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4: Can Theory Redesign Society?

the French Revolution
Women and Slaves


French Absolutism
The Sun King, Louis 14
Louis 16 goes bust
The Declaration of the Rights of Man
The Enlightenment
The Philosopher's Parliament

Constitutional Government
Rousseau and the General Will
Rousseau's General Will, and Locke on voting
Reason and the General Will
Different ways of viewing the birth of the general will
Particular wills versus the general will
Problem of the one undivided will: pluralism
Rousseau versus Hobbes

Rousseau on freedom and slavery
Rousseau disagrees with Aristotle:
Rousseau disagrees with Grotius

Rousseau and women
Reason and authority
Women and the devil - now and then
Wollstonecraft on education
Mistakes are necessary
Wollstonecraft on French absolutism
Strong and weak reason
Gender and slavery

Women on the streets
Political women
Olympe de Gouges
The place of the mountains
The children of black and white sex
Mulattos claim rights
Flight to Varennes and Massacre of Champ de Mars
Revolution of the slaves
Mulattoes lose rights
Votes for men and a declaration of rights for women
Toussaint L'Ouverture resolves to fight for all
The Brissotins wage war and grant rights
The king imprisoned and most men get a vote
Haiti whites split
1793: King executed
The Street Theatre of Fear and Hunger
Revolutionary Government
Brissotins purged
One and undivided
From Charlotte Corday to the Terror
Symbols of patriotism
What is a woman?
Defeat for feminism
Death of Olympe de Gouges
1794: Victory for the slaves

(¶1)   The French Revolution of 1789 sets itself apart from every revolution that had gone before by being a revolution centred on theories. At its centre was a Declaration of the Rights of Man, drawn up by the French Parliament, that focused the minds of the people on what the theorists thought were the basic principles of good government. The declaration of ideas enabled the revolution to spread out of the parliament into the minds of the people, and explains why historians have never been able to agree on when the revolution ended or what its boundaries were.

Where, asked Carlyle, did the French revolution take place? Was it in the French parliament or in the streets and fields of France?.

"In general, may we not say that the French revolution lies in the heart and head of every...French man?" (Carlyle, T. 1837/1839 Book 6, chapter 1, p.172).
His figures show that he included every French woman, but he could have given them a separate mention, women were in the forefront of the revolution in France. He could have added that it spread from France to the slave plantations of the West Indies. He might even have said that it fired the minds of women and men generally, for the revolution there has been so persistent that it is still going on.

(¶2)   This essay first looks at the way that ideas generated by the theorists John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau were applied in the French revolution in 1789. It then looks at how these same ideas applied to two large sections of society that were caught up in the revolution: women and slaves.


French Absolutism

(¶3)   The States General of France was the equivalent of parliament in England.

In England the parliament had waged war on the king and, in 1649, executed him.

In France the King did not call parliament together - the States General did not meet once between 1614 and 1789.

When reading about this period of French history you will come across references to the parliaments of regions, like the parliament of Paris. These are not parliament in the English sense. They are courts of law that were often in conflict with the king.

(¶4)   The idea of a monarch ruling without a consultative body of the people (Parliament or States General) to approve laws and thus limit the monarch's power, was one aspect of what the philosopher theorists meant by "absolutism". France was an absolutist monarchy, whilst England and Scotland were constitutional monarchies. The power of their kings and queens was limited by law-making assemblies of the people. They were not, however, democracies. Most of the members of the English parliament were there by heredity right, and those who were elected were only elected by a small number of the people.

(¶5)   In the seventeenth century France was proud of being absolutist. The English, on the other hand, called absolutism the French disease. (The "French disease" was also the English name for the venereal disease, syphilis. In France they called syphilis the "English disease").

The Sun King, Louis 14.

(¶6)   England had theorists of absolutism, like Robert Filmer and Thomas Hobbes, and theorists of constitutional monarchy, like John Locke. In January 1649, when Charles 1st of England was beheaded, Hobbes was in France for his safety. The king of France was a boy - too young to rule. On September 7th 1651 Hobbes watched from his window a ceremonial procession that marked the point where the king became old enough to govern (Evelyn, J. 1818 volume 1, p.268). This king, Louis 14, was to make France very powerful by concentrating power in his own hands. From 1661, when he threw his chief minister into prison, until his death in 1715, the king ruled personally. "L'etat c'est moi" (I am the state), he said. Louis 14 gave absolutism new meanings. He established a system that meant the French aristocracy were preoccupied with the social activities of his court, and deprived of any real power. From the time of Louis 14, French absolutism meant that power was concentrated in the king. In England much power lay with the local government, dominated by the local aristocracy. In France it was concentrated in Versailles, the town outside Paris where the king had a magnificent palace. The French king ruled through a centralised bureaucracy, an organisation of officials loyal to him. He did not share power with a nobility.

Louis 16 goes bust.

(¶7)   The system of absolutism that Louis 14 established was expensive. The state apparatus had to absorb the nobility in expensive social activities. The money to pay for the finery and the power of the French state all came from taxes on the ordinary people, the nobility and clergy paid no taxes. In the late eighteenth century, this system went bust - and precipitated a revolution. The immediate origin of the French revolution was the recalling of the States General for the first time in 175 years. The reason for that was financial. France entered the war of independence on America's side in 1778. The king, Louis 16, called the French Parliament (States General) together because the war had cost too much. He hoped that it would enable him to raise new taxes. The Parliament met in May 1789. It had three parts: the first estate (clergy), second estate (nobles) and third estate (others). The three estates sat apart, but the third estate argued that there should be only one assembly. Their arguments were set out in a pamphlet by Abbe Sieyes which argued that the Third Estate was the whole nation. The third estate renamed itself the National Assembly. On June 20th they resolved to go on meeting (even if the king dissolved them) "until the constitution of the realm is established" On June 27th they won: the king ordered the first and second estates to join the third. His power was now limited by a parliament. France had become a constitutional monarchy.

(¶8)   The Declaration of the Rights of Man was published by the National Assembly, or parliament, of France in August 1789. It is a set of abstract philosophical principles addressed, not just to the citizens of France, but to "man" in general. To the German philosopher Friedrich Hegel it was evidence that philosophy had entered into history.

"The consciousness of the spiritual is now the essential basis of the political fabric and philosophy has thereby become dominant."

He agreed with those writers who said that

"the French revolution resulted from philosophy".

Philosophy, he said, could now be described as "world wisdom". It is not just truth - but truth exhibited in the affairs of the world (Hegel, F./History).

The Enlightenment

(¶9)   Another German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, saw the revolution as the evidence that the human race has grown up and is now able to think for itself. It was evidence of enlightenment. In an article called What is Enlightenment? in 1784 Kant wrote:

"Enlightenment is the liberation of man from his self-caused state of minority, which is the incapacity of using one's understanding without the direction of another." (Kant, I. 1784)
He went on to say that Enlightenment is not just understanding, but the will to understand by one's own efforts rather than by the guidance of another. We can think of it as being a process of creating our own theories about the world, rather than simply accepting the stories we are told.
[See reason as opposed to dogma

What could lead you to do that? Hegel suggested that we are stimulated to make our own theories when the stories we are told contradict one another, or contradict our experiences. This is a useful point to bear in mind when you come across apparent contradictions in a writer. The contradictions may be the most valuable part of their theory, because they stimulate you to think for yourself.

Rousseau may have been the most influential story teller, or theory maker, of the eighteenth century. On first reading, however, he appears riddled with contradictions. Maybe one of the reasons for his influence is that his apparent contradictions shocked his readers into thinking for themselves.

(¶10)   The Enlightenment has become a term used to indicate the period in the history of ideas when Rousseau was writing. But it has been used flexibly to refer to different periods in different countries.

Timeline Hobbes The English Enlightenment includes Hobbes and Locke and is thought to have happened in the 17th century, during and after the English Civil War.
Timeline Hume The Scottish Enlightenment took place in the 18th century and included Hume and Adam Smith.
Timeline Rousseau The French Enlightenment, which we are thinking about now, included Rousseau, Voltaire and Diderot. Thinkers like these provided the intellectual climate for the French Revolution in 1789.
Timeline Kant The German Enlightenment includes Kant and Hegel, and is partly a reflection on the French Revolution.

(Runes 1960 and Sumerscale 1965 under Enlightenment)

The Philosopher's Parliament

(¶11)   The National Assembly became the philosophers's parliament. It was like an enthusiastic college seminar where everyone was discussing ideas and wanted to draw a blueprint for a new society based on those ideas. If we read the first lines of the Declaration of the Rights of Man we see that the Assembly wanted to make the world accord with reason:

"The representatives of the French people, sitting in the National Assembly considering that ignorance (etc) of...the rights of man are the sole causes of public misfortune and the corruption of governments...set out in a solemn declaration the natural...and sacred rights of man, this declaration, constantly before all members of the civic body, will constantly remind them of their rights and duties, in order that acts of legislative and executive power can be frequently compared with the purpose of every political institution. 1. Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions can only be founded on communal utility."


