Race, Law, and the Colonial Lobby during the Pre-revolution: The Case of Julien Baudelle

Thursday, January 4, 2018: 3:30 PM
Columbia 10 (Washington Hilton)
Miranda Spieler, American University of Paris
This paper looks to the failed eighteenth-century freedom suit by Julien Baudelle, a Martiniquan teenager residing in Paris, to understand the relationship between whiteness and liberty that emerged at the eve of the French Revolution. In this highly publicized trial, the Paris Parlement seemed to defy the public mood when affirming the slave status of Julien at a moment otherwise defined by the circulation of new languages of rights in a national and universal register. In the words of Bachaumont’s Mémoires sécrets, the affair concerned the plight of “Julien, pursued as an enslaved Negro despite being white and free.” Hérault de Séchelle–avocat-général of Châtelet and future member of the Committee of Public Safety–put the case for Julien’s freedom before the French high court “amidst a large crowd of spectators and universal applause” to no effect. Judicial arguments by both parties in this trial together with histrionic lobbying by colonists and royal machinations behind the scenes offer a complex portrait of the way race and slavery shaped metropolitan French culture at the end of the Old Regime. The case demonstrates that slavery and the slave trade inflected the workings of metropolitan institutions well beyond the Atlantic ports. It reveals the responsiveness of royal administrators and jurists to the clamor of slave owners. It suggests the emergence of a new, progressive form of racism at the end of the Old Regime that linked the enjoyment of rights to the effacement of racial taint. The Julien trial also foregrounds the early colonial policy of revolutionary assemblies, which would focus on the rights of “free men of color” (as light-skinned as possible) to the exclusion of either slavery or the slave trade. The Julien trial thus provides a bridge between the colonial politics of the Old Regime and the Revolution.
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