The history of blacks and slavery in France can be seen as a series of governmental attempts to impose clear, unambiguous categories on the constantly shifting and merging realities of eighteenth-century life. Just as Enlightenment scientists such as Linnaeus and Buffon had attempted to apply order and structure to the teeming chaos of the natural world, so did French officials struggle in vain to regulate the boundaries between blacks and whites and freedom and slavery in France.
At first, royal decrees attempted to use slavery as the unambiguous boundary between France and its colonies by upholding the maxim that any slave who sets foot on French soil is free. Pressure from powerful colonial interests, however, persuaded administrators that it would be more practical to allow a limited kind of slavery in France, embodied in the legislation of 1716 and 1738. Yet these efforts were largely ineffectual because wealthy colonists flaunted the laws and because the courts of Paris refused to enforce them.
During the second half of the eighteenth century officials in the French Admiralty and the royal administration hit on a new classification system that they hoped would regulate the boundaries between France and its colonies: the policing of race. This must be seen as one of the latent costs of the evolution of the Freedom Principle in France. Lawyers and administrators were all too ready to make use of the panoply of anti-African and anti-Jewish stereotypes to win cases and set policy. Even so, the government's attempts to keep blacks out of the