognizing that Saint-Domingue was French, made him life-long governor with the right to appoint his successor (1801).Footnote 155 To get the support of the plantation owners and stimulate the economy, he prevented plantation labourers from leaving without permission and made their status immutable (12 October 1800). This provoked new uprisings. In 1802, Napoleon sent an army to Saint-Domingue to restore French authority; Louverture was arrested and sent to France, where he died in 1803.Footnote 156
On 20 May 1802, France established that slavery would be maintained where it had never been abolished. This was the case with Martinique, occupied by the British and returned to France in 1802, but not with Saint-Domingue and Guadeloupe. Yet, on 16 July 1802, Napoleon reintroduced slavery in Guadeloupe. Shortly before, black and coloured people were prevented from entering metropolitan France without authorization (2 July 1802), while in the colonies the gens de couleur in 1802–1805 were disenfranchised (until 1833). Consequently, the leaders of the Saint-Domingue army continued the war against the French and won. Independence was proclaimed on 1 January 1804: Saint-Domingue became Haiti. The Constitution declared all Haitians “black” and prevented white people (except for naturalized ones) from owning property (1805).Footnote 157 There were complex links between the Haitian and French revolutions. In France, the phase during which there had been concrete efforts to enforce the Declaration of Rights was over. But by existing, it had marked an important discontinuity.
A GENDERED PERSPECTIVE
Besides campaigning for black equality, Olympe de Gouges supported women's rights. Her Declaration of the Rights of Woman and Female Citizen (1791) advocated the full inclusion of women among citizens, showing the inconsistency between the universalism of revolutionary principles and the exclusion of women, half of humankind.Footnote 158 She was one of the first female activists who, in Europe and America, fought both against slavery and for women's rights, although not without a degree of racist prejudice.Footnote 159 She stressed commonalities in the circumstances of being female and being a slave,Footnote 160 yet, anticipating intersectionality,Footnote 161 she also highlighted the consequences of intermingling gender and race oppressions. In the Ancien Régime there was a kind of trade in women, she explained. Women bought by men, like African female slaves, could improve their circumstances only through seduction and corruption, but there was an important difference: a female slave, although perhaps able to command her master through seduction, might be freed with no recompense when her charm was lost. What would then become of the unfortunate woman?Footnote 162 De Gouges also denounced the particularly inhumane implications of illegitimacy in the colonies, where the children of colonists and slave women (often domestics) were frequently their father's slaves.Footnote 163
Under the 1685 Code Noir, if a free man had children with a slave, he and the slave's master were required to pay a fine; if the father was the slave's master, and was married, the slave and child would be confiscated. If he was unmarried, he was required to marry the slave, freeing her and the children, and legitimizing the latter (article 9).Footnote 164 This provision was disregarded. Interracial marriages were discouraged. Interracial sexual libertinage, however, remained common.Footnote 165 Sexual intercourse with masters might bring about manumission (manumitted slaves were mainly women and children).Footnote 166 But harassment and rape were embedded in the condition of female slaves, abused by their masters and other men of any ethnicity, free and unfree.Footnote 167 Their offspring were slaves of their mothers’ owners (article 12). Nonetheless, and despite measures to increase population growth, the birth rate among slaves in the French Caribbean (as in most other colonies of the region) was below the reproduction rate.Footnote 168 Their harsh living conditions negatively affected pregnancies and the survival of their babies: women were employed in the most arduous of plantation tasks; only a few were domestiques, who received better food, clothing, and accommodation and were more often manumitted, although they were always on call and more exposed to their masters’ sexual assaults.Footnote 169 Yet, abortion and infanticide might imply a refusal to reproduce slaves, and was therefore severely punished.Footnote 170
The “domestic” and patriarchal organization of the plantations, significantly called habitations, exacerbated the oppression of female slaves. The habitation was a place of work and life, including fields, pastures, woods, the establishments to process and stock products, the slave huts with their gardens, the infirmary, the kitchens, and the house of the master (grande case). Although the colonists often did not reside on the plantations, the habitation's life was organized around the grande case, which symbolized a master's power.Footnote 171
