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Politics & Views

His convictions

Slavery and Colonies
« The point is not whether slavery is wicked and ought to be ended but when and how best to put an end to it. »
(Report of the Commission on Slaves in the Colonies, 1839)

Tocqueville had barely entered the Chamber of Deputies in 1839 when he was called on to take part in the discussion of the problem of the abolition of slavery, which had become a burning question in France since the emancipation of blacks had become a reality in British colonies on January 1, 1838. These conditions made it difficult for France to uphold slavery in its colonies of Guadeloupe, Martinique, La Réunion and Guyana, as these territories were surrounded by British colonies.
Since his trip to the United States, Tocqueville had been firmly convinced that slavery was not only a scandal in itself, but was also a blight on society. As he crossed the southern part of the States, he seemed to have been profoundly shocked by the condition of slaves and their treatment at the hands of whites, who nevertheless boasted of their extremely Puritan ideology. His travel notes also prove that he predicted that the question of slavery would be the source of vast conflict pitting slave States against abolitionist States. Gustave de Beaumont, his traveling companion, even wrote a novel on the subject - entitled Marie, or Slavery in the United States - and it appears that the topic was a constant source of discussion between the two men during their voyage.

« Slavery is one of those institutions that will last a thousand years if no one asks why it exists but almost impossible to maintain once that question is raised. »
(Report of the Commission on Slaves in the Colonies, 1839)

Thus, in 1839, when Tocqueville was appointed rapporteur to the Committee examining the question of the abolition of slavery, his opinion was already written in stone. The report that he submitted on July 23, 1839 was an unequivocal defense of the principle of an immediate, simultaneous emancipation of all blacks, and foresaw that, for a short, transitional period, the State would have to settle differences between the newly-freed slaves and their former owners. This was an original position, not because the concept of the abolition of slavery had not gained currency since the foundation of the duke de Broglie's Anti-Slavery Society in 1834 but rather because even those politicians who supported the idea espoused a progressive form of abolition in which slaves would be educated in the idea of freedom. Tocqueville refuted every argument of this sort in his report, which explained, in eminently Tocquevillian terms, that only the experience of freedom would teach the slave what it is to be free. He expressed it this way: "only the experience of freedom, a long-term freedom contained and directed by an energetic and moderate power, will suggest and give men opinions, virtues and customs worthy of citizens of a free country."

Political Figures

PTitle page of Marie, Gustave de Beaumont

Title page of Marie, Gustave de Beaumont
© AD Manche / A. Poirier

Portrait of a slave from Mauritius

Portrait of a slave from Mauritius, French school
© RMN / Droits réservés

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