In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section French Emancipation

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources
  • Journals
  • Antislavery in Pre-Revolutionary France
  • Napoleonic Consulate and Empire, 1802–1814
  • Independent Haiti
  • Restoration, 1814–1830
  • July Monarchy, 1830–1848
  • Emancipation and Memory

Atlantic History French Emancipation
Sue Peabody
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0253


France incorporated slavery in all of its early modern overseas colonies, including Canada, and was the first nation-state in the world to issue a general emancipation act (see the separate Oxford Bibliographies articles on French Atlantic World, the Haitian Revolution, Emancipation, and Abolition of Slavery). In fact, France abolished slavery twice, in 1794 and in 1848, each time in the midst of revolutionary turmoil. Yet the historical forces that prompted these two legislative acts were distinct. The 1794 decree (16 Pluviôse, Year 2) by the Constituent Assembly in Paris—which succeeded two decades of antislavery activism in the British and American contexts, but tepid antislavery activism in France itself—was prompted by the unfolding colonial slave revolt, weak colonial control, and incursions by Britain and Spain in Saint-Domingue. However, the resultant 1794 decree was implemented in only Saint Domingue, Guadeloupe, and Guyana; it remained a dead letter in Martinique, Senegal, Réunion, Ile de France (Mauritius), and French India. Slavery was restored throughout the French empire in 1802, with the exception of Saint-Domingue, which claimed its independence as Haiti, the world’s first black republic, founded by former slaves and their descendants. Antislavery sentiment slowly returned under the Restoration and the early, liberal phase of the July Monarchy, but ran up against the organized colonial lobby, which countered most abolitionist initiatives led by a small, relatively weak coterie in Paris. The 1848 emancipation, organized by the fervent antislavery activist Victor Schoelcher in Paris, was one of the first, decisive steps of a new republican government after decades of procrastination by the July Monarchy; but unlike Britain and America, it was not sustained by a large, populist antislavery movement. In contrast to the robust historiography of antislavery and emancipation in the Anglo-Atlantic over the past three quarters of a century, the abolition of slavery and the lingering legacies of slave emancipation in the French-speaking world have attracted significant attention only relatively recently. However, the recent anniversaries of France’s two emancipations—in 1793–1794 and, following Napoleonic restoration of slavery in 1802, in 1848—have recently prompted more sustained attention, as has the bicentennial of the Haitian Revolution, now understood as the first decolonization movement to successfully expel a major European power and replace it with local rule by formerly colonized people. This article is organized chronologically, from the emergence of antislavery ideology in the 18th century, through the Revolution and the first emancipation, to the second and definitive abolition of 1848. A final section on Emancipation and Memory examines the contested representation of France’s history of slavery and emancipation in the recent past.

General Overviews

As a rule, French historiography observes a sharp divide between the Ancien Régime, the Revolution, and the succeeding governments of the 19th century; to date, there is no comprehensive overview that addresses solely the two French abolitions of 1794 and 1848 in one monograph. Dorigny 1995 and Dorigny 2008 are rare attempts to address both events within a historical continuum. Blackburn 1988 remains a breakthrough interpretation of Atlantic emancipation. Drescher 2009 considers both French emancipations within the broader global history of abolition. For comprehensive studies of the 19th-century abolition movements, see Jennings 2000 and Schmidt 2001.

  • Blackburn, Robin. The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery: 1776–1848. London: Verso, 1988.

    NNNReprinted in 2011, this is the first major effort to present Atlantic emancipation from the 18th through the early 19th centuries as a continuum, comprising events in many imperial regimes across time. It sees the cascading sequence of antislavery measures as the product of political instability in the Atlantic world, featuring the two French revolutions (along with the American Revolution and Latin American independence movements) as key junctures for abolition and emancipation.

  • Dorigny, Marcel, ed. Les abolitions de l’esclavage: De L.F. Sonthonax à V. Schœlcher, 1793, 1794, 1848; Actes du colloque international tenu à l’Université de Paris VIII les 3, 4 et 5 février 1994. Saint-Dénis, France: Presses Universitaires de Vincennes, 1995.

    NNNA conference volume published during the bicentennial celebrations of the first abolition, this collection includes research by many of the foremost French scholars of French antislavery of this generation.

  • Dorigny, Marcel. Anti-esclavagisme, abolitionnisme et abolitions: Débats et controverses en France de la fin du XVIIIe siècle aux années 1840. Quebec: Presses de l’Université Laval, 2008.

    NNNThis slim (thirty-nine pages) booklet considers the continuities between France’s first and second abolitions.

  • Drescher, Seymour. Abolition: A History of Slavery and Antislavery. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511770555

    NNNDrescher’s magnificent synthesis is an essential starting place for the understanding of abolition as a worldwide historical phenomenon. His treatment of French emancipation is excellent to the point of his publication date (2009).

  • Jennings, Lawrence C. French Antislavery: The Movement for the Abolition of Slavery in France, 1802–1848. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    NNNJennings’s sequential narrative of 19th-century abolition focuses primarily on efforts within the government and formal antislavery lobbies in France.

  • Schmidt, Nelly. Abolitionnistes de l’esclavage et réformateurs des colonies, 1820–1851: Analyse et documents. Paris: Karthala, 2001.

    NNNSchmidt’s comprehensive twelve-hundred-page overview of French antislavery and emancipation in the second quarter of the 19th century is organized thematically and includes over six hundred pages of transcribed primary sources.

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