Female slaves resisted slavery in ways other than abortion and infanticide, from poisoning to marronage.Footnote 172 Many took part in the uprising. Although some, especially domestics, remained loyal to their masters,Footnote 173 slaves at the top of slave hierarchy, such as domestics, played a crucial role in organizing the insurrection.Footnote 174 A voodoo priest and a priestess, an elderly African woman, likely officiated at the ceremony that probably started the 1791 uprising in Saint-DomingueFootnote 175 (voodoo gave central roles to women). Women – like former mixed-race domestique Solitude in Guadeloupe or slaves like Sanité Bélair and Marie-Jeanne Lamartinière in Saint-Domingue – served in the army, collaborated as spies and messengers, transported ammunition and food, cared for the wounded, prostituted themselves in exchange for bullets, and encouraged men with songs and slogans.Footnote 176
The outcome was disappointing. The 1794 Convention decree abolished slavery for men and women, but stressed “the passage from slavery to manhood”: “the male slave-turned-soldier” was crucial in shaping emancipation in the French Caribbean.Footnote 177 Paid forced labour introduced to “save” the plantation systemFootnote 178 implied lower wages for women, despite female protests.Footnote 179 In independent Haiti, men took on new political, professional, and military roles; women were assigned almost only those of food producers and mothers (fertility rates increased). Although important in commerce, they were mainly employed on plantations and in domestic work. This division of labour was rooted in slave plantations, which reserved skilled occupations to men. Yet, it was more gendered. Already Toussaint Louverture's Constitution (1801) aimed to build a new, patriarchal, plantation system.Footnote 180 After independence, the nation was represented as a family led by patriarchal leaders.Footnote 181 Universal active male suffrage was introduced in 1816, women were excluded until 1950.Footnote 182 In pre-revolutionary Saint-Domingue and in the French colonies, where slavery was never abolished or reintroduced, most black women suffered from intermingling oppressions due to gender, race, and slavery. In post-independence Haiti, where slavery was banned and all citizens were assumed to be black,Footnote 183 women faced exclusions due to gender: a more gendered society was established. Similarly, in the French West Indies, after the 1848 emancipation of slaves the main dichotomy was no longer slave/free but male/female.Footnote 184
Besides differences, there were commonalities with metropolitan France. There, too, women took part in the Revolution in many forms, from insurrection to publication of feminist texts.Footnote 185 Although some domestiques, especially chambermaids employed by the elites, remained loyal to their counterrevolutionary masters, among revolutionary women there were servants dismissed for being patriots and maids employed by revolutionaries. Some revolutionary servants are known, such as cook Constance Evrard, a member of the Republican Revolutionary Women and friend of Pauline Léon's.Footnote 186 There were also women among the servants who supported the Revolution and campaigned for their rights as domestiques.Footnote 187 On 12 June 1790, when the domestiques addressed the National Assembly, they delivered a patriotic offer: probably the first to suggest that male and female domestics offer six livres to the nation was a maid (whose name was not recorded). Furthermore, the domestiques who (unsuccessfully) tried to create an institution to assist unemployed and aged domestiques and servants’ orphans included women.Footnote 188
For female domestiques the Revolution's outcome was even more disadvantageous than for males. Although called citoyennes,Footnote 189 they suffered from exclusions not only as domestiques but also, more drastically, as women. The Revolution's results were disappointing for all women. A fictional dialogue summarized the expectations of many women: a chambermaid calls her mistress “citizen” rather than “your ladyship”. “I am a republican and nothing else, you pay me and I serve you, and we are equal”, she explains to the lady.Footnote 190 Achieving equality between maid and mistress, both enjoying citizenship, and replacing personal dependency with a contractual exchange of services for wages would have been revolutionary. In fact, equality between mistress and maid meant both remaining disenfranchised for another century and a half, or even being banned more radically than earlier, as was the case with those women who, being taxpaying widows or single, had been eligible to elect the Estates General, or those who voted on the partition of the commons.Footnote 191 Between late 1792 and the first half of 1793, women's enfranchisement seemed possible. Yet, for many male revolutionaries, citizenship implied independence. Thus, male domestics and women of any class, being socially constructed as dependent, were excluded. Female exclusion, however, was more radical: male domestics could change their occupation; for a while, during the Revolution, at least on paper, they were considered citizens; they were enfranchised in 1848.Footnote 192 In autumn 1793, French women were declared not fit for policy, “destined by nature” to the domestic sphere and prevented from political participation.Footnote 193 Olympe de Gouges, who was guillotined on 3 November 1793, may be considered a symbol of the repression of female claims.Footnote 194 French women would not become full citizens until as late as 21 April 1944.Footnote 195
