A Frail Liberty


A Frail Liberty

Probationary Citizens in the French and Haitian Revolutions

Tessie P. Liu 

France Overseas: Studies in Empire and Decolonization Series

458 pages
14 illustrations, 1 map, index


July 2022


$65.00 Add to Cart
eBook (PDF)

July 2022


$65.00 Add to Cart
eBook (EPUB)

July 2022


$65.00 Add to Cart

About the Book

A Frail Liberty traces the paradoxical actions of the first French abolitionist society, the Société des Amis des Noirs (Society of the Friends of Blacks), at the juncture of two unprecedented achievements of the revolutionary era: the extension of full rights of citizenship to qualifying free men of color in 1792 and the emancipation decree of 1794 that simultaneously declared the formerly enslaved to be citizens of France. This society helped form the revolution’s notion of color-blind equality yet did not protest the pro-slavery attack on the new citizens of France. Tessie P. Liu prioritizes the understanding of the elite insiders’ vision of equality as crucial to understanding this dualism.

By documenting the link between outright exclusion and political inclusion and emphasizing that a nation’s perceived qualifications for citizenship formulate a particular conception of racial equality, Liu argues that the treatment and status distinctions between free people of color and the formerly enslaved parallel the infamous divide between “active” and “passive” citizens. These two populations of colonial citizens with African ancestry then must be considered part of the normative operations of French citizenship at the time. Uniquely locating racial differentiation in the French and Haitian revolutions within the logic and structures of political representation, Liu deepens the conversation regarding race as a civic identity within democratic societies.

Author Bio

Tessie P. Liu is an associate professor of history and of gender and sexuality studies at Northwestern University. She is the author of The Weaver’s Knot: The Contradictions of Class Struggle and Family Solidarity in Western France, 1750–1914 and coeditor of Gendered Colonialisms in African History.


"In this provocative study, Tessie P. Liu raises important and uncomfortable questions about the nexus of race and citizenship during the French and Haitian Revolutions."—Lauren R. Clay, H-France Review

"Richly documented and thoroughly researched, this volume will bring together seasoned scholars and students of French colonial history and postcolonial studies, as well as historians of the Atlantic world."—Hélène B. Ducros, EuropeNow

“This work is important for several reasons: It further complicates our understanding of republican citizenship in revolutionary France by focusing on colonialism, race, and merit. Second, in citing Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Tessie P. Liu highlights the role of the colonies in shaping metropolitan discourse. Third, she elevates the importance of the passive citizen to examine universality and merit. Liu also highlights the role that Amis des Noirs played in framing political debates, even if they were not often successful in their pursuits. Their credit is much deserved and well overdue.”—Erica Johnson Edwards, author of Philanthropy and Race in the Haitian Revolution

“Tessie P. Liu brings new insights to two major events in French and world history, the French Revolution and the Haitian Revolution, and uses these histories to explore broader questions of democracy, political representation, and race. Moreover, Liu uses colonial history to illustrate and ultimately reshape how we see the history of metropolitan France. This is an outstanding work of scholarship: original, thought provoking, thoroughly researched, and well argued.”—Tyler Stovall, coeditor of The Black Populations of France: Histories from Metropole to Colony

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction: The Alchemy of Merit
1. Sympathy Ink: Staging Humanity in a Revolutionary Empire
2. An Ebullient Summer: The Amis des Noirs Organize to Fight the Slave Trade
3. Children of a Common Father: Free People of Color as Objects of Sympathy
4. Who Belongs as Citizens? The Antinomies of Rights and Freedom
5. Facing Insurrection: Free Colored Rights or Emancipation
6. “What Kind of Free Is This?” Probationary Citizens and the Dilemmas of General Liberty
7. Can the Old Colonies Be Saved? “Disfigured Slaves” and the New Abolitionism
8. The Hermeneutics of Freedom and Violence: Justifying Slavery after Emancipation
Conclusion: The Allure and Tragedy of Meritorious Belonging
Epilogue: Forgotten Promises of Representative Democracy

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