Front Page Titles (by Subject) Enlightenment Liberalism vs. Slavery - Literature of Liberty, October/December 1978, vol. 1, No. 4
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Enlightenment Liberalism vs. Slavery - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, October/December 1978, vol. 1, No. 4 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Enlightenment Liberalism vs. Slavery
“The Philosophes and Black Slavery.” Journal of the History of Ideas 39 (July/September 1978): 405–418.
Under the banner of liberty, equality, and fraternity, the French Enlightenment philosophes, Encyclopédistes, and liberal economists managed to effectively criticize proslavery economic policy of the French government. The philosophes, armed with arguments from reason, morality, and satire, propagated a liberal social and economic ideal despite the general indifference toward slavery as a normal institution and despite the French government's profitable vested interests in its colonial slave trade. The two decades from 1748–1765 saw the first phase of the philosophes' attack against slavery: 1748 seeing the publication of the philosophe Montesquieu's L'Esprit des lois, 1751–1765 seeing the appearance of those volumes of the Encyclopédie crucial to the themes of slavery and liberty.
The philosophes wielded a panoply of moral, intellectual, and emotional weapons to communicate their liberal philosophy of natural liberty in opposition to slavery. Morally, they attacked the “religious” motivation of saving souls for Christ by enslaving blacks and depriving them of their natural birthright of liberty and equal personhood. For the philosophes slavery was a moral issue unjustifiable by religious or economic motives. Reason and intellect, the philosophes argued, showed that all men were by nature free and equal. Freedom was “a right that nature gives to all men to have control over their own person and possessions” (Encyclopédie IX, 471). All men are equal because of natural liberty, and all are free because of natural equality, as Joucourt and Diderot noted elsewhere. In addition to the philosophes' moral and intellectual arguments of liberty and equality, they also advanced the emotional appeal of human fraternity. Human solidarity and love should move us to treat all men as our brothers.
The philosophes exposed the economic greed behind the imperialist and colonialist exploitation of black slaves. Voltaire succinctly summed up the matter in Candide (1759), by putting in the mouth of a brutally dismembered sugar plantation slave the indictment: “It is at that price you eat sugar in Europe.” Joucourt likened to highway robbery the colonial settlers' trafficking in black flesh to extract profitable sugar, cocoa, and tobacco. Following liberal economic doctrines that viewed liberty and industry as the real sources of abundance, Joucourt launched a radical attack on state colonialism and the slave trade:
Can it be considered lawful to deprive mankind of its most sacred rights for the sole purpose of gratifying one's greed, vanity or idiosyncrasies? No...Let European colonies perish rather than have so many suffer. (Encyclopédie XVI, 533)
Ominously, the Enlightenment liberals also warned of the potential slave revolts inevitable under such a cruel system.
The temporary abolition of slavery in 1792 during the French Revolution was thus prepared for by the philosophes' antislavery arguments. It still remained, however, for French literature to rehabilitate blacks to the full image of dignity and weaken the racism that slavery had insinuated into society.