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"There Are No Slaves in France": The Political Culture of Race and Slavery in the Ancien Regime.

By Sue Peabody (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. x plus 210pp.).

Using a core of archival documents, judicial records and printed sources, "There Are No Slaves" delineates the struggle over the legal and cultural status of slavery and race in eighteenth-century France. At the micro-level it unearths wonderful stories like that of Catherine of Nantes, whose struggle for freedom illuminates otherwise hidden networks of black, and (less stressed) white French sympathizers in the struggle against enslavement. At the macro-level, it traces the development of juridical and governmental policy formation towards blacks and slaves as distinctive social groups in metropolitan France. It does so with a hitherto unmatched attention to changes from one decade to the next. It analyzes and deflates the re-invention of the tradition of the "Freedom Principle" ("any slave who sets foot in France is free") in a compelling way. Peabody's study forms part of a much larger project of recovering the historical relationship between Europeans and other peoples in the first great wave of European expansion between the late fifteenth and the late eighteenth centuries.

The strengths of this study are many and deserve explicit notice. The scholarship is outstanding. Archival resources are used extensively and skillfully. The data are clarified by the careful incorporation of many secondary literatures on the bureaucracy and various aspects of legal and cultural history. The author is always reassuringly sensitive to, and cautious about, the historicity of cultural concepts. The study is enriched by attention to the international comparative perspective - especially regarding the analogous British response in the same period.

"There Are No Slaves" shows the decisive role of institutional settings in creating a "French" response to slavery and racism in early modern Europe. The bureaucratic tensions inherent in "juridical" absolutism created ample opportunities for a century-long contestation over the meaning of freedom in France. Peabody details various ways in which France's traditions in Church and State created numerous possibilities for the invention of a "free soil" legal tradition. A multiplicity of courts of last resort created still further opportunities for ambiguity and conflict over the implementation of that tradition.

Peabody has accumulated valuable sets of bureaucratic data on slaves in France that are far less accessible to historians of slavery in England and Scotland (and probably absent from the Netherlands as well). She uses acts of manumission, registers of free and slave blacks in Paris, and legal discussions of attempts to repatriate blacks from France to the colonies. These separate data sets have enabled the author to delineate the range of the choices and constraints affecting black slaves in France, as well as their masters, lawyers, magistrates and the French monarchs themselves.

Chronologically organized, "No Slaves" also shows how, in the relative absence of a free press or a parliamentary system, the judicial system operated as a rough indicator of emerging antislavery and racialist "public opinions" in eighteenth-century France. Slavery, as Peabody (citing Levi-Strauss) notes, is "good for thinking." It is also good for historicizing. It is invaluable as an indicator of the radicalization of political culture in the generation before the French Revolution. Both antislavery and racial boundaries became more strongly embedded in French political culture in the volatile decades before the Revolution. Peabody also demonstrates the resilience of racism in a post-revolutionary epilogue. Restorations of colonial slavery and racial legislation occurred as soon as the revolutionary moment had passed.

Peabody deftly weaves together two themes of great value to historians of France, of European imperialism, and of the Atlantic slave system. She convincingly addresses the paradox of the coincidental emergence of systematic political antislavery and racism in the western world. Historians who study these two phenomena separately tend to miss the full significance of that paradox. Through a sequence of institutional confrontations and arguments over the fate of individual blacks, the author shows a complementary articulation of these two major emerging concerns of modern Western culture. Ranging only as far afield as her sharply focused story requires, "There Are No Slaves" compellingly, demonstrates the largely unintended shift from the clearly bounded and geographically unproblematic division between free Europe and slave colonies in the reign of Louis XIV, to the contested and politicized confrontations of the reigns of Louis XV and XVI, when slavery and race became entwined with larger issues of the pre-revolutionary Atlantic world.

Seymour Drescher University of Pittsburgh
COPYRIGHT 1998 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Dresscher, Seymour
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1998
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