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28 April 2012

On this day in history: French abolished slavery for the second time, 1848

On 26th August 1789, just over a month after the fall of the Bastille, the National Constituent Assembly adopted The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. The first article of this document declared, "Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be based only on common utility." Despite this declaration of principle it was not until 4th February 1794, that the National Convention - then under the control of the Jacobins and at the height of the Revolutionary Terror - decreed that slavery be abolished in all French colonies:

The National Convention declares the abolition of Negro slavery in all the colonies; in consequence it decrees that all men, without distinction of colour, residing in the colonies are French citizens and will enjoy all the rights assured by the constitution.

Following the fall of Robespierre and the Jacobins, those that took over the reigns of government in France tried to undo what they saw as the excesses of the Revolution. As such, on 20th May 1802 the Consulate - with Napoleon elected as First Consul - reintroduced slavery to France and her colonies. Napoleon went on to become sole ruler of France until he was defeated and the Monarchy was restored.

In February 1848 the government of King Louis-Philippe I collapsed and a liberal provisional government declared the Second Republic. Two months later, the anti-slavery campaigner Victor Schoeler and president of the commission for the abolition of slavery oversaw the passage of the decree to end slavery in French territories for the second time. The first article read:

"Slavery will be completely abolished in all the colonies and the French possessions, two months after the promulgation of the present decree in each of them. From the promulgation of the present decree in colonies, any corporal punishment, any sale of not free persons, will be absolutely forbidden ."

The following primary sources are available online:

Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (26th August 1789) at the excellent Liberty, Equality, Fraternity pages

Decree of the National Convention of 4 February 1794, Abolishing Slavery in all the Colonies, also at Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

Decree of the abolition of the slavery (27th April 1848) at the History of Slavery in Martinique web site.

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