(¶12)   If "men are born and remain free and equal in rights" what can we say about slavery?

This issue arose very early in the philosopher's parliament. In July 1789 a delegation from French San Domingo (Haiti) claimed 18 seats in the Parliament, based on the population of San Domingo. The National Assembly's most powerful orator, the Marquis of Mirabeau, attacked the claim because blacks (slave and free) were counted in the population, but had no say in the election of representatives:

"Have not the best minds denied the very utility of colonies? And even admitting their utility, is that any reason for a right to representation? These people wish a representation in proportion to the number of inhabitants. But have the negroes or the free people of colour taken part in the elections? The free coloured are landowners and taxpayers, - nevertheless they have had no vote. And as for the slaves, either they are, or they are not, men. If they be men, let the colonists free them and make them voters and eligible as deputies; if they be not men, - have we, in apportioning deputies according to the population of France, taken into consideration the number of our horses and mules?" (Stoddard, T.L. 1914 pp 78-79; James, C.L.R. 1938/1980 p.60)

(¶13)   San Domingo was only allowed six deputies. This episode established colonial representation, but at the same time made the issue of slavery an issue for the revolution: thenceforth the history of liberty in France and of slave emancipation in San Domingo is one and indivisible. (James, C.L.R. 1938/1980 p.60)


Constitutional Government

(¶14)   Perhaps you think of the French Revolution as the guillotine cutting of the head of the king to make way for a Republic. But this did not happen until four years after the revolution started. At first the revolutionaries attempted to replace the absolutist monarchy of France with a constitutional monarchy. A constitutional monarchy is one where the monarch's powers are governed by a constitution or laws.

(¶15)   A constitutional monarchy corresponds more to Locke's ideas of government than to those of Hobbes. The important points are that the monarch's actions are governed by laws and that the laws embody the general principles by which the nation chooses to govern itself.


(¶16)   Jean Jacques Rousseau was born, in 1712, in the protestant republic of Geneva, Switzerland. Later he moved to France and to Paris. In Paris he met Voltaire and Diderot and was commissioned to write articles (at first on music) for Diderot's Encyclopedie. The seventeen volumes of this encyclopedia were the foundation stones of the Enlightenment in France. The first appeared annually from 1751 to 1757, then they were banned. The final volumes appeared altogether in 1765. Rousseau and Diderot were close friends until Rousseau left Paris in 1756. After this, they fell out.

(¶17)   In 1750 a prize winning essay, called A Discourse on the Arts and the Sciences (Rousseau 1750), made Rousseau famous because he argued that civilisation had not improved the human condition. His replies to the many refutations that were published, developed his ideas further, as did his A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (Rousseau 1755(I)) and an article for the l'Encyclopedie on Political Economy (Rousseau 1755(PE))

(¶18)   In 1756 Rousseau left Paris and, over the next few years, worked on Julie, a novel published in 1761; Emile, a treatise on education, and The Social Contract. These were published in 1762. His controversial views on religion led him to flee France and in 1766 and 1767 he lived in England under the protection of David Hume and began to write his autobiographical Confessions (published 1782). The last part of his life was spent in France, in poverty, with periods of insanity. He died in 1778, eleven years before the French Revolution.

Rousseau and the General Will

(¶19)   Like Locke and Hobbes, whose works he read, Rousseau is a state of nature theorist. This means he starts his argument with individuals wandering about in a state of nature and then brings them together to show how society is created through their "social contract".

One of the differences between Rousseau's theory and Locke's theory is that Rousseau believes that reason comes into being with society. Like most other state of nature theorists, Rousseau shows how society is created through a "social contract". However, he sees human beings as totally transformed by the passage from nature to society.

"The passage from the state of nature to the civil state produces a very remarkable change in man, by substituting justice for instinct in his conduct, and giving his actions the morality they had formerly lacked." "The voice of duty takes the place of physical impulses consult his reason before listening to his inclinations"   (Rousseau 1762(SC) pp 195-196).

Reason, morality, imagination, memory and language are a consequence of society. This miraculous transformation comes about through the formation of the general will, and it distinguishes Rousseau's theory from most earlier state of nature theories.

(¶20)   The general will is the will of all when we are not thinking about our own selfish interests but about the general interest. Rousseau calls selfish interests particular interests.

Rousseau's General Will, and Locke on voting

(¶21)   The general will is not the victory of the majority over a minority. It is not the result of a vote. It is something that involves the will of every member who is part of it. Rousseau argues that such a general will is fundamental to every society and to every relation between human beings that treats the other person as a person rather than an object.

We can approach what he means by looking at what happens when people take a vote. Look at what Locke says about the will of society in the following quotation and note the points I have put in italics:

"when any number of men have, by the consent of every individual, made a community, they have thereby made that community one body, with a power to act as one body, which is only by the will and determination of the majority". (Locke 1869 2nd Treatise paragraph 96)

(¶22)   For Locke the society's will is the will of the majority expressed through the legislature as law. We can imagine Rousseau accepting this in one sense, but pointing out (as he does) that:

"The law of majority voting is itself something established by convention, and presupposes unanimity on one occasion at least."   (Rousseau 1762(SC) p.190)
Locke has acknowledged this in the first phrase in italics above: by the consent of every individual. It is this unanimous agreement that we need to look at according to Rousseau. It is this that makes the minority feel that they are bound by the majority decision and willing to follow it. There is a sense in which we feel the general will as our own even if we voted (or would have voted) for something different. We identify with the society that is making the decision. So Rousseau perceives us as having within us two wills: our own individual will and a general will that is our concern for the interest of society.

Reason and the General Will

(¶23)   One interpretation of Rousseau is that the general will is what separates us from other animals. It is not just the perception of what is in the general interest, it is also the form of reasoning that separates humans from animals. I will point to the parts of Rousseau's writings on which this interpretation is based. I will start at the end, with a passage from The Social Contract, already quoted in part, in which Rousseau summarises the miraculous change that takes place when human beings pass from the state of nature to the state of society:

"The passage from the state of nature to the civil state produces a very remarkable change in man, by substituting justice for instinct in his conduct, and giving his actions the morality they had formerly lacked. Then only, when the voice of duty takes the place of physical impulses and right of appetite, does man, who so far had considered only himself, find that he is forced to act on different principles, and to consult his reason before listening to his inclinations. Although, in this state, he deprives himself of some advantages which he got from nature, he gains in return others so great, his faculties are so stimulated and developed, his ideas so extended, his feelings so ennobled, and his whole soul so uplifted, that, did not abuses of this new condition often degrade him below that which he left, he would be bound to bless continually the happy moment which took him from it for ever, and, instead of a stupid and unimaginative animal, made him an intelligent being and a man."   (Rousseau 1762(SC) pp 195-196).

(¶24)   In an earlier draft (Rousseau 1759) of The Social Contract Rousseau had quoted, with approval (but without acknowledgement), the two following passages from an article by his friend Diderot that had appeared in the same volume of the l'Encyclopedie as the article in which Rousseau first used the idea of the General Will.

"the human race alone has the right to decide, for its only passion is for the greatest possible well-being of all men. It is to the general will that the individual must address himself to know how far he must be a man, a citizen, a subject, a father and a child, and when it is fitting for him to live and when to die." (Rousseau 1759 p.174)

"the general will is, in each individual, a pure act of the understanding which reasons, when the passions are silent, about what a man can ask of his fellows and what his fellows have a right to ask of him." (Rousseau 1759 p.174)

(¶25)   In an essay published the same year as l'Encyclopedie articles, Rousseau analyzed reasoning in animals and humans. He argued that, in nature, animals and people respond to things as particulars, not as generalities and that the faculty to think in general terms is only acquired through society. Thinking in general terms, and thinking in terms of the general interest of all are thus associated. The words are remarkably similar, although the concepts are different. Humans have two wills: their particular (selfish) will and their general will. Animals think in terms of particulars, humans think in general concepts.

"When a monkey goes from one nut to another, are we to conceive that he entertains any general idea of that kind of fruit, and compares its archetype with the two individual nuts? Assuredly he does not; but the sight of one of these nuts recalls to his memory the sensations which he received from the other, and his eyes, being modified after a certain manner, give information to the palate of the modification it is about to receive." (Rousseau 1755(I)) par.1.29)

(¶26)   It was the same for humans in the state of nature:

"Every object at first received a particular name without regard to genus or species, which these primitive originators were not in a position to distinguish; every individual presented itself to their minds in isolation, as they are in the picture of nature. If one oak was called A, another was called B; for the primitive idea of two things is that they are not the same, and it often takes a long time for what they had in common to be seen; so that, the narrower the limits of their knowledge of things, the more copious their dictionary must have been" (Rousseau 1755(I)) par.1.28)

(¶27)   Thinking in general terms is only possible, Rousseau argues, when one uses words rather than images.

