A Female Writer’s Response to the American Champion or a Well–Known Colonist
Better known for her defense of the rights of women, Olympe de Gouges defended the rights of the downtrodden in general. Here she points out the cruelty of slavery and expresses the hope that the slave trade will be abandoned.
For several months now, we have seen a veil of error, deception and injustice fall on France, just as we have finally seen the walls of the Bastille fall. But we have not yet seen the fall of the despotism which I am attacking, so I have therefore restricted myself to trying to defeat it. It is like a tree in the middle of a dense labyrinth, bristling with burrs and thorns and to lop off these branches, one would need all of Medea's magic. The conquest of the golden fleece caused Jason far fewer worries and required less skill than I will need against the torments and traps involved in avoiding these poisonous branches that harm this famous tree as well as the spirit of mankind. To destroy them, twenty dangerous dragons must be slain, which are sometimes transformed into zealous citizens, sometimes into pliant serpents, slithering everywhere, spreading their venom over my work and my people.
But sir, in turn am I not correct in suspecting that you have placed yourself honorably in the forefront of this growing faction that has risen up against [my play] The Slavery of Negroes. For what are you holding the work, or its author, accountable? Is it for having tried to have the throats slit of the colonists in America, and having been the agent of men whom I do not know as well as you, who perhaps don't think as highly of my works ever since I showed that the abuse of liberty had resulted in a great deal of evil? You do not know me well. I was the apostle of a temperate freedom under despotism. But being truly French, I idolize my homeland; I have sacrificed everything for it; I hold it as dear as I hold my king, and I would spill my blood to give back to it all that its virtue and its paternal tenderness deserve. I would sacrifice neither my king to my country, nor my country to my king, but I would sacrifice myself to save them as a single entity, fully convinced that one cannot exist without the other. It is said that a man is known by his writings. Read my work sir, from my Letter to the People to my Letter to the Nation, and you will see in them, at the risk of flattering myself, a heart and a soul that are truly French. Extremist parties have always feared and hated my works. These two parties, divided by opposing interests, are always unmasked in my writings. My unchanging maxims, my incorruptible feelings: these are my principles. A Royalist and true patriot, in life and in death, I show myself as I really am.
I do not have the education that you felt inclined to give me credit for, and maybe one day that lack will lend a degree of celebrity to my memory. I know nothing sir, nothing I tell you, and no one has taught me anything. As a simple student of nature, given only to its basic needs, nature has, since you believe me to be well-educated, no doubt made me see things very clearly. Without knowing America's history, the odious treatment of the Negroes has always stirred my soul and aroused my indignation. The first dramatic thoughts that I put on paper were in support of this kind of man, tyrannized by cruelty for so many centuries. This feeble work possibly suffers a little too much from the newness of my drama career, but even our great men did not all begin as they ended. One attempt always deserves some indulgence. I can thus swear to you sir, that [the club] the Friends of the Blacks did not exist when I conceived of this subject. You might have been more correct in assuming, if prejudice had not blinded you, that it is possibly my drama that this society is based on, or that I have had the good fortune to nobly be a part of it. Would that a more global society be created where they could be lead to see the play more often!
At the risk of flattering myself, I hope, sir, that after the clarifications that I give you about The Slavery of Negroes, you will no longer attack my play, but rather become its zealous defendant. By even performing it in America, it will always bring the black man back to his duty, while waiting for the abolition of the slave trade and a happier fate from the colonists and the French nation. These are the positions that I have shown in this work. In view of the circumstances, I have not claimed to light the flame of discord or to signal an insurrection. On the contrary, I have since softened the effect. Lest you doubt this assertion, read, I beg of you, The Happy Shipwreck published three years ago. If I have made several allusions to men who are dear to France, these allusions are not harmful to America. Of this you will be convinced when you see the play, if you would do me the honor of coming. It is in that meek hope that I beg you to believe me sir, despite our small literary discussion, I remain, your humble servant,
Paris, 18 January 1790.
Olympe de Gouges, Réponse au champion américain ou colon très-aisé à connaître (Paris, 1790), 3–8.