French Revolutionaries and Analysis on Minority Rights

After reading and studying the 'Declaration of Man' last week, I really wanted to try and figure out what the people who wrote the document meant by it. For instance, it seems obvious through language that the word man means all men, but it did not. So here are some thoughts on the research that I did and what I think the thoughts of the revolutionaries might have been.

To start, I will admit that I am not really sure about what the revolutionaries thoughts about rights for free Negroes in the Caribbean colonies and non-Christian groups within France. What does seem clear is that if you lived in the French Caribbean colonies, you tended to lean more towards an appreciation of slavery an if you lived in the country of France, then you tended to feel that slavery was not totally positive- I make this statement based on the idea that after an uprising in Saint-Domingue in 1791, the Assembly in May of that year passed a decree that gave full citizenship rights to all free nonwhite males born to free parents in a French Colony. This concession is clearly limited and didn't apply to any nonwhite male slaves not to non white who were free but had parents who were considered slaves, but this concession was considered unacceptable to the French (white) citizens of the colonies and they lobbied hard to have the decree annulled. (It appears that they would have been successful if not for the great slave rebellion in September 1791 that occurred again in Saint-Domingue and lead to the eventual abolition of slavery in 1794 and the colony's independence from France several years later.) The writer Montesquieu wrote in “The Spirit of Laws” many things suggesting that slavery is an affront to natural law, he also wrote that in some situations it can be justified- one quote states '… It is hard to believe that God, who is such a wise Being, should place a soul, especially a good soul in such a black ugly body.....The Negroes prefer a glass necklace to that gold which polite nations so highly value. Can there be a greater proof of their want of common sense? It is impossible for us to suppose these creatures are men because, allowing them to be men, a suspicion would follow that we ourselves are not Christian.' I will admit that I read the document three times and I think that I still do not understand what the writer meant, but it does appear to me that these statements give a justification of exploitation and slavery based on skin color, looks, and assumptions. Any thoughts from classmates who actually understood what Montesquieu meant are certainly welcome as I won't pretend that I did. :)

What does seem clear is that as enlightened as many of these revolutionaries were, they still had to deal with their own traditions and prejudices, the biases of others, and it is unreasonable to expect that they could literally change the world in a matter of weeks in regards to all the prejudices and class biases that existed at that time. What they did accomplish was pretty extraordinary in itself. Until the revolution, it appears that religious belief was an important characteristic that helped determine your citizenship; i.e., if you were Catholic you were a citizen and if you were anything else you were not. The revolution started the change in this by granting limited citizenship rights to all French Protestants in 1787- two years before the writing of 'The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen'. It is a little telling that it took an additional four years to grant the majority of French Jews citizenship rights in September of 1791... especially as I realized that the some of the nonwhite males of the French colonies were given citizenship rights four months previously. Another requirement for citizenship was that you had to be male, so this certainly left women out. :) I believe that another requirement was that you had to be born in France- so immigrants would never have any way of becoming a citizen. Any way you look at the process of trying to open up opportunity and rights to a majority that had not had then, it was not an easy process.

I suspect one reason that these particular groups were not naturally included and were considered separately is simply because in almost all aspects of life they were already looked at separately. Other groups such as the poor while separate,... in many ways looked like their group. Many white men were poor, etc... Non whites and Jews looked different, had different cultures, even different religions, making these groups seem more suspect and not immediately brought to the forefront. So these groups had to be considered separately when their plight or need for rights was brought to the attention of the Assembly. Otherwise, they hadn't been considered due to the tradition biases and prejudices of the revolutionaries in power. The one exception appears to be white protestants- their break with the traditional religion was not a hindrance and in fact seemed to be an asset in light of the anti-Catholic Enlightenment atmosphere of the time.

What are your thoughts? How do you think that our country which had the same difficulties as France has overcome them? Do you think that we have overcome them....?

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