"Every general idea is purely intellectual; if the imagination meddles with it ever so little, the idea immediately becomes particular. If you endeavour to trace in your mind the image of a tree in general, you never attain to your end. In spite of all you can do, you will have to see it as great or little, bare or leafy, light or dark, and were you capable of seeing nothing in it but what is common to all trees, it would no longer be like a tree at all." (Rousseau 1755(I)) par.1.29)

(¶28)   Rousseau considers it must have taken an enormous length of time for human beings to move from naming individual objects to classifying them as general concepts; from calling each particular tree by a name, to having a word and a concept for all trees (See (Rousseau 1755(I)) p.68-70). This process was accelerated by people being pushed together by circumstances, thus encouraging the development of language. In two passages Rousseau writes first of how such early societies encouraged the development of language (and consequently general concepts) and then of how they brought into being a concern for public esteem (and consequently, we might infer, the general will).

"We can here see a little better how the use of speech became established, and insensibly improved in each family, and we may form a conjecture also concerning the manner in which various causes may have extended and accelerated the progress of language, by making it more and more necessary....It is readily seen that among men thus collected and compelled to live together, a common idiom must have arisen much more easily than among those who still wandered through the forests of the continent." (Rousseau 1755(I)) par.2.14)
"They accustomed themselves to assemble before their huts round a large tree; singing and dancing, the true offspring of love and leisure, became the amusement, or rather the occupation, of men and women thus assembled together with nothing else to do. Each one began to consider the rest, and to wish to be considered in turn; and thus a value came to be attached to public esteem." (Rousseau 1755(I)) par.2.16)

(¶29)   Provocative though these passages are, it is not clear, to me at least, how Rousseau related the acquirement of the human capacity to reason in general terms with the general will that governs human morality. Both, however, come into being when we become social, and it appears that Rousseau thought of them as related.

Different ways of viewing the birth of the general will

(¶30)   We can view the passage from nature to society in different ways. It could be

(¶31)   However we think of it, in society, man "deprives himself of some advantages which he got from nature", but gains others:

"his faculties are...stimulated and developed, his ideas...extended, his feelings...ennobled, and his whole soul...uplifted... instead of a stupid and unimaginative animal [he becomes] an intelligent being and a man Society enriches us. Or it would do if "abuses of this new condition" did not often degrade us below the condition we left."   (Rousseau 1762(SC) pp 195-196)
I will look briefly now to the source of this corruption that Rousseau saw eating away at the root of society, and to his remedy for it

Particular wills versus the general will

(¶32)   Rousseau argued that society had been corrupted, because social interests have been fashioned to particular rather than general interests. There was a moral need to bring society back to conformity with the general interest. The general will became the national will or people's will.

Rousseau argued that:

  • basically, or potentially, society enriches rather than corrupts,
  • but something has gone wrong: social interests have been fashioned to particular rather that general interests. So society is now corrupting.
  • There is, therefore, a moral need to bring society back to conformity with the general interest.
  • we can solve the problems of civilisation by bringing the laws into accordance with the collective will: The will of all when we are not thinking about our own selfish (particular) interests but about the general interest.

(¶33)   Rousseau says that

"the most general will is always the most just also, and...the voice of the people is in fact the voice of God" (Rousseau 1755(PE)) p.133).
"The first and most important rule of legitimate or popular government, that is to say, of government whose object is the good of the people, follow in everything the general will. But to follow this will it is necessary to know it, and above all to distinguish it from the particular will." (Rousseau 1755(PE)) p.135)

Problem of the one undivided will: pluralism

(¶34)   Locke and Rousseau were both concerned about freedom. However, they resolved the problems they had with the concept in different ways. Locke preserved freedom in society by limiting the power of the State. Locke's ideas placed the emphasis on mechanisms for tolerating and coping with diversity. In 20th century terms, the society he envisaged was "pluralistic", it allowed for a diversity of interests in the one society.

(¶35)   Rousseau preserved freedom by arguing that the laws of the country should be brought into agreement with the general will. If the laws carried out the general will of the people, they would not interfere with the people's freedom because they will be what the people want. By definition, however, the general will is one and undivided. So there is a conflict between Locke's version of liberty as the absence of constraint by the State and Rousseau's version of the individual finding personal fulfilment by participating in the management of a free society.

(¶36)   This conflict became a central issue for the revolution under the Jacobins. The Locke version of freedom, with room for people pursuing different objectives within a tolerant society came to be the view associated with betraying the revolution. It was the view that "Federalists" held. A view that stood in the way of the formulation of a national general will that would form a France, "one and undivided". A France that through its unity would have the strength to win its wars against foreign enemies and enemies within. There were many people who went to the guillotine because they adhered to Locke's version of freedom.

Rousseau versus Hobbes

(¶37)   Rousseau considered himself as someone developing arguments for a war against absolutism. His intellectual allies included Locke. His guns were trained on Filmer and Hobbes. Filmer he dismissed quite quickly. Hobbes he fought tooth and nail in a guerilla warfare that runs through much of his work. Two of the many points on which he disagreed with Hobbes were


Rousseau on freedom and slavery

(¶38)   Rousseau discusses slavery in the first chapters of The Social Contract. An important objective of The Social Contract was to show that Hobbes was wrong in believing that the basis of society could be force. Rousseau argued that human society is based on voluntary agreement between its members. Rousseau does not discuss slavery for its own sake. He discusses slavery because the concepts "slavery", "contract" and "freedom", are important to political theories based on the idea that we bargain our way out of a state of nature into society by means of a social contract.

The argument of Hobbes (and, before him, a Dutch theorist called Hugo Grotius) swung on the case of slavery. Grotius and Hobbes argued that if a people were conquered by force they could bargain themselves into slavery in exchange for their lives.

(¶39)   Hobbes says that contracts exhorted by force are valid (Hobbes 1651 Chapter 14, Margin: Covenants extorted by fear are valid). Which means there are two ways (equally valid) of setting up a Commonwealth: by force or by agreement (Hobbes 1651 Chapter 17 last paragraph). In passing, Hobbes applies this to slavery:

"Dominion acquired by conquest, or victory in war, is that which some writers call despotical... And this dominion is then acquired to the victor when the vanquished, to avoid the present stroke of death, covenanteth, either in express words or by other sufficient signs of the will, that so long as his life and the liberty of his body is allowed him, the victor shall have the use thereof at his pleasure. And after such covenant made, the vanquished is a servant, and not before: for by the word not meant a captive, which is kept in prison, or bonds..., such men, commonly called slaves, have no obligation at all...but one that, being taken, hath corporal liberty allowed him; and upon promise not to run away, nor to do violence to his master, is trusted by him." (Hobbes 1651 Chapter 20, Margin: Despotical Dominion how attained).

(¶40)   A contract by force is when a person or society is conquered and, instead of being killed, imprisoned or put in chains, is allowed physical freedom on condition that the conqueror can use the vanquished for his or her own ends. This is the kind of `bargain for one's life' that Hobbes and Grotius used to show that people should obey those who conquered them by force. The same argument was used by others to justify the slavery of people from Africa in the West Indies. So, in arguing (against Grotius and Hobbes) that legitimate political order can only be based on agreement, Rousseau found himself arguing against slavery.

(¶41)   From The Social Contract we will pick out the ideas on slavery that Rousseau disagrees with from those that he agrees with.

Rousseau disagrees with Aristotle:

(¶42)   Aristotle said that human beings are not equal naturally, but some are born to slavery, and others to rule:

"For that which can foresee by the exercise of mind is by nature intended to be lord and master, and that which can with its body give effect to such foresight is a subject, and by nature a slave." (Aristotle/Politics.
Against this Rousseau argues that Aristotle had taken the "effect for the cause". It is not that some people are by nature slaves, but that being born a slave makes one feel and act like a slave.
"Slaves lose everything in their chains, even the desire of escaping from them."   (Rousseau 1762(SC) chapter 2)

(¶43)   Slavery, Rousseau says is "against nature".

"Common liberty results from the nature of man. His first law is to provide for his own preservation, his first cares are those which he owes to himself; and as soon as he reaches years of discretion, he is the sole judge of the proper means of preserving himself, and consequently becomes his own master." . (Rousseau 1762(SC) chapter 2)
"To renounce liberty is to renounce being a man, to surrender the rights of humanity and even its duties....Such a renunciation is incompatible with man's nature; to remove all liberty from his will is to remove all morality from his acts." .   (Rousseau 1762(SC) chapter 4)

Rousseau disagrees with Grotius


"Since no man has a natural authority over his fellow", Rousseau says, "and force creates no right, we must conclude that conventions form the basis of all legitimate authority among men."
That is to say, the legitimate basis of a society is the agreement of its members. Grotius, however,
"denies that all human power is established in favour of the governed, and quotes slavery as an example."   (Rousseau 1762(SC) chapter 2)
He and Hobbes argue that the "so-called right of slavery" can arise through war.
"The victor having, as they hold, the right of killing the vanquished, the latter can buy back his life at the price of his liberty."   (Rousseau 1762(SC) chapter 4)
Against these arguments, Rousseau argues that
"Force is a physical power", and cannot have a "moral effect". "Force does not create right, and.. we are obliged to obey only legitimate powers."   (Rousseau 1762(SC) chapter 3)


(¶45)   Rousseau's theory of the general will appears to imply

  1. that we become human beings through the development of a will that is common to all of us

  2. that this general will is the basis of political society.
From these two premises one might have concluded that everyone who is a human being plays an equal part in political society (at least once they are adults). However, Rousseau makes a distinction between men and women. He has a theory of gender that gives men and women different roles in society and excludes women from active political life. Let us try to see if we can understand this apparent contradiction.

