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Unenlightened


History records the Age of Reason, or The Enlightenment, during the time period of 1685-1815.  The American and French Revolutions were heavily influenced by the thoughts that were developed during The Enlightenment.   Though it was billed as the Age of Reason, European thinkers built wild theories about the inferiority of Blacks, which were used to justify the denial of Black civil liberties.  European thinkers created racist ideologist as a way to justify the slave trade and colonialism.  Yet how could people who espoused such great ideas regarding liberty and limitations of government power be in support of limiting the freedoms of the African? It is important to understand the times in which these Enlightenment thinkers were developing these ideas.

Europe before the Enlightenment period saw a growth of powerful monarchs who ruled with absolute power, and the rise of tightly-centralized national governments.  Due to a rise in violent wars due to the Reformation, people were willing to have local autonomy taken away in exchange for peace and safety.    Much of Enlightenment thought focused on man and his relationship with society.  At the same time as the Enlightenment, slavery was at its height.  Many Enlightenment thinkers wrote from a Eurocentric view, which analyzed society with a supposition that non-whites were clearly inferior to whites. 

Voltaire

Francois-Marie d’Arouet, better known as Voltaire, believed that Africans were a sub-human group.  He believed “Nature has annexed to this principle these different degrees of genius, and the characters of nations that are so rarely seen to change.  It is for this reason that Negroes are slaves of other men.  They are bought on Africa’s coasts like beasts, and the multitudes of these blacks, transplanted to our American colonies, serves a very small number of Europeans. (Essay on Universal History, 2:335)  Voltaire accepted that a slave ship be named after him, and he speculated and profited in the slave trade. (Constitutional Sentiments by Andras Sajo. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011, pg. 160).  His friend Rene Montaudion, a rich merchant from Nantes, named one of his slave ships after him. Voltaire believed Africans were naturally inferior, which justified them being slaves.  He believed in the superiority of the White race.

Voltaire also said about Blacks: “Their round eyes, their flat nose, their lips which are always thick, their differently shaped ears, the wool on their head, the measure even of their intelligence establishes between them and other species of men prodigious differences.  If their understanding is not of a different nature from ours, it is at least greatly inferior.  They are not capable of any great application of ideas, and seemed formed neither in the advantages nor the abuses of our philosophy.”

David Hume

David Hume (1711-1776) was a Scottish philosopher, historian and economist, who is recognized as a precursor of contemporary cognitive science.  He was a close friend of Adam Smith, and his essays on money and International Trade heavily influenced Smith.  Hume also had a strong influence on philosophers Charles Darwin, Immanuel Kant, and Thomas Henry Huxley.  Hume was a harsh critic of religion and metaphysics. 

Hume was a racist who believed that dark skin color was linked to moral and mental inferiority.  Hume’s attitude toward the Black race can neatly be summed up in this quote: “I am apt to suspect the negroes and in general all other species of men, to be naturally inferior to the whites.  There never was a civilized nation of any complexion than white nor even any individual eminent in action of speculation.  No ingenious manufacturer among them, no arts, no sciences.  There are Negro slaves dispersed all over Europe of which none ever displayed any symptoms of ingenuity. (David Hume, Essays, Moral and Political 1742)

Hume subscribed to the pseudo-scientific racism that was prevalent in his time.  In his work, Of National Character, Hume  expressed the belief that there was never a civilized nation of any other complexion than white. (David Hume, footnote to ‘Of National Character’ (1748), in The Philosophical Works of David Hume, Volume III, Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 1996, pg 228.)  Hume even compared Black Africans to parrots, in that they could only achieve very low level accomplishments.  Hume’s remarks were used to support slavery.  He was a Eurocentric thinker who could not grasp the thought that Blacks could ever achieve any high level of civilization.

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant had this to say about Blacks: “The Negroes of Africa have received from nature no intelligence that rises above the foolish.  Hume invites anyone to quote a single example of a Negro who has exhibited talents.  He asserts that among the hundred thousands of blacks who have been seduced away from their own countries, although very many of them have been set free, yet not a single one has ever been found that has performed anything great whether in art or science or in any other laudable subject; but among whites, people constantly rise up from the lowest rabble and acquire esteem through their superior gifts.”

Kant believed that Africans were incapable of any form of education other than learning how to be a slave.  He divided humankind into four races: Hunnic, White, Hindu and Negro.  Kant believed that the “Negro” was the lowest of all races, and that the white race was the greatest perfection of humanity.  He viewed Blacks as primitive and barbarian, possessing inferior cognitive ability.  Later, Kant condemned European colonialism and chattel slavery.

