Kersaint, "Discussion of Troubles in the Colonies" (28 March 1792)
This speech by a former noble who had served as a naval officer reveals the deep ambivalence of the deputies about moving too quickly to emancipate the slaves. Caught between the planters who threatened to rebel if emancipation was passed and the dangerous slave revolt that had already broken out, Kersaint hoped for a gradual process of emancipation that would help France hold onto its most valuable colony. He was later executed during the Terror.
Your fears are of three kinds: the first, the revolt of the slaves; the second, that [white planters in Saint Domingue] not call upon foreigners and not wish to make [the colony] independent; the third, that it not protest against national power [the power of the assembly] in order to only recognize royal authority. In effect, the reasons for these different fears are well-founded, but how will you succeed in dissipating them? One sole means should suffice.
There exists in Saint Domingue a numerous class of men who love France, who cherish the new laws, who are in general honest, enlightened, hardworking men who live in a state of few means from the fruits of their daily labor and who owe no debts [poor whites]. This class is reinforced by that of the free black property owning men; this is the party of the National Assembly in this island; this is the class that must be supported by all means combined. [He then goes on to attack the 24 September 1791 decree rescinding the political rights of free blacks.] . . .
It cannot be denied that when the French nation proclaimed these sacred words, "Men are born and remain free and equal in rights," it did not break the chains of humankind. The action of this truth, which ought to level the world, had to first fall on us. The fears of our colonists are therefore well-founded in that they have everything to fear from the influence of our Revolution on their slaves. The rights of man overturn the system on which rests their fortunes. No one should be surprised therefore that [the colonists] have become the most ardent enemies of the rights of man; they are right to read in them their condemnation. . . .
I do not belong to the Society of the Friends of Blacks. But, as a friend of all men, I am not indifferent to the goal of the work of this society. The improvement of the lot of the Africans, transported to the European colonies, always appeared to me to be the most worthy subject for exciting the zeal of any being born sensitive to the sufferings of his fellow man. . . .
I lived for a long time in the colonies. I have owned black slaves; a part of my fortune is still in that country; and I cannot therefore wish for the destruction of it. Planters who read me, tell yourselves: He has the same interests as us and his opinions are different; let us see, let us examine; at issue here are the most cherished interests of life, and partiality and prejudice are capable of losing everything irrevocably. . . .
The moment has arrived to change the social system of the colonies, to reintegrate into it humankind, and in this greater view will be found the salvation of all the interested parties, justice and utility, interest and glory.
The free men of color demand justice: the rights of citizens in all their extension will be accorded to them. The colonists will no longer refuse them; they will remember that misfortune makes men sensitive, that those men whom they push away are their sons, their brothers, their nephews. They will honor finally the breast that nourished them, no matter what the color, and this first act of justice will guide them toward another, virtues following from each other as do vices.
Among the slaves you will call to freedom pure and simple all the artisans whose names will be furnished by their former masters, on the sole condition of a tax by head, which you will convert into an indemnity for those whom they made rich in the past.
The Negroes born in the colonies will then be called without distinction to the enjoyment of conditional liberty. It will have as its base the obligation to be reunited on the land of their former masters and to work there for them for a fixed time, after which they will enjoy liberty on the same conditions as the artisan Negroes. I think that this term can be fixed at ten years for those who are 30 years old or older, and at fifteen years for those who are less than 30 years old. But only the Negro fathers of families should be called to enjoy this advantage; the others should be held to 20 years of work. . . .
Every Negro who has come from Africa, is married for at least 10 years, has a garden in good order and six children, will enjoy first freedom for three days work a week along with his wife. After 20 years of marriage and with four children still living, they will be considered freed...; their children will enjoy the same advantages at 25 years of age, and their grandchildren will be free without conditions. . . .
But some will ask if I am keeping or destroying the slave trade? My pen refuses to trace those words: "You will buy men," but this trade can change character, and the effect of the law that I propose for the colonies would modify the most odious part. It would no longer be slaves that you would export from Africa but farmers, inhabitants that you would abduct from their tyrants to educate them one day by work and instruction to the dignity of free men.
The materials listed below appeared originally in The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief Documentary History, translated, edited, and with an introduction by Lynn Hunt (Bedford/St. Martin's: Boston/New York), 1996, 112–15.