Rousseau and women

(¶46)   According to Rousseau women are closer to nature than men. They are caught up in their biology. Because of their attachment to the family they are both the source of patriotic inspiration and unable to make the generalisations necessary for (good) political reason.

(¶47)   In Emile, Rousseau divides human development into three stages: childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Children, he argues, are concerned with relations to things rather than people, but adolescence stirs sexuality, awakening man's need for a mate.

"Man: is no longer an isolated creature...All his relations with his species, all the affections of his heart, come into being along with this. His first passion soon arouses the rest." (Rousseau 1762(E) p.175).
Sexuality makes humans social. Before puberty children relate best to things, that is to nature outside them; but at puberty nature within them leads them to couple: and this sexual union arouses the passions that are the basis of society and politics. Sexual desire leads to families, family affection makes the state possible:
"Will the bonds of convention hold firm without some foundation in nature? Can devotion to the state exist apart from love of those near and dear to us? Can patriotism thrive except in the soil of that miniature fatherland, the home? Is it not the good son, the good husband, the good father, who makes the good citizen?" (Rousseau 1762(E) par 5.25).

(¶48)   But whilst biology makes politics possible, a partial freedom from biology is necessary if politics is to be successful. Only men have this relative freedom, according to Rousseau, because:

"The consequences of sex are wholly unlike for man and woman. The male is only a male now and again, the female is always a female...everything reminds her of her sex; the performance of her functions requires a special constitution. She needs care during pregnancy and freedom from work when her child is born; she must have a quiet, easy life while she nurses her children; their education calls for patience and gentleness, for a zeal and love which nothing can dismay; she forms a bond between father and child, she alone can win the father's love for the children and convince him that they are indeed his own. What loving care is required to preserve a united family!" (Rousseau 1762(E) par 5.19).

Reason and authority

(¶49)   Rousseau has a view of the world in which the rational participants are men. But politics requires passion as well as reason and the political role of women is that they arouse this passion in men. The divided roles result in different reasons. According to Rousseau, men and women reason differently.

"The search for abstract and speculative truths, for principles and axioms in science, for all that tends to wide generalisation, is beyond a woman's grasp; their studies should be practical. It is their business to apply the principles discovered by men, it is their place to make the observations which lead men to discover those principles." (Rousseau 1762(E) par 5.109)

(¶50)   It is as well that we understand how significant this is. In education Rousseau was an opponent of dogma. He taught that boys should be shown the reason for what is taught.

"If ever you substitute authority for reason he will cease to reason; he will be a mere plaything of other people's thoughts." (Rousseau 1762(E) par 3.14).
Girls and women, however, are to be taught by authority. It is desirable that a woman should be the plaything of another person's thoughts - either those of her husband or her father.

The part of Emile that was the most controversial, a part called The Creed of a Savoyard Priest, was a demonstration of how Emile might discover true religious principles by listening to the voice of reason within him.

For men, Rousseau was suggesting, religious authority is redundant. But for women we find the opposite is true. Her religion should be

"ruled by authority. The daughter should follow her mother's religion, the wife her husband's. Were that religion false, the docility which leads mother and daughter to submit to nature's laws would blot out the sin of error in the sight of God. Unable to judge for themselves they should accept the judgement of father and husband as that of the church" (Rousseau 1762(E) par 5.76)

(¶51)   Let us look more closely at why Rousseau thinks that men should be taught to think things out for themselves whilst women should be taught to obey the authority of men. We will start by looking at what Rousseau means by "reason".

Human reason, Rousseau says, is the art of comparing ideas one with another. There are two levels of reasoning:

(Rousseau 1762(E) par 2.265).

Reason is not a passive reception of sense data. It is based on an active comparison of ideas by the human mind.

Rousseau says that we will not find "that intelligent force which compares and judges" in a being that can just sense data   (Rousseau 1762(E) par 4.309).

Reason is an active process which requires strength of mind. Rousseau seems to think that women are weak in body and in mind, and that this weakness serves a purpose.

"A woman's reason is practical, and therefore she soon arrives at given conclusion, but she fails to discover it for herself....If women could discover principles and if men had as good heads for detail, they would be mutually independent, they would live in perpetual strife and there would be an end to all society. But in their mutual harmony each contributes to the common purpose"   (Rousseau 1762(E) par 5.75)

(¶52)   Whereas a woman has not got the strength of mind to work out basic principles, she does have a special kind of reason. She has the mental skills to seduce a man, without granting him so much favour that he stops doing what she wants him to do.

"Woman, weak as she is and limited in her range of observations, perceives and judges the forces at her disposal to supplement her weakness and those forces are the passions of man....She has many levers which may set the human heart in motion. She must find a way to make us desire what she cannot achieve unaided."   (Rousseau 1762(E) par 5.109).

(¶53)   Women develop their mental skills through guarding their virginity.

"A woman's judgement develops sooner than a man's; being on the defensive from her childhood up, and intrusted with a treasure so hard to keep, she is earlier acquainted with good and evil." (Rousseau 1762(E) p.360)"
And when she is a wife, a woman obtains more hold over her husband by withholding sex than by indulging in it. The abilities she should develop, to control her man, are virtue, wisdom and charm. A woman,
"who can only attract her lovers by coquetry and retain them by her favours, wins a servile obedience in common things; in...important matters she has no influence.... But the woman who is both virtuous and wise, and charming, she who,...combines love and esteem, can send them at her bidding to the end of the world, to war, to glory, and to death..."   (Rousseau 1762(E) par 5.123)

(¶54)   Women, it seems, have the mental skills needed to entrap someone. Only men have the skills required to carry through a coherent line of reasoning. We can create an image of the difference by imagining a domestic drama in which a man is contradicting himself. Will his wife entrap or repel him by pointing out the contradiction? If she thinks of the issue in this way she will not care about the integrity of her reasoning, only about what secures the man's good will. Perhaps she will decide that it is best to agree with him when he says that black is white, and praise him for his insight when he concludes that black is not white. If constantly involved in this kind of dialogue she will develop complicated inter-personal skills, but her powers of coherent reasoning will atrophy. This, according to Rousseau, is the way that nature intended it. Women need the mental skills to please men. Men need the mental skills to rule the world. The twist that Rousseau puts into his argument is that he says that if woman succeed in pleasing men, they will be able to twist them round their little finger, and so it will be women who really rule the world.

Women and the devil - now and then

(¶55)   Rousseau is now the devil himself for most feminists. In his own time, however, he was an inspiration for many women. This was because he appeared to restore them to their natural role. Here is how Madame de Stael expressed her praise:

"Rousseau has endeavoured to prevent women from interfering in public affairs.... If he wished to deprive them of some rights foreign to their sex, how has he for ever restored to them all those to which it has a claim!...In aiding them to descend from a usurped throne, he has firmly seated them upon that to which they were destined by nature; and though...full of indignation...when they endeavour to resemble men, when they come before him with all the charms, weaknesses, virtues, and errors of their sex, his respect for their persons amounts almost to adoration."
This quotation is given by Mary Wollstonecraft (Wollstonecraft 1792 p.113), a woman who disagreed with it profoundly. It is to her arguments for and against Rousseau that we will now turn.

Wollstonecraft on education

(¶56)   Mary Wollstonecraft was born in London in 1759. She soon became a major support to her family, earning her money first as a companion and then setting up school in Newington Green near Hackney. In 1787 she read Emile, with enthusiasm for its general principles, but not for its ideas on education for girls. Rousseau's emphasis on developing the natural potential of children spoke to Wollstonecraft of her own potential. She was conscious that it was her own energy and zest for learning that had educated her, and she felt better educated than many who had spent richer childhoods with a family tutor. But she could not accept what she saw as Rousseau's total condemnation of culture. As things are, she says, education tends to deform. But it is the essence of humanity that education ought to transform. She argued that what distinguishes human beings from other animals is reason, and that reason is the power to channel the passions into the paths of virtue. What is wrong with education is that it teaches people the wrong morality. It is necessary to teach a higher morality, not to abandon culture altogether.

