Book Review: “The Black Count” by Tom Reiss – posted 3/1/2015
Tom Reiss’s book The Black Count can be read as an adventure story, a biography, or a history of slavery and the French Revolution. I confess that I did not read the book. I listened to the book on tape going back and forth to work. It grabbed me so much that I did not want to turn it off when I got to work. It was one of those rare books you did not want to end.
The book tells the story of French General Alex Dumas, the father of the writer Alexandre Dumas who wrote The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. General Dumas was the son of a black slave mother and a fugitive white French nobleman. I do not think it is exaggerating to say that the son worshiped the father. General Dumas was a a figure of remarkable heroism and accomplishment.
While, as I pointed out, there are different ways to look at this wonderful book, I wanted to discuss it because of the picture it presents of slavery and the French revolution. The book educated me about both. Even though I was a history major in college and have always loved reading non-fiction, there are plenty of gaps in my knowledge. Reiss does a tremendous job of recreating the French revolution through the life story of General Dumas.
With the French revolution as background, he shows the historical struggle in France and the colonies around the issue of slavery. General Dumas provides a perfect vehicle to tell the back and forth anti-slavery struggle. The General went through some very heady highs and some extremely tragic lows.
As an American, I admit to less awareness of the international dimensions of slavery. History here is so much about what happened in the U.S. only, with less curiosity about the rest of the world. Reiss’s book presents a broader, more cosmopolitan view, which allows the reader to see the American anti-slavery struggle within the context of a broader international anti-slavery struggle.
Reiss shows that in the 1750’s, during the reign of Louis XV, a generation of crusading French lawyers fought the powerful colonial sugar lobby to establish rights for people of color. Reiss calls this the world’s first civil rights struggle. I never heard about this. It is inspirational to know that there was a tradition of pioneering and creative lawyers in the 18th century who used the law to fight this most fundamental form of oppression. Reiss writes:
“Slaves taken to France from the colonies brought lawsuits against their masters and won their freedom. (Compare this with the infamous Dred Scott ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court, which – in the 1850’s – would find the Blacks were “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect”. The ruling actually contains language mocking the French freedom trials of the previous century.) The French lawsuits were decades earlier than the Somerset case, which launched abolitionism in England.”
Through the Dumas story, Reiss demonstrates that the French revolution opened doors of emancipation for millions of people and greatly broadened horizons for those who had been enslaved. This is a different perspective than the one Americans typically hear with the focus almost always on the Terror. I think more than the American revolution or the British abolitionist struggle, it was the French revolution that expanded notions of freedom.
Reiss does not whitewash the Terror period of the French revolution but he puts it in a broader perspective. I am reminded of a quote from Edward Abbey:
“The “Terror” of the French revolution lasted for ten years. The terror that preceded and led to it lasted for a thousand years.”
The French had a notion that they were the land of the free. Reiss says that the French enlightenment philosophers liked to use slavery as the symbol of political oppression. He quotes Rousseau: “Man is born free but is everywhere in chains.” French lawyers nobly took up numerous cases on behalf of slaves who arrived in France.
I would not minimize this struggle. France had its own set of racist laws, the Code Noir, which applied in the French colonial empire. Reiss shows that while French lawyers won many victories inside France, there were contradictions between law inside France and in the colonies. There were also plenty of racist laws in France itself.
In 1777, King Louis XVI decreed the Police des Noirs. The goal of this code was “to extinguish the race of negroes from the Kingdom”. The Police des Noirs established “depots” – prisons, really – to hold blacks and people of color brought onto French soil. This was a strategy to try and get around the 50 years tradition of freedom trials. The King wanted the depots to be considered “extraterritorial” and not French soil. The Police des Noirs also included laws which called for rounding up all slaves who entered illegally before 1777, removing them to the depots and deporting them.
Other racist laws required colored people living in Paris to carry a special certificate, kind of like happened during apartheid in South Africa with identity cards. Whites were forbidden from marrying blacks, mulattos or people of color. Reiss says that the weak monarchy did not administer the race laws efficiently. It sounded like these awful laws only received infrequent enforcement.
Reiss then shows how in the early days of the French revolution, there was an unleashing of rights. In August 1789, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, penned by Lafayette with help from Thomas Jefferson, passed the National Assembly. The Declaration was very much an Enlightenment document, recognizing rights to liberty, property, safety and resistance to oppression. It stated all citizens were equal .
In April 1792, the National Assembly extended full citizenship to free Blacks and men of color. While not the same as abolishing slavery, it did put the revolution much more on the side of people of color. Not surprisingly, General Dumas and other free blacks, felt even stronger cause to support and defend the revolution.
General Dumas was a passionate revolutionary. The revolutionary ideology of that time, French republicanism, opposed the divine right of kings and favored representative government. The revolutionaries wanted a constitution and an elected leadership. Dumas, who had had an illustrious military career, became a general during this period. He had started at the bottom. His strength, bravery, leadership, swordsmanship, and military skills earned him the high position.
In February 1794, the French government voted to abolish slavery. It was the first government in history to abolish slavery. This was 69 years before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Candid observers of the United States must acknowledge how far behind we have been as a country on matters of race although we like to posture about our advances.
Answering every call, General Dumas made many military contributions to France both during the Reign of Terror and during the political ascent of Napoleon Bonaparte. Reiss shows Napoleon to be an absolute scoundrel and a full fledged counter-revolutionary opportunist who hid his power hungry personal agenda. Reiss accurately described Napoleon’s rise as the replacement of a revolution with a king.
When Napoleon seized power eight years after the abolition of slavery, he proceeded to reverse all the gains of the anti-slavery movement. Napoleon received support from a coalition of slavers and exiled plantation owners. As Reiss notes:
“It’s worth repeating that the greatest emancipation in history had been initiated by the country possessing perhaps the world’s most lucrative slave empire.”
General Dumas lived to see the horror of Napoleon reinstating race laws and allowing only whites to command. Napoleon even forbade all officers and soldiers of color who had retired or been discharged from the army from living in Paris.
After not helping Dumas who had been imprisoned returning home from a military campaign, Napoleon ignored all entreaties for help from Dumas and his wife. General Dumas died in 1806. Napoleon and his government denied a military pension to the Dumas family after the General died causing them major financial hardship. Napoleon also made it impossible for Dumas’ son to be accepted in a military school or civilian college. Reiss says that this extremely shabby treatment fueled the son’s passion to write.
The French example is instructive on how battles against racism and slavery can go backward and forward. Unfortunately, neither the French nor the U.S. has figured out how to advance the anti-racist struggle in our current historical period. In the United States we are living through a blind period where we kid ourselves about being colorblind. France does not seem any better. It certainly has failed to address the issues of its underclass. Much more could be said but I will save that for another day.
This book is rich on many levels. Although in my review I focused on the history, I did want to mention that it is genuinely touching as a personal story with detailed vignettes. The son Alexandre Dumas adored his father and much of his work can be seen as a tribute to a beautiful and beloved man.
In closing I did want to note that there had been a statue in Paris of General Dumas. During the Second World War, the Nazis who were occupying the city, destroyed the statue. To this day, it has not been rebuilt.