|Benjamin Franklin and Slavery: A Man Ahead of His Times|
We try to get to know the important and famous, like Benjamin Franklin, by reading about them. However, autobiographies and biographies have built in limitations, writers with poor or selective memories, lost documents, and the general fog of history. These lives of the famous and not so famous give us entertainment, and much more. They also tell us how and how not we might live our lives. Close study of these books yield more to the reader than the common self help books of which our society seems completely enamored. Among his many firsts, Benjamin Franklin wrote the first American autobiography. He wrote it late in his life and never finished it as it only covers his first few decades. As an autobiographer, Franklin enjoyed the dual role of author and editor, so it tells us as much about Franklin by what he decided to include as what he decided to exclude. For instance, Franklin never mentions the issue of slavery, a very contentious moral, economic and political issue, an issue in which he was involved for decades as printer and publisher, businessman, politician and diplomat, philosopher of the Enlightenment, an issue that almost tore our country in two in the Civil War, and an issue that still resonates today as we continue to wrestle with the issue of race.
At the time of Franklin’s birth in 1706, slavery was well established with the first slaves brought to America in the early 1600’s. Already the young economy of the colonies was dependent on this source of cheap but diligent labor. Though most of the slaves were south of what would later be called the Mason-Dixon Line, the border of Pennsylvania and Maryland, slaves lived in the northern colonies. A very small number of freed African-Americans lived there too, but their freedom was precarious as anyone could point an accusing finger at one walking down the street, claim that that person was a runaway slave, and that person had no way to defend oneself in a court of law. The numbers of the slaves increased rapidly in the opening decades of the 1700’s, so that by 1730 at least ten to twenty percent of the populations of Philadelphia and New York City were slaves. This view doesn’t challenge that the South was more heavily invested in slavery than the North, but still causes surprise.
The slave trade and slavery existed not just as an integral part of the colonial economy, but also as an integral part of the religious beliefs of the colonies’ Christians, many of whom fled religious persecution in Europe. They cited many biblical passages that support the institution of slavery. Exodus 21: 20-21 merely states that a master can only be held responsible if actions towards a slave result in the immediate death of the slave, but otherwise proscribes no punishment for the physical abuse of a slave. In the New Testament, Matthew 24:45-46, Jesus says, "Blessed is the slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives." It should be noted that in some translations the word “servant” is used in the place of “slave,” but Christ never criticizes the common practice of slavery nor calls for its end. In Ephesians 6: 5-6 Paul in an epistle writes "Slaves obey your masters with fear and trembling...as you obey Christ." Neither testament condemns it. Justification continued in the early centuries of the church with St. Augustine seeing slavery as part of the natural order. Despite all of these Biblical justifications, even the most entrenched of present day Fundamentalists with their literal readings of the Bible see these justifications of slavery as a contorted pretzel of theology.
Franklin grew up in such a religious region, city and household, Boston, Massachusetts, the center of Puritan life in the colonies. At the time of his birth, the Salem Witch Trials were still a fresh memory in the minds of the people of this colony. His father Josiah, though not a member of the clergy, was a member in good standing in the Old South Church in Boston, a church still standing and still active and of course, with its own website. He was the quintessential pillar of the community in religious and secular matters. It wasn’t unusual for members of his church and citizens of Boston to seek him out for advice. Young Ben was certainly influenced by his father’s diligent, honest ways as Ben would grow up to be a very hard-working proprietor of a printing house and an influential citizen of Philadelphia.
But Ben had other spiritual influences. Two of colonial America’s most influential clergymen, Increase Mather and his son, Cotton, shaped spiritual thought and influenced politics of the region. Cotton’s Essays To Do Good had a deep effect on Ben as he credits them as helping him shape his point of view that doing for the common good was an important spiritual value. On slavery Cotton Mather wrote that it was “a spectacle that shocks humanity.” In his view, the slave was like a child to be tended to and directed by the master in a fatherly way. Of course, the slave was to be converted and saved for Jesus as he explained in a pamphlet, “The Negro Christianized.” It’s interesting too that his congregation bought him a slave named Onesimus, who, as it turned out, was not always so grateful for Mather’s attempts to act as a Christian father. From early on Ben understood the conundrum of slavery; it was both condemned and condoned.
