The origins and nature of anti-slavery are important stakes in rival attempts to appropriate abolitionism’s perceived ‘moral capital’. The British celebration of last year’s bicentenary of the 1807 suppression of the Atlantic slave trade, Mitterrand’s invocation of French Revolutionary emancipation in 1989 and, no doubt, the claims that will be made for Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, in 2009—the bicentennial of his birth—are all cases in point. These commemorations are instructively selective: 2007 was also the bicentenary of the us suppression of its Atlantic slave trade, but this passed almost without mention (the 1607 founding of Jamestown was instead celebrated at an event which brought together the British Queen and the us president). The British government was content to commemorate slave-trade suppression but ignored the tercentenary of the 1707 Act of Union between Scotland and England—a touchy subject, given the nationalist administration in Edinburgh. Haiti’s own plans to celebrate the Republic’s bicentenary in 2004 were, of course, rudely terminated when us and French special forces deposed the country’s president.

Louis Sala-Molins’s Dark Side of the Light: Slavery and the French Enlightenment first appeared in French in 1992, and sets out to puncture the balloon of self-congratulation puffed up by French officialdom, from Mitterrand down, during the bicentenary. Rather than piecing together a narrative, the book mounts an iconoclastic assault on the anti-slavery and anti-racist credentials of the Enlightenment and Revolution. Sala-Molins’s critique does not take the form of an Adornoesque or Foucauldian questioning of the enthronement of Reason or Knowledge. It insists, instead, that the Enlightenment’s best exponents—and the Revolution’s most radical moments—fell far short of the universal principles they had themselves expounded. This extended essay contains three core chapters entitled ‘Condorcet “Lamenting”’, ‘The Market of Equals’ and ‘Of Men and (Under)Dogs’, which engage a variety of Enlightenment figures and texts—Condorcet’s Réflexions sur l’esclavage des nègres, the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the French abolitionist society Les Amis des Noirs, among others. Sala-Molins ends by turning to the spectacle of the 1989 bicentennial celebrations in Paris, sharply denouncing the Mitterrand government’s self-congratulatory invocation of the Lumières: ‘Simplistically conveyed to the public from float to float the achievement of the Enlightenment was clear: the blacks were nothing; France made them into human beings’.

Slavery is an ancient institution, known to most cultures and endorsed by classical philosophy and the established religions. The lot of most slaves has been unhappy or even wretched, but the plantation slavery of the New World was peculiarly intense, partly because it was strongly racialized and partly because it was yoked to the potent new forces and rhythms of accumulation and consumer capitalism. In the late 16th century Jean Bodin observed that the common people had an aversion to the institution; but up to the 1760s there was no clear rejection of it by philosophers or theologians. The first text categorically to repudiate slavery as a social category was a chapter by the Scottish jurist, George Wallace, in a book entitled A System of the Principles of the Laws of Scotland (1760); translated and lightly edited, the chapter appeared as the entry under ‘Esclavage’ in the Encyclopédie. A more detailed indictment of the slave trade and its baleful influence on Africa was made by Anthony Benezet, a Quaker, around the same time, and John Wesley published his highly critical Thoughts upon Slavery in 1774. In the French and Spanish-speaking worlds an apparently fierce anti-slavery message was to be found in the Abbé Raynal’s much-reprinted Histoire des Deux Mondes (1770). A passage of this book, authored by Denis Diderot and Jean de Pechemeja, looked forward to the time when a black Spartacus would arise in the New World to avenge the wrongs done to his people.

Yet there was something incomplete, even shallow, about much late 18th-century anti-slavery. Wesley urged his anti-slavery arguments on planters, hoping that they would respond by freeing their bondspeople. The patriots in North America paid no attention to the slaves. Thomas Paine is thought to have been behind Pennsylvania’s Emancipation Law—more properly Free Womb law—of 1780, which freed children born to slave mothers once they had reached the age of twenty-eight. But slavery was quite marginal in this state, and by 1787 the Constitution had recognized the slaveholders at Federal level as well as in the slave states. Since many leaders of the Revolution were men of the Enlightenment, their failure to make a breakthrough against slavery where it mattered—in the plantation zone—signalled a yawning gulf between words and deeds. British abolitionists were not put to such a severe test, since they were not founding a new state. But they hoped to respond to the challenge of the American Revolution by taking decisive steps against slavery in the New World. Believing that ending the Atlantic slave trade would weaken slavery, and knowing that it would arouse less opposition, they preferred to focus on this rather than directly take up the cause of emancipation. The first wave of agitation against the slave trade was then cut off in the early 1790s by the Counter-Revolutionary panic, postponing success until after the Haitian Revolution of 1804 and delaying any campaign for slave emancipation in the Anglophone world until the 1820s and 1830s.

The radical patriots and evangelicals who animated abolitionism, whether British or American, were both to be blocked. The challenge was left, then, to the protagonists of the French Enlightenment and Revolution. When tackling slavery the philosophes were too often satisfied with a rhetorical flourish that had no specific programmatic character. In the Esprit des Lois Montesquieu had parodied the colonists’ racialist justifications for slavery. But irony by itself is an over-rated arm of critique—it did not lead anywhere and was even adopted at face value by some pro-slavery apologists. Montesquieu, as a former president of the Bordeaux parlement, was motivated as much by distrust of the unruly and disobedient French colons, with their preference for contraband trade with North America at the expense of the merchants of the Gironde, as by any abolitionist inclinations.

Sala-Molins mentions en passant Voltaire’s racial fantasies, which compromised his anyway not-very-robust critique of slavery. Indeed a pervasive, though not necessarily modern, racialist sentiment contributed to blunting abolitionism’s impact. Abolitionists discounted traditional justifications for slavery, notably the belief held by some Jewish, Muslim and Christian biblical interpreters that the curse pronounced by Noah on Canaan, or the ‘sons of Ham’, provided grounds for the enslavement of an entire descent group. But they were still prone to paternalistic notions of wild and heathenish Africans, or, if ‘enlightened’, to pseudo-scientific notions supposedly distinguishing a hierarchy of races, with blacks relegated to the lowest rung (Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze has edited a volume entitled Race and the Enlightenment which brings together many examples). Dark Side of the Light takes as its starting point a 1971 work by Michèle Duchet, Anthropologie et histoire au siècle des Lumières, that analysed and documented this phenomenon. It is probably true that racial notions did somewhat more to weaken secular than religious versions of anti-slavery; though commitment to the sacred rights of property and supreme claims of national interest also played their part.

But in addition to the timid, equivocal or rhetorical species of abolitionism the French Enlightenment also struck some bolder notes, and produced at least one detailed plan for ending slavery not just in areas where it was marginal—such as Pennsylvania—but in the plantation zone. Moreover Enlightenment thought was to become entangled with the unfolding of the great French Revolution, and with a subsequent radicalization of the notion of human rights. Condorcet, who outlined a scheme for gradually abolishing slavery in his Réflexions sur l’esclavage des nègres (1780) and helped found the Amis des Noirs, is a key figure here. As first a member of the National Assembly, and later as its president, he was an outstanding political as well as intellectual leader. A proponent of the rights of women, Jews and blacks, and advocate of universal social insurance, he is an attractive figure—but in Sala-Molins’s view, still a radically flawed prophet of enlightenment.