(¶57)   Wollstonecraft was writing her own books on education. Thoughts on the Education of Daughters was published in 1787 and Original Stories for Real Life in 1788. From 1788 to 1793 she worked as a translator for the bookseller and publisher, Joseph Johnson. Here she was at the centre of England's radical intelligentsia. Tom Paine, William Blake, Henry Fuseli, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, William Godwin, Richard Price, Joseph Priestley, Thomas Holcroft and many more were all linked in some way to Johnson's bookshop in St Paul's Churchyard.

Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, published in 1790, was an attack on the kind of thinking that characterised these radicals. Wollstonecraft was a quick writer. Within months she had written and published a reply, her A Vindication of the Rights of Man (1790/91). A year later, irritated by French proposals for an unequal education of boys and girls, she followed this with A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Shortly after she left for France, where she wrote an Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution (1794). Her other works include two novels, Mary and the Wrongs of Women. She died tragically in 1797 from medical problems connected with the birth of her second child.

Mistakes are necessary

(¶58)   William Blake did the illustrations for two of Wollstonecraft's books. In 1796 Blake illustrated the second edition of Original Stories and one of her translations.

Blake and Wollstonecraft had many similar ideas. Both thought that creation (God) had brought into being a world in which evil has a positive purpose. They argued that for human beings to develop it is necessary that they make mistakes. Blake said this poetically in a work called The Marriage of Heaven and Hell where he wrote that

"The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom".

It was a central thought for Wollstonecraft who wrote

" When that wise Being who created us and placed us here, saw the fair idea, he willed, by allowing it to be so, that the passions should unfold our reason, because He could see that present evil would produce future good " (Wollstonecraft 1792 par. 1.14)

Wollstonecraft's theory is a theological theory in the sense that she constantly relies on God's wisdom and providence as the evidence for the truth of what she is saying. She understands our physical existence as a preparation or education for a spiritual existence after death. But her theory is also based on an effort to understand the material development of the human world as evolution, so it can be read with equal benefit by religious and non religious people. Neither is likely to find it comfortable.

Wollstonecraft on French absolutism

(¶59)   Wollstonecraft writes about the position of women in society, and Rousseau's view of it, as one aspect of her total view of hierarchy and power and their effect on the development of human culture. She believes that power corrupts culture whether it is exercised by man over man, or man over woman. In other words, she agrees with Rousseau's general philosophy, but applies it to gender relations as well. Her argument is aimed right at the centre of the absolutist politics that Louis 14th developed in France:

"Louis 14, in particular, spread factitious [artificial] manners, and caught, in a specious way [attractive on the surface], the whole nation in his toils; for establishing an artful chain of despotism, he made it the interest of the people at large individually to respect his station, and support his power. And women, whom he flattered by a puerile [childish] attention to the whole sex, obtained in his reign that prince-like distinction so fatal to reason and virtue. A king is always a king, and a woman always a woman. His authority and her sex ever stand between them and rational converse." (Wollstonecraft 1792/Dent p.62)
Wollstonecraft is referring to the court manners and customs developed by the absolutist monarch Louis 14 as a distraction from the reality of his despotic rule. This culture of polite society, she argues, undermines reason, and is contrary to nature (artful as distinct from artless). She adopts this analysis of high society manners from Rousseau, but she applies it to the power relations between men and women that Rousseau argues are natural. In politics and in gender relations, she says, artificial manners undermine reason and virtue. Flirtatious behaviour is appropriate to the interaction between lovers. In that context it is natural for us to use our skills to excite one another. The use of such skills for conquests in other areas is unnatural:
"With a lover, I grant, she should be so, and her sensibility will naturally lead her to endeavour to excite emotion, not to gratify her vanity, but her heart. This I do not allow to be coquetry; it is the artless impulse of nature. I only exclaim against the sexual desire of conquest when the heart is out of the question." (Wollstonecraft 1792/Dent p.62)

Strong and weak reason

(¶60)   Rousseau had argued that men can develop strong reasoning powers, but women develop the mental skills needed to capture and hold men to their will. This dichotomy between types of reason is the point at which Wollstonecraft begins her analysis. She does not, however, ascribe one type of thought to men and the other to women. Rousseau was wrong to "give a sex to mind" (Wollstonecraft 1792/Dent p.48), but not wrong to think that mind has different strengths:

"The mind must be strong that resolutely forms its own principles; for a kind of intellectual cowardice prevails which makes many men shrink from the task, or only do it by halves." (Wollstonecraft 1792 par.1.17)
Whereas the common man, whose mind has been governed by authority, is so "steeped" in it that his own "faint spirit" is too weak to be distinguished. (Wollstonecraft 1792 par.1,27)

(¶61)   Wollstonecraft argued that wherever human beings are in a power relationship the patterns of reason that Rousseau identified as female will develop.

Does "an air of fashion" reveal that the person "has not a strong individual character"?

Wollstonecraft says it does. But she is speaking of soldiers, not women.

Does observing the "ceremonials" of a subservient role incline one to laziness and stupidity when off duty? Wollstonecraft says that this is a characteristic of sailors who "acquire a fondness for humour and mischievous tricks".

Soldiers when off duty are noted for their "polite simper" in the company of women, sailors can be distinguished by their "horse laugh". But whatever breed of fashionable bird one observes "mind is equally out of the question". The army and the navy turn men into what today's comedians call brainless bimbos. (Wollstonecraft 1792 chapter 1)

(¶62)   She also argues that the perversions of reason will be exhibited by the ruler and the ruled. That is by kings and their subjects.

Discharging the duties of a king requires " knowledge and strength of mind" beyond the ability of human beings to acquire. But instead of nourishing reason in monarchs, society stifles his feelings with "flattery", and distracts him from thinking by surrounding him with pleasure. If the ruler happens to be strong minded, he has problems enough; if he is weak minded he will be as rational as a drunk leaving a pub, for "all power inebriates weak men".

Whilst those who are ruled by irrational authority acquire "artificial manners" and even a "man of sense" may only have "a cast of countenance that wears off as you trace his individuality". (Wollstonecraft 1792 chapter 1)

Gender and slavery

(¶63)   Wollstonecraft's view of reason and power (generally) and gender and reason (as a specific example) matches Rousseau's position with respect to slavery.

"Aristotle...said that men are by no means equal naturally, but that some are born to slavery, and others for dominion."
Against this Rousseau argues that
"Slaves lose everything in their chains, even the desire of escaping from them" .   (Rousseau 1762(SC) chapter 2)


(¶64)   The issue about whether one can give a sex to mind divides modern theorists. Some follow Wollstonecraft's conviction that reason is common to men and women. These theorists tend to believe that any mental characteristics that are more frequently found in one sex rather than another are the result of socialisation. Others believe that men and women have different reasons. This seems, for example, to be the consequence of Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic theory. In this it is not necessarily biology or socialisation that decides whether a person's thinking will be male or female, but the way one goes through a necessary childhood drama in relation to one's parents. From this we acquire a female or a male personality along with their different ways of thinking. The childhood drama becomes part of our unconscious mind and can only be discovered by psychoanalysis, by dream analysis or by the analysis of verbal mistakes that give us a clue to what we are thinking unconsciously. Nowadays this division of thought is not between feminists and anti- feminists. There are feminists who develop the psychoanalytic tradition as well as those who develop Wollstonecraft's.


Revolution in the streets

(¶65)   The French revolution as we have discussed it so far was an affair of parliamentary debate and the construction of an academic paper on human rights and politics. It did not long remain that way. On July 14th 1789 an event took place that has remained the symbol of the revolution and has made July 14th the national holiday of modern France. The Paris masses stormed the Bastille, a prison in which they believed arms were being stored to suppress the revolution. A few days later, on July 17th, the popular uprising spread to the fields of France. In the countryside people began burning the records on which their lords based their claims for "feudal" dues. C.L.R. James, a West Indian marxist historian, does not date the start of the French Revolution from its parliamentary stage, he says that the revolution started when the Paris masses stormed the Bastille (James, C.L.R. 1938/1980 p.61). Another historian, Hilaire Belloc, divides the revolution into stages. His first stage begins with the States General, the second on July 17th with the peasants and the third stage on October 6th with the women of Paris. (Belloc, H. 1911)

Women on the streets

(¶66)   Parliament was male, but when the revolution took to the streets it often did so through women. On October 5th 1789 women marched from Paris to the King's palace at Versailles to complain about the lack of bread. On the 6th October they marched back to Paris - bringing the King and Queen with them. From then on the monarchy was trapped by the people. Why were women so forward in street protest? Olwen Hufton and other historians have suggested that it was because they were women and because women were the centre of their families. When times got tough the man might stay away from home or leave altogether. A mother would almost certainly stay with the children and do everything in her power to care for them.

