Slavery and the Revolutionary Histories of 1848

By Jonathan Dusenbury

In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Karl Marx draws the famous parallel between the French Revolutions of 1789 and 1848. The adage that “all facts and personages in world history occur, as it were, twice…the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce” has become perhaps the most famous description of the collapse of the Second French Republic and the re-establishment of the French Empire in 1852. And, during the short-lived republic, which saw “the old dates arise again, the old chronology, the old names, the old edicts,” the appearance of another Napoleon—“the Nephew for the Uncle”—may have seemed altogether fitting.[1] The events of 1848 indeed looked like a replaying of the first phase of the French Revolution in fast-forward. In February, riots broke out in the streets of Paris. Within three days, the king had fled and a republic was proclaimed. By December, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte had been elected President—France’s first directly-elected head of state.

Marx fails to address one crucial repetition of the French Revolution of 1848 – the abolition of slavery. In February, 1794, in the midst of the slave uprising in Saint-Domingue, the French National Convention decreed the abolition of slavery throughout the French colonial empire—the first empire in the Atlantic World to do so. For the next eight years, revolutionary France operated under a system of official racial equality. In May 1802 (or the month of Floréal in the year 10, by the revolutionary calendar) the first Napoleon, then First Consul of the French Republic, revoked the decree of 1794 and re-imposed slavery throughout the French colonies in the West Indies. It was this action by the First Consul that pushed Saint-Domingue towards independence in 1804. In France’s other colonies, those individuals who had been emancipated in 1794 would be returned to bondage. While emancipation had not been enacted in all of France’s colonies, its abrogation nevertheless represented a tangible reversal of the revolutionary promises of the Republic. Slavery would persist in France’s colonies for another forty-six years.

The Provisional Government that ruled France from February to May 1848, was thoroughly republican in its credentials, but also acutely abolitionist in its sentiments. Several prominent members of the Societé française pour l’abolition de l’esclavage took up positions as ministers of foreign affairs, the interior, and justice. Nevertheless, the newly elevated Minister for the Navy and the Colonies, François Arago, informed the colonial governors that, while liberty was inevitable, a final decision would only be made following the election of a National Assembly. Enter Victor Schoelcher. After returning from Senegal in early March of 1848, the prominent abolitionist persuaded Arago to place him in charge of a commission to end slavery. On April 27, the commission drafted a decree of general and unconditional emancipation in the colonies.

Statue of Victor Schoelcher in white stone, standing up.
Victor Schoelcher statue in Schoelcher, Martinique

Schoelcher’s sense of history made him afraid that delaying the question of emancipation would lead to a rebellion amongst the slaves. During the 1830s and 40s, Schoelcher had authored several volumes on the history of France’s colonies, and on Haiti. In his account of the outbreak of the slave rebellion in Saint-Domingue, in Colonies étrangères et Haïti, Schoelcher wrote:

The slaves, despite the profound degradation into which they had been plunged, could not long remain strangers to the movements that were happening above their heads. The colonists spoke of independence, the petits blancs of equality, the mulattos of political rights, the negroes in their turn talked of liberty.[2]

Schoelcher knew that any disruption of the colonial political order would destabilize the institution of slavery, and a delay in addressing it would lead to violence.

History was also an important framework for one of Schoelcher’s greatest critics: abolitionist and free man of color, Cyrille Bissette. Bissette was born in Fort Royal, Martinique one year after the first abolition of slavery in the French colonies (though the island was then under British occupation). He was born free and of mixed-race heritage, though his genealogy has been disputed. However, it has been generally attested that either he or his mother was the illegitimate child of noted planter Joseph Tascher de la Pagerie. In what is one of those strange twists of history, another of de la Pagerie’s children was a daughter named Josephine. Whether she was young Cyrille’s aunt or half-sister, she would also briefly reign as Empress consort of the French from 1804 to 1810. Eventually becoming a wealthy merchant and a slave-owner himself, Bissette was radicalized in the 1820s following his imprisonment for promoting a pamphlet championing colonial reform.

Bissette’s 1844 Réfutation of Schoelcher’s work argued that “history is disfigured beneath his pen.”[3] Bissette accuses Schoelcher of mischaracterizing the relationship between free people of color and the enslaved in Saint-Domingue, and downplaying the contributions of people like Bissette to the project of emancipation in the period after 1791. This misreading of the history of the French and Haitian Revolutions had contemporary relevance for Bissette. If Schoelcher and other white abolitionists could not recognize the contributions of free people of color in the 1790s, they would not be able to do so in the 1840s either. Bissette saw himself as playing the part of an earlier generation of free colored activists, like Vincent Ogé and Julien Raimond. This was so much so that Bissette—excluded from the established abolitionist circles—founded a Club des Amis des Noirs, and obvious reference to the eponymous society of the 1790s.

History mattered for both Schoelcher and Bissette. If Marx noticed that many of the same figures and institutions appeared again in 1848, it was because contemporaries recognized themselves as engaged in many of the same struggles.

History would be played out in another way reminiscent of the first French Revolution. While metropolitan officials debated in Paris, in the colonies, British ships brought news of the revolution and the Provisional Government’s intention to abolish slavery. In Martinique, unrest grew throughout the spring, leading to demonstrations in several parishes by slaves and free people of color. The outbreak of a slave insurrection on May 20 caused the interim governor, Claude Rostoland, to declare immediate general emancipation on the island. Several days later, the governor of Guadeloupe followed suit. By the time that the metropolitan government’s emancipation decree arrived in the Caribbean on June 3, 1848, freedom from slavery was a fait accompli. In this revolution, as in the first, the enslaved had taken it upon themselves to claim the freedom that their government promised them.

Jonathan Dusenbury is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at Vanderbilt University where he specializes in nineteenth-century Atlantic and hemispheric American intellectual and political history. He can be reached at or on Twitter @jdusenbury.

Title image: Biard, L’abolition de l’esclavage dans les colonies françaises, 1849. 


  1. Karl Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (London: The Electric Book Company, 2001), 7.

  2. Victor Schoelcher, Colonies étrangères et Haïti, vol. 2 (Paris : Pagnerre, 1843), 98.

  3. Cyrille Bissette, Réfutation du livre de M. V. Schoelcher sur Haïti (Paris : Ébrard, 1844), 100.

Suggested Readings:

  1. Bongie, Chris. Islands and Exiles: The Creole Identities of Post/Colonial Literature. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.
  2. Girollet, Anne. Victor Schoelcher abolitionniste et républicain. Paris: Karthala, 2000.
  3. Jennings, Lawrence C. French Anti-Slavery: The Movement for the Abolition of Slavery in France, 1802-1848. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  4. Motelywski, Patricia. La societé française pour l’abolition de l’esclavage, 1834-1850. Paris: L’Harmattan, 1998.
  5. Schloss, Rebecca Hartkopf. Sweet Liberty: The Final Days of Slavery in Martinique. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009.
  6. Schmidt, Nelly. Abolitionnistes de l’esclavage et réformateurs des colonies, 1820-1851: Analyse et documents. Paris: Karthala, 2001.

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