Montesquieu

Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755) was a French philosopher.  Born to a wealthy family, but after the death of his mother when he was just seven, Montesquieu was placed into the custody of a poor family as a child. 

Montesquieu believed that slavery was not good for the slave owner or the slave.  He supported slavery, and believed that if there were a group fit for slavery, it would be the Black race.  He believed that climate had an effect on race.  He believed that people were more vigorous in cold climates, and that cold climate makes people more courage, and a greater sense of superiority.  People in warm climates however, were more timid, afraid, and in a state of total incapacity. He believed that warmer temperature made people lazy, and thus he believed that slavery would be justified there in order to get them to work.  In addition, Montesquieu commented that because Africans were “black from head to toe, and they have such flat noses that it is impossible to feel sorry for them.  One cannot get into one’s mind that God, who is a very wise being, should have put a soul, above all a good soul, in a body that was entirely black.” (Montesquieu: The Spirit of the Laws, pg. 250)

Montesquieu wrote in 1748: “It is impossible for us to suppose these creatures to be men, because, allowing them to be men, a suspicious would follow that we ourselves are not Christian.”  Yet, while reaching this conclusion, Montsquieu also concluded, in regards to colonial slavery, that “Weak minds exaggerate too much the injustice done to Africans” (Montesquieu, “Spirit of the Laws” pg 204)  Montesquieu even questioned whether blacks had a soul. (The Limits of Ethics in International Relations: Natural Law, Natural Rights, and natural rights in Transition by David Boucher. London: Oxford University Press, 2009)

Montesquieu believed in, and supported the rights of property holder, even when the property that was held were slaves.

Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes believed that human nature was greedy and warlike.  Thomas Hobbes theorized that the Native Americans were primitive and where incapable of development.   Hobbes believed in the inferiority of Blacks.  Hobbes believed that slaves should not complain about slavery since were provided with security and sustenance in for labor and being governed.  He considered slavery a part of the world’s system of subordination and authority. (Slavery and Servitude in Colonial North America: A Short History by Kenneth Morgan. New York: NYU Press, 2001, pg. 32) Hobbes saw slavery as a necessary element of society. 

John Locke

John Locke(1632-1704), whose theory of natural rights helped to define the principles of modern democracy, invested in the slave trade. While he wrote that slavery is vile, he held stock in the Royal Africa Company. It is difficult to marry the concept of the duality of his ideas. Locke theorized in Two Treatises of Government, that the right to govern came from the consent of the people to be governed. The irony in Locke’s stance on slavery is that he believed that if a government ruled absolutely and arbitrarily, it forfeited its subjects’ loyalty. Yet he had no problem with slave owners doing the same to the slave, yet the slave had no right to be governed. It can be understood then that Locke’s position only makes sense if he did not see the African as people, but merely as property.   Locke believed in in the natural liberty of human beings, yet was an integral part of the drafting of the Fundamental Constitutions of the Carolinas, which was the Constitutions of North and South Carolina. These two states openly embraced slavery in their Constitutions, which granted absolute power over slaves. Therefore, Locke believed that slavery excluded slaves from the natural right to withdraw their consent when governed in an unjust manner. If governments are created to protect the natural rights of the people, why wouldn’t governments protect the African slave? Obviously, it was because the governments did not recognize the slave among “the people.”

Locke taught that everyone had a right to life, liberty, and property but was in support of denying those same rights to Blacks.

Jean Jacques Rousseau

Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was opposed to slavery, but like his contemporaries, he was a white supremacist.  He believed that Blacks were naturally mentally inferior to Whites. Yet Rousseau was against slavery. It was Rousseau who observed that people are born free and yet in chains everywhere. He believed in the ideals of democracy, and in his view, no man had the right to enslave another. He did not embrace the idea that military might gave man the right to justify slavery.

 The Age of the Enlightenment is considered a time when social philosophers used reason to revolutionize human thought. Enlightenment thinkers embraced the concept of natural rights, yet believed that Blacks were inferior, two concepts that are difficult to marry. If intellect and social behavior are associated with physiognomy, or physical appearance, then it is easy to assume “the white man’s burden” to govern and control those who are deemed inferior. The idea of natural rights then would not apply to those who are labeled inferior. This is how slavery, racism and colonialism were able to coincide with the growth of Enlightenment thought.

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