(¶67)   What seems to have happened in the French Revolution is that traditional forms of protest about food prices merged into new, political protests. The traditional forms of protest were women's protests, and so women were in the forefront of the new protests. Traditionally there was the idea of a fair price for food and if the prices went out of reach of ordinary families a blind eye was turned to riots in which women seized stocks and sold them at the fair price. If the people who did this were mothers with children depending on the food, they were rarely prosecuted.

(¶68)   The painful note of hunger ran through the revolution as a sombre undertone to the high notes of politics. When bread was the issue, the mothers of France led the protests. But affordable bread was demand that political theory could not cope with. The revolutionary politicians of the National Assembly saw free market economics as the progressive economics of the future. Demands for price fixing sounded to them like an appeal for a return to the bad old days . The arguments that arose from the streets of Paris presented to the ears of the National Assembly a strange cacophony of reactionary and radical. The music of the streets seemed to beckon back into the past at the same time as it summoned the future.

Political women

(¶69)   As well as the large numbers of women whose bread riots developed into revolution, there were a small number of women who applied the principles of the revolution to women. We have already discussed the English writer, Mary Wollstonecraft. In France, the woman whose writings seem closest to Wollstonecraft's in this respect, was Olympe de Gouges. Where Wollstonecraft moved from a Vindication of the Rights of Man to a Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Olympe de Gouges moved from the Declaration of the Rights of Man to a Declaration of the Rights of Woman.

Olympe de Gouges

(¶70)   Olympe de Gouges was a young widow who taught herself to write. She began to write in 1780 and published her memoirs in 1784. She published her first political pamphlet in November 1788 and numerous political writings followed. Her vivid imagination overcame the disadvantages of her bad spelling and poor punctuation and her meaning forced its way through her unorthodox prose. An enthusiastic writer of plays, she was also a champion of freedom for slaves. In December 1789 her play on The Slavery of Black People was performed in a Paris theatre (the Maison de Moliere), but the audience hissed it and it had to be taken off after three performances

Biography: See Olympe de Gouges   Olivier Blanc   Levy, D. 1979,   Kelly, L. 1987 p.36,   Proctor, C.E. 1990 Chapter 3, p.45;   Rendall, J. 1985 p.45;   Tomalin, C. 1974 p.195).

She believed passionately that the philosophy of natural freedom, that inspired the Declaration of the Rights of Man, should apply equally to every human being. Her writings combine the image of family embracing the whole of humanity with that of a social contract establishing the law of reason for the whole of humanity. It was natural, therefore, for her pamphlet on the rights of women to embrace the family, the nation as a family, and human beings of all colours as one family. In relation to slavery, she wrote

"A divine hand seems to spread liberty abroad throughout the realms of man; only the law has the right to curb this liberty if it degenerates into license, but it must be equal for all."
The National Assembly must, she argued, count slaves as men who (according to its own Declaration of the Rights of Man) were free by nature, and should be set free by law. "Liberty" she said "must hold the National Assembly to its decree".

(¶71)   Like Rousseau, Olympe de Gouges was very aware of the link that people have to biological nature through sex, child bearing and child-rearing. Unlike Rousseau, however, she wanted the law to make both parents responsible for their children. She wanted a "Social Contract Between Man and Woman". This legally binding contract would say

"We intend and wish to make our wealth communal, mutually recognising that our property belongs directly to our children, from whatever bed they come."

In other words, children conceived as a result of sex that either partner engaged in with any person would have rights within the family, and a claim on its common wealth.

Olympe de Gauges was officially the daughter of a butcher. She believed, however, that she was biologically the illegitimate daughter of a minor noble and man of letters. This consciousness of mixed parentage made her particularly sensitive to the problems of people of mixed parentage in the West Indies. Most of these were the descendants of a white male slave owner and a black woman slave. They were called mulattos, from the Spanish for a young mule, and it was their problems that received the greatest publicity in Paris during the early years of the revolution.

The place of the mountains

(¶72)   In 1789 a large part of the wealth of France came from the sugar plantations of French St Domingo in the West Indies. This is the part of the island that is now Haiti. The other part of the island was then Spanish St Domingo, and is now the Dominican Republic.

For simplicity's sake I will refer to French San Domingo as Haiti from now on. Haiti is the original Indian name for the island. It means the place of the mountains, and it was adopted as the name for the ex-French colony when it declared independence in January 1804. Haiti was the first black-led country to establish itself by breaking away from European colonial rule.

The children of black and white sex

(¶73)   At the time of the French Revolution, society in Haiti was a pyramid of fear. The top of the pyramid was rich white people, beneath them were poor white people and rich and poor people of mixed race, beneath them were the black slaves. It was a delicate structure in that the controls keeping people of mixed race in their place could not be undermined without undermining the authority which kept the black slaves in their place. And if the black slaves did not stay in their place the people of France would have no sugar, merchants of France would lose profits, and the government of France would lose taxes.

(¶74)   Nine out of ten people in Haiti in 1789 were slaves. Most of the slaves were black, some were of mixed race. Of the remaining tenth, the free people, roughly half were white and half were of mixed race, but there were some free people who were black. Those white people who were rich tended to have more tenuous links to Haiti than any other group. The planters who owned the sugar cane plantations often returned to France on visits or to retire, whilst government officials held their posts for a limited time. (Logan, R.W. 1963 pp 17, 19, 21). The people of mixed race, the mulattos, were largely the offspring of sexual relations between a white man and a black woman. The degree of their blackness varied considerably, and Haiti society had terms for a large number of variations. The smallest drop of African blood made one a mulatto, and set one apart from white society. Some mulattoes were very rich and owned many slaves. Mulattoes were said to own a third of the land and the slaves in Haiti at the time of the revolution. But however rich a mulatto was, he or she was treated as a lower class of being to a white person. The numerous rules of conduct that rubbed in this inferiority sustained the hierarchy of fear that maintained the slavery of the majority black population. When black slaves belonging to mulatto owners served at table, they would see that white visitors did not eat at the same table as their mulatto hosts, however rich. If the presence of a small amount of African blood could demean their masters so, how much lower in the hierarchy of creation were they whose skins were really black?

Mulattos claim rights

(¶75)   The first struggle over skin colour that impressed itself on the minds of the people of France was not a struggle between black slaves and their owners, but the struggle of the free mulattos to be treated as the equals of whites. Black slaves were out of sight in the West Indies, the free people of colour sent representatives to Paris, in fact, some already lived there. On October 22nd 1789, two weeks after the Paris women brought the king from Versailles, free people of mixed race from Haiti came to the French Assembly to ask it to recognise their rights as men. The leader of the delegation was Julien Raimond, a distinguished Parisian lawyer of mixed race. Another member was Vincent Oge, who led an insurrection on the island after the claims of the people of mixed race were eventually rejected. The month after the mulatto delegation was heard, a widespread persecution of people of mixed race began in Haiti. (James, C.L.R. 1938/1980 p.60, pp 64 following and 73 following)

(¶76)   In May 1791, during debates on a proposed Constitution for the French colonies, the Assembly heard evidence from people of mixed race about the evils of race prejudice in Haiti. Although there was growing support in France for the claims for equality of mixed race people, there was also much opposition to this from those who argued that, however unjust, the discrimination against mixed race people was necessary to retain social stability in the colonies. As one deputy put it later

"This regime is absurd, but it is established and one cannot handle it roughly without unloosing the greatest disorder." (Barnave 23.9.1791 quoted James, C.L.R. 1938/1980 p.80).
On May 15th the Assembly accepted a compromise. It resolved that every mulatto whose parents were both free should have a vote. There were about 400 of these. In explanatory notes the assembly condemned slavery in principle but said that the Declaration of the Rights of Man could not be extended to slaves without producing the greatest evils. (Davis, D.B. 1975 p.144, James, C.L.R. 1938/1980 p.78)

(¶77)   In Haiti, the white population considered that France had betrayed them by supporting the equality of free people of colour, and there was talk of seeking an alliance with England. Before long, however, a far greater challenge faced the white population of Haiti.

Flight to Varennes and Massacre of Champ de Mars:

(¶78)   On June 21st 1791 King Louis 16 attempted to escape from France. He was stopped at Varennes and brought back to Paris. France divided into republicans and monarchists. The monarchists, perhaps, believing the official line that the king had been abducted, against his will, by the enemies of the revolution (Rude, G. 1988 p.75). The streets of Paris were not convinced. The king's flight led to popular protests calling for a new head to the executive. On July 16th a meeting in Paris calling, in effect, for the king's abdication, was dispersed by the National Guard. About 60 petitioners were killed and 200 arrested. In the French Assembly the immediate result of this was to strengthen the hand of those members who supported the king, and these tended to be members who supported the status quo in the colonies. (James, C.L.R. 1938/1980 p.79, Rude, G. 1959 Chapter 6)

Revolution of the slaves

(¶79)   On August 22nd 1791 there was an uprising of the slaves in Haiti. For three weeks a negro uprising, burning the sugar cane, killing all whites except priests and surgeons, and raping the white women (James, C.L.R. 1938/1980 pp 87-88). Toussaint L'Ouverture, a slave who had managed all the livestock on his master's estate, joined the negro insurgents one month after the revolt had begun. He helped to give the insurrection political and military direction. (James, C.L.R. 1938/1980; Stoddard, T.L. 1914; Tyson, G.F. 1973)

Mulattoes lose rights

(¶80)   On 24th September the decree of 15.5.1791, which gave a vote to some people of colour, was rescinded by the Constituent Assembly. The opponents of votes for mulattoes agreed that it was unjust to deprive free people of colour of a vote, but argued that the balance of power in the colonies was so delicate that any disturbance of it would lead to a breakdown of order. They were too late. When the news of the rescindment reach Haiti it fuelled the fire. In one province the mulattoes aroused their slaves to insurrection against the whites. In another the whites armed their slaves against the mulattoes (Davis, D.B. 1975 p.144).