Perhaps because of the blessing of so many children, Josiah felt the need to tithe one of them to the church. And Ben was the chosen one as Josiah sent young boy to a nearby school, for it was already clear to members of the family that he was a special child, blessed with keen intelligence and an ability to learn quickly and well. But the financial strains of such a large family cut short Ben’s schooling. He attended only two years. Now Josiah had to find an occupation for the youngster and by walking him around the city Ben saw how tradesmen did their trades. Fearful that Ben would hanker to be a sailor, Josiah steered his prodigy toward a trade that would not take his son to the nether parts of the world for months and years at a time where he would possibly lose his life like his brother, Josiah Jr. In 1718 Ben's father and another of Ben’s elder brothers, James, agreed to Ben serving an apprenticeship at James’ printing shop. Young Ben would serve James until he was twenty-one, nearly a decade. In his brother’s business he proved a very capable worker, strong of shoulders and legs, much needed in a trade in which the workers needed to haul around very heavy typesets.
During these years, Franklin continued his education on his own, reading almost everything and anything his book scarce surroundings had. One area he worked on very diligently was writing. This was the golden age of the English essay and Franklin studied the writings of Addison and Steele as they appeared in their newspaper The Spectator. He copied and imitated their writing styles until he was, as a mere teen, a master writer. In 1721 James started a newspaper called the New England Courant. Soon Ben was anonymously submitting pieces to the paper under the name of Silence Dogood, who claimed she was an elderly lady, the first of many personae Franklin would assume in his printing and publishing career. The pieces became extremely popular and many wondered who the writer could be. Of course, the guesses centered on individuals much older than the adolescent apprentice. When Ben told James that he had written them, James had mixed feelings; he was glad that Ben’s pieces were appreciated and read as they boosted sales of the paper, but he also felt intimidated by the accomplished prose of a teen who displayed a knowledge of the world beyond his years as he could convincingly assume the persona of an elderly lady.
This added to the strains of family and work relationships which conflicted with each other. Tensions arose from time to time with the problems sometimes aired in front of their father who usually sided with the older James. Over the years James verbal and physical abuse of Ben made the situation less and less tolerable for the youngster. He felt this even more keenly when James landed in jail.
Let’s give James his due. He was the first publisher in the colonies to feel confident enough to use his paper to speak out against the powerful, the mostly religious ones of Boston. And then he stood firm for freedom of the press rather than give in to those powers who wanted to censor his newspaper. Ben ran the paper while James was in jail and surely Ben realized the irony of his being an apprentice to his brother with all its terms and limitations, binds he was more and more seeking to loosen or get rid of altogether while at the same time running one of the colonies' earliest newspapers during a time of crisis with its owner and publisher in jail. In 1723 Ben cut his ties and ran away from Boston.
Franklin’s autobiography clearly presents Ben’s decision to runaway from his apprenticeship, and thereby breaking a legal contact, as one of the first steps he took to become a successful person from humble beginnings who would live the life of the most famous American of his time. It is all positive, his telling of what was a very illegal act, that angered and humiliated James, confounded his family and put them in a worrying frame of mind as Franklin left without warning or word to anyone. But as David Waldstreicher points out in his book, Runaway America, the land was full of runaways as many had fled Europe for a better life in the colonies.
From Puritan Boston Franklin traveled to Quaker Pennsylvania and its largest settlement, Philadelphia. Though Franklin decided at a young age that organized religion wasn't for him, he was shaped by the Puritanism of his birthplace and then the Quakerism of his new home. Also known as the Religious Society of Friends, the Quakers were founded by George Fox in the 1600's in England. A Quaker, William Penn established the colony of Pennsylvania and Quakers were very powerful in Philadelphia. They opposed war and believed in the not only the equality of all men, but of women too. They were early opponents of slavery. Though Franklin disagreed with them on certain issues, like the much needed military defense of the city, he admired the atmosphere of religious tolerance they fostered in the colony. Certainly, their abolitionist views gave Franklin much to think about.
Within a decade of Franklin’s arrival in Philadelphia, he was running a successful printing and publishing business. Along the way he spent two years in London where he worked in the printing trade as a valuable worker who eschewed the many pints of beer a day that his fellow workers claimed helped, but according to Ben, mostly hindered their labor. He stuck to water rather than ale, and in part because of that, he outworked all the others as he was as a young man extremely fit belying the common image of Franklin the older and rounder man. In London he made and lost friends, engaged in affairs with women he hardly knew. But most importantly, Franklin absorbed the many new ideas, part of the intellectual life of London at the time, all stimulated by The Enlightenment. He took swimmingly to these swift currents of thought which offered a new view of the world through the lens of rational thought, observation, hypothesis and experiment, the scientific approach to life. Many of 's early but few abolitionists were part of this new intellectual movement. He returned to Philadelphia more focused, more experienced, more certain of himself and his future.