After the Revolution, dependency became more closely associated with women: there was a feminization of dependency.Footnote 196 Domestic staff feminization contributed to this change. By the first decade of the twentieth century, women made up about ninety per cent of the number of domestic personnel employed in France.Footnote 197 The feminization of domestics was also symbolic: until the first few decades of the twentieth century, manservants were forbidden to grow a moustache.Footnote 198 The Revolution emphasized the domestic role of women, feeding the “separate spheres” ideology that associated women with the private and men with the public. Such ideology influenced many people's behaviour, but the social organization was more complex.Footnote 199 However, the servant feminization made the houses of servant-keeping families more feminized, contributing to the domestic sphere's feminization. Women servants – performing tasks ever more considered “naturally” feminine and done for free, out of “love”, by wives and mothers – experienced increasing difficulty in being considered proper workers. At a time when workers’ rights, in general, were receiving greater recognition, those employed in domestic work began to be disqualified as “workers”. It was felt that activities related to the daily routine of the home were not proper “work”; there was a “delabourization” under way in this sector.Footnote 200 Women of different classes, considered dependent, were excluded from full citizenship and bound to allegedly natural roles within increasingly feminized domestic spaces: gender became more important as a marker of differences not only in the colonies but also in metropolitan France.
However, the domestic sphere remained legally headed by the husband/father/master. The Revolution had democratized family relations a little thanks to civil marriage and divorce (20 September 1792), inheritance equality among siblings (March 1793), and the assimilation of legitimate and recognized illegitimate children (12 brumaire 1793). Yet, divorce was repealed in 1816 (until 1884); the Napoleonic Civil Code (1804) reintroduced a sharp distinction between legitimate/illegitimate children, even preventing paternity investigations (article 340), and emphasized the authority of the male head of the family. Despite many conflicts and contradictions, the public sphere moved towards a growing democracy; the domestic one continued to be marked by hierarchical relationships crucial in establishing who enjoyed full citizenship, the citizen largely overlapping with the family head.Footnote 201 In the colonies, the domestic sphere, in a sense, covered the whole slave production system, being the plantations (habitations) organized as households headed by the master/slave owner. Besides many differences, there were intricate similarities between the metropolitan domestic sphere and the colonies.
BEYOND THE FRENCH IMPERIAL NATION STATE: A FEW COMPARATIVE SUGGESTIONS
This article has explored the “French imperial nation-State”. Comparisons with other cases – the American for instance – would obviously be interesting. Before concluding, let me thus suggest a few observations to stimulate comparative reasoning. While revolutionary France eventually included universal freedom in a constitution, in the US this was not the case. In 1776, the Declaration of Independence held as “self-evident” “truths” that “all men are created equal” and that “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.Footnote 202 Yet, the US Constitution abolished neither slaveryFootnote 203 nor indentured service.Footnote 204
Regulating suffrage was crucial to the French constitutions, whereas the American one “neither limited nor broadened the suffrage anywhere, since it left the issue to the individual states”.Footnote 205 Free African-Americans had been enfranchised in some states during the American Revolution, but from 1790 they were disenfranchised. This process took place while the socio-economic barriers to voting (property, tax-paying) disappeared for whites, opening up political participation to a growing proportion of the white male population, including adult male free domestic servants.Footnote 206
While in France the Revolution had implied several interventions to clarify and limit the people covered by the term domestique, until the mid-nineteenth century the word “servant” was rarely used in the US when referring to white native domestic servants, generally called “help”.Footnote 207 Such white servants appeared arrogant to European travellers, although performing even the humblest duties.Footnote 208 As noted by Tocqueville (1835–1840), in the northern states there were numerous whites “willing, in return for wages, to submit temporarily to the will of people like themselves”, without perceiving themselves inferior to the person who gave them orders. They supported Tocqueville's ideas on “how democracy modifies relations between servant and master”. Yet, in the South, slavery continued to exist, and, in the North, many servants were freed slaves or their children, with ambiguous and contested status.Footnote 209 Race was a major barrier preventing the democratization of the master-servant relationship.