Votes for men and a declaration of rights for women

(¶81)   In September 1791 the new Constitution was adopted. This gave a vote to men with a minimum of income or property. Under it about 60% of French men had the vote. Whilst the constitution was being debated, Olympe de Gouges was writing her Declaration of the Rights of Woman. She was printing it when the King was persuaded to accept the new Constitution, and she added a paragraph to express her delight at this [See extracts]. Olympe de Gouges remained a constitutional monarchist for the rest of her life. In fact she was executed two years later because of her monarchism.

(¶82)   These are some short extracts from Declaration of the Rights of Woman:

"The mothers, daughters, sisters, representatives of the nation, ask to constitute a National Assembly. Considering that ignorance, forgetfulness or contempt of the rights of women are the sole causes of public miseries, and of corruption of governments...".
"1 Woman is born free and remains equal to man in rights. Social distinctions can be based only on common utility.".
"2 The aim of every political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man and woman...".
"3 The source of all sovereignty resides essentially in the Nation, which is nothing but the joining together of Man and Woman...".
"17 Ownership of property is for both sexes, mutually and separately; it is for each a sacred and inviolable right...".
"Postscript : Women, wake up! The alarm bell of reason is making itself heard throughout the universe; recognize your rights...O women! women, when will you stop being blind? What advantages have you received from the revolution?" .


(¶83)   The new Legislative Assembly, elected under the Constitution of 1791, first met in October 1791. One of the new members, Brissot, was very influential in calling for an armed crusade against the kings of Europe. Brissot was also a member of the Friends of the Negro, and a strong supporter of equal rights for the free people of colour in the colonies.

Toussaint L'Ouverture resolves to fight for all.

(¶84)   In November 1791 Commissioners from France arrived in Haiti to try to restore order. At first the slave leaders, including Toussaint L'Ouverture, tried to bargain their freedom for the re-enslavement of their followers. In December the white colonial government refused the bargain and Toussaint L'Ouverture resolved to fight for complete liberty for all, to be achieved by their own strength. (James, C.L.R. 1938/1980 pp 103-107)

The Brissotins wage war and grant rights

(¶85)   In March 1792 Brissot and his friends, often called the Girondins, were called on to form a new French ministry. Within days the Legislative Assembly, by a large majority, had passed a decree giving full political rights to all men of colour in the colonies, except slaves, and this became law on April 4th (James, C.L.R. 1938/1980 p.115). On April 20th France declared war on Austria and this led to war with Prussia as well.

The king imprisoned and most men get a vote

(¶86)   Once France was at war, the influence of street demonstrations on government became more powerful because of popular fear of traitors within the country. On August 10th 1792 the Paris masses stormed the Tuileries and imprisoned the royal family. As a result of this people power, the Legislative Assembly was replaced (the following September) by a Convention that was elected by (almost) universal male suffrage. Every adult man apart from workers living in furnished rooms and domestic servants had a vote. In early September 1792 the election of the Convention, by almost universal male suffrage, took place at the same time as the defeat of the French army at Verdun and at the same time that crowds massacred over 1,000 prisoners in Paris. The new Convention, on 22.9.1792, abolished the monarchy and established a republic.

The move towards a more popular democracy had consequences both for French feminists and for West Indian slaves. For slaves it was to mean their liberation, for feminists, division and defeat.

Haiti whites split

(¶87)   Three commissioners from France arrived in Haiti in mid September to enforce the decree of April 4th granting free men of colour a vote. Early in October news of the imprisonment of the king reached Haiti and the French fell out over it. The commissioners were loyal to the republic, whilst the Colonial Assembly was loyal to the king. The Commissioners dissolved the Colonial Assembly and assumed full control over the colony. Haiti was becoming increasingly split by internal war and, secretly, the British government began to consider taking it over.

1793: King executed

(¶88)   On January 21st 1793 Louis Capet, the ex- king, was executed. For the Republic there was now no turning back.

The Street Theatre of Fear and Hunger

(¶89)   One of the ways that the revolution became more popular, or closer to the people, was through the multiplication of clubs for discussion and the participation (lawful or otherwise) of the ordinary people in the activities of parliament, local councils and the courts. In 1793 the activities of the revolutionary people in clubs, on the streets, in revolutionary courts and before the local and national parliaments became a leading feature of political development. Paris became the stage for a daily political street theatre in which anyone could participate. During 1793, Paris was faced by an acute shortage of food brought on by the war and inflation. People called Les Enrages emerged as leaders of the common people (the sans-culottes). Les Enrages, who included a feminist actress Claire Lacombe, wanted the government to bring in strict economic controls and to execute anyone profiteering from the food shortages. Claire Lacombe, Pauline Leon and other women formed an all women Republican Club which took aggressive action to promote the Enrage's aims. Their aggressive action was often directed against other women. The political action of women, arising out of the food crisis, was something the authorities feared. In February, because of this fear, the Jacobin Club refused the use of its meeting hall to women who wanted to discuss measures against food hoarding and scarcity. The Jacobins were worried that a massive women's protest could lead to "disorder in Paris". (Levy, D. 1979 p.144)

Revolutionary Government

(¶90)   On March 3rd 1793 a Revolutionary Tribunal was set up to try people accused of counter-revolution, including offenses against the unity and indivisibility of the Republic and plots tending to re-establish the Monarchy. The war was going badly for France. During March the French army was defeated in Belgium and its leader, General Dumouriez, began a plan of his own to march on Paris and restore the Constitutional monarchy under the Constitution of 1789. His army would not march, and in early April General Dumouriez deserted to the Austrians. On April 6th a Committee of Public Safety was formed to oversee the government of France. The Convention elected it for a month at a time.

(¶91)   On 2 May a deputation of 10,000 people went to the Convention to demand price control; women from Versailles rioted in the Convention and refused to leave the building. Reluctantly the Convention voted the first law of the Maximum which controlled the price of bread and flour throughout the country (Rude, G. 1959 p.119). Popular societies had to be registered with the municipal authorises. On May 5th The Society of Revolutionary Republican Women was registered with the Commune of Paris.

Brissotins purged

(¶92)   Between May 31st 1793 and June 6th Brissot's party (known as the Girondins) in the Convention was pushed out of power by the party of Robespierre (known as the Jacobins). This was the result of a planned insurrection coordinated by the Sections, the National Guard, the Jacobin organisation, the popular societies and the Enrages. The Society of Revolutionary Republican Women played prominent roles in these events. They stood guard at the doors of the Convention, refusing to admit Girondins and pursuing any who fled. (Levy, D. 1979 p.143)

One and undivided

(¶93)   The new Constitution of 1793 was voted in on June 24th: although it remained a paper constitution, and was never put into practice. It provided for a popular democracy, with plebiscites for every law. The separation of powers, which had been a feature of the Locke's idea of political freedom, was replaced with the idea that the will of the people, expressed through the constitution, was one and indivisible.

From Charlotte Corday to the Terror

(¶94)   During the spring of 1793, Jean Paul Marat become the hero of the poorer people of Paris (Rude, G.1959 p.119). His newspaper promoted their cause with vehemence. In February, when there were riots throughout Paris over the price of goods in grocer's shops, Marat's paper recommended the rioters to hang a number of grocers by the neck over their own doorsteps (Rude, G.1959 p.118). Such instant execution were spoken of as "speedy revolutionary justice".

In June, Marat had provided the rioters with the names of the Girondin deputies who were to be purged. On 13th July 1793 Marat was assassinated by Charlotte Corday, a young woman from Caen who had come to Paris to avenge the defeat of the Girondins. She was guillotined, and the body of Marat was given a state funeral. Marat's assassination was followed by the arrest of a large number of "moderates", including that of Olympe de Gouges on 26th July.