The new Franklin was a balanced blend of the principled and the pragmatic. This is very clearly shown in his role as printer and publisher in regards to the slave trade and slavery. By 1728 Franklin had his own printing business. And through his experience with James’ paper, Franklin, in 1729, felt confident enough to buy the Pennsylvania Gazette from a former employer, Samuel Keimer. , to his credit, modeled his paper on brother James' paper in that it provided an easy access to varied ideas on all sorts of topics. But his openness to publishing new ideas went beyond the pages of the Gazette as it extended to Franklin's other printing endeavors including books and pamphlets. Between 1728 and 1748 he printed hundreds of books, pamphlets, and other writings. In all areas Franklin printed not only what he agreed with but also what he didn't agree with. An example is his printing of an anti-slavery tract, “A Brief Examination of the Practice of the Times” and in the next year an expanded version, “The Mystery of Iniquity.” Its author, Ralph Sandiford, a Quaker merchant, had witnessed slavery in the Caribbean and South Carolina. He branded the slave trade immoral, held the churches and, more specifically, the ministers who, in a large part, by their approval of and silence about slavery, were to blame for this continued shame. Sandiford argued against Biblical reasons for slavery and even pointed out that in the Bible slaves at some time were to be freed and that certainly wasn’t happening in the colonies. Though Franklin printed this tract, his name was nowhere on it as printers usually put their names on what they printed. This is an example of the pragmatic Franklin, balancing his interest in printing new and different ideas while at the same time protecting his reputation and his business because Sandiford’s ideas were radical and unpopular.
Sandiford passed on copies to Benjamin Lay, another Quaker, who was much admired. Franklin, the governor, and others regularly paid him visits. An odd man whose life reads like a back to nature hippie of the 60’s, he farmed, tended bees, made his own flax, and took to living in a cave to be closer to nature. In 1737 again without listing his name as printer, put out Lay’s “All Slave-keepers that Keep the Innocent in Bondage.” In his writings, Lay carried on the moral arguments of Sandiford. He referred to slavery as the “Mother of all Sins.” He argued that slavery hurt not only the slaves but the whole of the slave owning community.
In addition to printing anti-slavery tracts, Franklin also printed notices for runaway slaves. Obviously he didn’t view their running away in the same way he viewed his own. His was a model declaration of independence while runaway slaves were hounded and harassed until caught, then, not only returned to the horrific life of slavery, but severely punished for their declarations of independence. For instance, slave owners often whipped the returned runaways opening up deep lacerations on the back with the added insult of a wooden bucket of salt water thrown onto the raw open flesh, salt on the wounds in the most literal meaning. Franklin also printed advertisements for the sale of slaves which usually took place within a short distance of his shop. A meeting place for the area's businessmen was the London Coffee House where all sorts of deals were struck, including deals to buy and sell slaves. One can’t imagine that with the close proximity of the slave market to his printing shop, that Franklin didn’t witness the brutal degrading treatment of fellow human beings, inspected as one would inspect cattle, and the heart rendering cries of children and parents as the buying and selling of these people ripped families apart. Franklin’s pragmatic approach to business is clear. And it is this pragmatism that produced a businessman who did so well that he was able to start America’s first franchise, a string of printing houses up and down the Atlantic coast extending into the Caribbean and retire as a wealthy man at the age of forty-two. He also understood that colonial America was a complex system of degrees of bound workers from the lesser apprenticeship he experienced to indentured servants, bound servants, the convicts of the Virginia, Maryland, and Georgia colonies and the slaves. In a land with a shortage of labor, all kinds of work arrangements were welcome and as many of the time argued, Franklin among them, totally necessary.
As 's businesses continued to expand with government contracts and the establishment of his franchise, also became the model citizen as he equated doing good for others as a civic and spiritual duty. He actually started his civic minded duties in 1727 with the formation of the Junto, a group of like minded merchants interested in sharing ideas and improving life in Philadelphia. As a member of the Junto and on his own, he participated in many civic improvements for Philadelphia, from its first hospital to its first fire department, from its first military defenses to its first library, from its first postal system to its first insurance company, to service in one of the colonies’ first legislative bodies, the Pennsylvania Assembly. Franklin wrote this motto for the Library Company he helped founded: “To put forth benefits for the common good is divine.” His increasingly public profile as a doer of things put him in touch with other shapers of early Philadelphia. And as Jack Freichtman’s book Atlantic Cousins, Benjamin Franklin and His Visionary Friends makes clear, others in Philadelphia influenced Franklin's views on slavery.