Like Olympe de Gouges, who fought for the rights of both black people and women, American feminists had strong links with abolitionism.Footnote 210 Like the French Revolution, the American one produced a clearer-cut legal exclusion of women from institutional political participation, although stimulating other forms of public intervention, often inspired by the ideas of “Republican motherhood”.Footnote 211 After the American Revolution, in fact, “most states specifically disenfranchised women, even when property holders”.Footnote 212 Despite this similarity, gender, race, and dependency intermingled differently in France and the US.
The impact of the French Revolution was complex. Serfs were freed. Slaves experienced liberty, at least for a while. The “general freedom” did not foresee any transitional phase or compensation for slave owners, which implied seeing freedom as an indispensable human right and delegitimizing slavery completely. Male former slaves were enfranchised. Yet, colonial slaves had freed themselves through uprisings. Slavery continued in the French Indian Ocean colonies and in Martinique, occupied by the British.Footnote 213 Where abolition was enforced, it was replaced by bonded labour (similar to serfdom).Footnote 214 Slavery was restored some years after abolition. Former Saint-Domingue slaves managed to become independent and created a black nation. The abolition of slavery in the French colonies would finally be decreed in 1848. As in the 1790s, thereafter former slaves experienced bonded labour. In 1848 universal male suffrage was introduced and male domestics were enfranchised. Before that date, metropolitan “free” domestic servants had never really enjoyed citizen rights, although on paper, for a short period (1793–1795), male ones had not been excluded. Even after 1848, however, they suffered from discrimination until the 1930s.Footnote 215 The Declaration of Rights represented an important discontinuity but led to a permanent change in legal status only for serfs and, through tortuous paths, Haitian slaves. However, the slaves of Guadeloupe and Guyana, both men and women, experienced freedom at least for a while, whereas metropolitan “free” domestiques had their status changed only if they were men, exclusively on paper, and for a short period.
The third revolutionary principle, fraternité is crucial to understanding how the other two were interpreted by most revolutionaries: freedom and equality among brothers.Footnote 216 Gender was crucial. For women, the Revolution's outcome was even more disappointing than for slaves and male domestiques. Despite their revolutionary engagement, they were never recognized as full citizens and were eventually declared unfit for political life. They would be enfranchised (21 April 1944) almost a century after the final abolition of slavery and the enfranchisement of male domestics. Domestic servants, already largely female at the end of the Ancien Régime, in the following decades experienced a process of feminization, contributing to the feminization of dependency. Race, dependence on a master, and gender turned out to be strong barriers to freedom and equality.Footnote 217 After the abolition of slavery, gender became more important than race in determining individual rights in the French colonies, too, and this was also the case in the former colony of Saint-Domingue, the black nation of Haiti, where universal male suffrage was introduced in 1816, female in 1950.
While women of every status and colour suffered from long-lasting discrimination, the colonies experienced slavery and then bonded labour, whereas the metropolitan labour market slowly witnessed, despite tensions and conflicts, a democratization and recognition of workers’ rights. This was not the case with paid and unpaid domestic and care work, which experienced “delabourization”.Footnote 218 The colonies as a whole and the metropolitan households were places where freedom and equality encountered barriers: an outcome that in part questions the metropole/colonies divide.
The Declaration of Rights was a promise only partially kept. Nonetheless, its universalism provided people – including slaves, servants, blacks, and women – with powerful arguments to support their claims, and also encouraged new ways of considering differences: a long-lasting legacy.