(¶95)   Four weeks after Marat's funeral the Revolutionary Republican Women staged their own procession to honour his memory (Kelly, L.1987 p.102). By September 1793, several hundred members were meeting in their club. Levy says that the Society had now reached the apex of its strength. In the atmosphere of suspicion that ruled in Paris, the society promoted fear of others and, at the same time, was suspected of harbouring traitors. On September 16th a meeting of the Jacobin Club called on the Revolutionary Women to rid themselves by a purifying vote of the suspect women who control the Society, and an amendment was put that Citoyenne Lacombe should be taken immediately before the Committee of General Security (Levy, D. 1979 p.146). The passage by the Convention, on the following day, of the Law against suspected persons marks the legal start of what history knows as The Terror. Part of the definition of a suspect was anyone who has shown himself as a partisan of tyranny or federation; anyone who cannot prove that he has performed his civic duties. Any such suspect could be sent before the revolutionary tribunal (Lowes Dickinson, G. 1927 p.32). Between October 1st 1793 and June 6th 1794, 1,165 people were condemned by the Revolutionary Tribunal in Paris and guillotined: An average of 32 a week. Marie-Antoinette, the ex-Queen, appeared before the court on October 14th, she was guillotined on the 16th.

Symbols of patriotism

(¶96)   Conflict between women in Paris broke out on the morning of October 28th 1793. Several women were in the market and elsewhere wearing tight trousers and a red cap of liberty. It was said that they wanted to force other women to wear the same costume. The women in red caps provoked a larger counter-demonstration. Nearly six thousand women gathered. agreement that violence and threats would not make them dress in a costume they respected but which they believed was intended for men (Amar report: Levy, D. 1979 pp 213-214). The Convention on September 21st had passed a decree that all women should wear a ribbon with the three colours of the revolution. Any who did not could be imprisoned for eight days and then, on a second offence, taken before the Revolutionary Tribunal as a suspect. The conflict, therefore, was over the symbols of loyalty that women were to wear. In addition to the tricolour, the Revolutionary Republican Women wore the red cap of liberty and trousers as symbols of their loyalty to the Revolution. The majority of women saw this as cross dressing. They were not going to appear in men's clothes! It is not clear from the reports to what extent the conflicts were provoked by antagonism from the majority to the cross-dressing of the minority, or by efforts by the Republican Women to persuade other women to wear red caps. However, some calm was restored and the mobs dispersed. That evening, however, the same disturbance broke out with greater violence. A brawl started. Several self-proclaimed Revolutionary Women were roughed up. Some members of the crowd indulged themselves in acts of violence towards them which decency ought to have proscribed. (Amar report: Levy, D. 1979 pp 213-214).

What is a woman?

(¶97)   Interesting though these conflicts are, the significance of the events lies even more in the response of the authorities. There was a general discussion of the role of women in society and official decisions about what that role should be. The French Parliament decided what a women should be.

(¶98)   On October 29th the National Convention discussed the participation of women in politics and, in particular, the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women. The Jacobin deputy Fabre d'Eglantine insisted that these clubs are not composed of mothers of families, daughters of families, sisters occupied with their younger brothers or sisters, but rather of adventuresses, knights-errant, emancipated women, female grenadiers (Hunt L. 1992 p.119)

Defeat for feminism

(¶99)   That night the Committee of General Security, chaired by Jean-Baptiste Amar, spent the night receiving deputations, listening to various reports which were made to it, and taking measures to maintain public order. Amar must have been very tired when he presented to the Convention, the next day (30th October), a report that not only said what had happened, but elaborated, at length, the role that women should play in society and made recommendations. Here is part of what it said:

"The private functions to which women are destined by nature itself are related to the general order of society; this social order results from the difference between man and woman. Each sex is called to the kind of occupation which is proper for it...Man is strong, robust, born with great energy, audacity and courage...In general, women are not capable of elevated thoughts and serious meditations, and if, among ancient peoples, their natural timidity and modesty did not allow them to appear outside their families, then in the French Republic do you want them to be seen coming to the bar, to the tribune, and to political assemblies as men do?"

The deputies did not. They outlawed women's clubs. (Hunt L. 1992 p.119)

Death of Olympe de Gouges

(¶100)   On November 3rd 1793 Olympe de Gouges was guillotined. As she mounted the steps she called out to the generations to come:

"children of the fatherland, you will avenge my death."
She had often written that the victory of her ideas would be the work of distant posterity, and she died with the same conviction on her lips. The crowds watching then, saw a monarchist who they thought had betrayed the republic. They waved their hats in the air and shouted "Vive la Republique", as her head was sliced from her body. (Levy, D. 1979 p.259)

1794: Victory for the slaves

(¶101)   C.L.R. James argues that with each radicalisation of the revolution in France, opposition to slavery grew stronger. He quotes a letter from Paris to San Domingo on August 11th 1794 which said that

"One spirit alone reigns here, it is horror of slavery and enthusiasm for liberty. It is a frenzy which wins all heads and grows every day".
On February 3rd 1794 three deputies from Haiti, a negro (Bellay), a mulatto (Mills) and a white (Dufay), were admitted as members of the French Parliament (the Convention). Bellay delivered a speech against the Counter- Revolutionary nature of the white colonists, and ended by
"imploring the Convention to vouchsafe to the colonies full enjoyment of the blessings of liberty and equality."

(¶102)   On February 4th 1794 slavery was abolished in the French colonies. A deputy called Levasseur said

"I demand that the Convention, yielding, not to a moment of enthusiasm, but to the principles of justice, and faithful to the Declaration of the Rights of Man, decree that from this moment slavery is abolished throughout the territory of the Republic. San Domingo is part of this territory; - nevertheless, there are still slaves. "
Another deputy, Lacroix, said
"When we drew up the Constitution of the French people we did not direct our gaze upon the unhappy negroes. Posterity will severely censure us for that fact. Let us now repair this fault. Let us proclaim the liberty of the negroes...President, do not suffer the Convention to dishonour itself by a discussion."
The Assembly rose by acclamation and its President pronounced the abolition of slavery amid great applause. After some discussion of the wording of the intended decree, Lacroix got the following resolution carried:
"The National Convention declares slavery abolished in all the colonies. In consequence it decrees that all men, without distinction of colour, domiciled in the said colonies, are French citizens and enjoy all the rights assured under the Constitution." (James, C.L.R. 1938/1980 p.141)

(¶103)   The extent to which the freedom of slaves had become part of the drama of the revolution in Paris is illustrated by its celebration, a few weeks later, in the Temple of Reason (Notre Dame). The attorney general of Paris, Anaxagoras Chaumette, embraced coloured citizens; someone raised a black child high in the air as the drums rolled and the soldiers marched.

"With tears in their eyes the people lifted the arms of the coloured citizens and shouted Vive la Republique! Vive la France!" (Davis, D.B. 1975 p.148)

(¶104)   Early in May 1794 news of the abolition of slavery by France reached Toussaint in Haiti and on May 6th he and his army deserted the Spanish to join the French. In 1797 Toussaint L'Ouverture was made Commander in Chief of the Island by the French Convention. He drove out British and Spaniards and restored order and prosperity. Under Napoleon, however, his fortunes changed. In 1802 he was arrested and taken to France, where he died in prison in 1803. Napoleon's victory was temporary, however. When news reached Haiti that the French were restoring slavery and the discriminations against free people of colour, it precipitated a new rebellion. In the Autumn of 1803 the French were forced to evacuate Haiti by black led armies and on January 1st 1804 the first ever black republic established: called Haiti as it had been before European conquest.

(¶105)   The theoretical issues that appeared to have taken over the world in 1789 are living issues today, so this is a essay without an end, and I must leave you to continue writing it. The French revolution did not end with the victory of the Haitian slaves, any more than it ended with the defeat of feminism, or with the dictatorship of Napoleon 1st.

chapter 1
Empiricism, Theory and Imagination chapter 2
Hobbes, Filmer, Locke chapter 3
What is Science? chapter 4
Can Theory Redesign Society? chapter 5
Social Science and the 1834 Poor Law chapter 6
Durkheim and Weber's Contrasting Imaginations

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chapter 1
Empiricism, Theory and Imagination chapter 2
Hobbes, Filmer, Locke chapter 3
What is Science? chapter 4
Can Theory Redesign Society? chapter 5
Social Science and the 1834 Poor Law chapter 6
Durkheim and Weber's Contrasting Imaginations

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chapter 1
Empiricism, Theory and Imagination chapter 2
Hobbes, Filmer, Locke chapter 3
What is Science? chapter 4
Can Theory Redesign Society? chapter 5
Social Science and the 1834 Poor Law chapter 6
Durkheim and Weber's Contrasting Imaginations

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authority: pars 44, 49, 50, 51, 59, 60, 62, 73,


force creates no legitimacy/right par. 37 - par. 44


general ideas par. 27

General Will:
pars 19 to 37

generalities (not particulars) par. 25

pars 38, 40 and 44

Friedrich Hegel

Immanuel Kant

mutual harmony of men and women: par. 51

particular interests (particular will) par. 20 - par. 25

particulars (not generalities) par. 25

particular wills versus the general will par. 32

plaything of another's thought: par. 50

virginity: par. 55

  French Revolution weblinks