In 1739 Franklin befriended George Whitefield, a very popular Methodist preacher from England. Certainly, Franklin was drawn to him in part because Whitefield was his own man, an outspoken critic of the Anglican Church and most clergy. In a pamphlet Franklin published in 1740, Whitefield spoke out against the treatment of slaves. He wrote,
“Your dogs are caressed and fondled at your tables; but your slaves who are frequently styled dogs or beasts, have not an equal privilege. . . .Nay, some. . .have been, upon the most trifling provocation, cut with knives, and have had forks thrown into their flesh.”
He is not referring to the blunt ended table knife nor the dull dining fork but to the field knife and sharpened tines of the agricultural pitchfork. Whitefield called the doers of these deeds, “monsters of barbarity,” and wrote that if the slaves were to exact any sort of retribution, it would be justified.
Being the scrupulous printer, Franklin no doubt read all he printed and being a deep thinker, Franklin no doubt thought about the arguments against slavery. Yet, in 1748 he purchased the first of his many slaves to work in his printing shop and the stationery store his wife Deborah managed. In 1751Franklin wrote in an essay, “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries etc.” that Africans should be kept out of America. One reason was the detrimental effects that slavery had on whites. wrote, “...Slaves also pejorate the Families that use them; the white Children become proud, disgusted with Labour, and being educated in Idleness, are rendered unfit to get a Living by Industry." Franklin remarked that “almost every slave by nature (was) a thief.” He went on, “But perhaps I am partial to the Complexion of my Country, for such Kind of Partiality is natural to Mankind...” Whitefield’s opinion against slavery was an ambivalent criticism as he owned slaves until his death. And notice that Franklin isn’t yet arguing against slavery for the terrible and deep effects on the slaves. Franklin often complained regularly about his slaves in what we would consider very racist terms by describing them as “sullen, malicious, revengeful....”
But a deeper influence on Franklin was the work of Dr. Thomas Bray who started a group called the Society Promoting Christian Knowledge, and in 1723 founded another group, Associates for Founding Clerical Libraries and Supporting Negro Schools. never met Dr. Bray but in 1759 joined his association and did meet one of Dr. Bray’s associates, Anthony Benezet, who started a school for African-American students in . Benezet strongly impressed all who met him as his gentle, charitable nature stood out strongly against the rough, course ways of many in this frontier town. Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of colonial America’s great doctors wrote that Benezet “is not only a good man in the full import of those words. He appears in everything to be free from prejudices of all kinds ….” Rush thought him to be an almost lone example of one who is constantly about the Father’s business. Franklin became involved in the school in the late 1750’s by contributing money. He also visited it regularly. This school changed Franklin’s view of Africans and African-Americans in a deep way. After a visit in to the school 1763 he wrote of the children as having “made considerable Progress in Reading for the Time they had respectively been in School ….” He also remarked that they learned as quickly as white children and that he didn’t see any difference intellectually between the two groups. This was a radical idea even among some opponents of slavery. The overwhelmingly accepted opinion of the time was that all Africans and African-Americans were without a doubt possessing of fewer qualities of character and intellect than Whites. Here is where he begins to change his negative views of them writing that he now had a far more favorable opinion of their intellectual capabilities and, more importantly, the content of their characters. By 1769 Franklin is viewing the more negative characteristics of slaves as being a product of the negative environments and experiences of slavery rather than of their natural traits.
When he retired Franklin became involved in his scientific interests. He invented the Franklin Stove, a cheaper and more efficient way to heat a home, started his first observations of weather and other natural phenomena, especially his experiments with electricity. Here is where he excelled and amazed. He conjectured that the electricity he was producing and controlling in his laboratory was the same substance as lightning, and if so, he could also control lightning. This he did when he invented the lightning rod which attracted lightning and then directed it away from the house or shop on which it was attached. This one invention saved much money and countless lives, and as important as they were, this invention did even more. In his time many thought that lightning God's punishment and because it was intended by God, the people would not even attempt to put out the fires to save property or life. With this one invention Franklin proved that what was once considered theology was just superstition. Once again, Franklin showed himself to be a man ahead of his time and one who didn't hesitate to go against what was commonly accepted. One wonders why in mid century and in mid life with so much accumulated knowledge and experience and his penchant for thinking of ideas outside the norm, why was he still supporting slavery and not accepting the many rigorous, rational, economic and moral arguments of the anti-slavery movement.
His retirement also allowed him to devote even more time to civic duties. Franklin’s continued success over the decades in public affairs made him the go to guy for any sort of public project. Having been involved in the politics of the Pennsylvania Assembly for many years, went to to represent the Assembly in its fights against the Penn family, the descendents of William Penn, the royally appointed proprietors of . The assembly and the Penn family were mired in a great number of controversies, particularly the argument over whether the Penn family should pay taxes on its extremely vast landholdings.
So, the Assembly sent him to England in 1757 as its agent. In those days because travel by boat was so very slow, a many months long trip across the Atlantic Ocean, one didn’t jaunt as we do to another country for a few days for a business trip or for a week or two for a vacation. Rather, one stayed for a long period of time, at least months and at most years as did. Of course, during his long stay in London, Franklin sought out those of like mind, men who thought daring thoughts, ideas that were ahead of their time, men who did daring things like experiment with electricity, for by the time of his arrival in England, his reputation as the world’s most foremost authority on electricity preceded him. Franklin enjoyed stimulating conversation and rich meals with good wine that aided the digestion of food and ideas. He considered London to be the intellectual hub of the world, and though he loved his wife, town and colony; it would have been fine with him to have settled there permanently as at this time, he also had much admiration for England and considered himself a loyal subject to the King.
In England he met men who were dedicating their lives to the end of slavery and those friendships influenced him mightily. Richard Price was a member of a group, the Club of Honest Whigs that met regularly in a London tavern. Price was a Presbyterian minister who wrote about many different ideas all concerning political and religious reform. A rare Englishman in his support for the American causes, he may have thought that this opinion allowed him to counsel the Americans. He wrote that they should end slavery immediately, citing moral and economic grounds. He also warned the colonists, that for those who hold others in slavery, there may be others who would hold them in slavery. In other words, what goes around might come around.
A stronger influence on Franklin was Granville Sharp. A man of many interests and talents, he served as a government clerk while writing about social and moral issues. A deeply devout person, he was a conscientious objector, opposing all wars and staunchly opposed to slavery. In 1750 Sharp met a slave, Jonathan Strong, who had suffered physical problems related to his enslavement. The numerous beatings he endured as a slave made him lame and nearly blind. His master, David Lisle threw him out on the street to make his own way. But Lisle ran into Strong a couple of years later and seeing he was in better physical shape, had him jailed while Lisle looked for a buyer. Technically slavery had been outlawed in Britain in the 1100's, but in the seventeen hundreds many slaves were brought into the country as servants with no freedoms or power, and many British colonies used slavery. The question for Sharp and Strong was does a slave become free once setting foot in England. They knew their answer, but the judge was well aware of a precedent case, the 1729 decision on a similar matter which stated that slaves, once in England were free, but also recognized the slave as property of the master and would be considered as a life-long apprentice. Sharp diligently studied English law and wrote a pamphlet in 1769 titled“A Representation of the Injustice and Dangerous Tendency of Tolerating Slavery.” He pointed out that this system of bondage was related to the serfdom of medieval times and that it is a “Feudal tyranny” which had no place in modern England. All his reasons for ending slavery did influence Lisle as he dropped his case against Sharp. Of course, that still left the legal matter unfinished.
In 1772 the Someset case decided the fate of slaves in England. James Somerset, a runaway slave had been living in London when his former master, Charles Steuart found him and attempted to send him to Jamaica. The court ruled in Somerset's favor and in doing so, in the favor of thousands of slaves throughout Britain by establishing that any slave, once on British soil, was free.
Franklin was moved by this decision. In that same year he wrote a piece for the London Chronicle called “The Somerset Case and the Slave Trade” in which he condemned both slavery and the slave trade. In it he laid out the brutalities of the trade from the Atlantic passage and poor working conditions which he described as “excessive labour, bad nourishment, uncomfortable accommodation and broken spirits.” In an undated manuscript in the American Philosophical Library in Philadelphia it seems Franklin is writing on this case. He cites Deuteronomy 23, 16, which states that an escaped slave should not be returned to his master. Franklin comments, “This is manifestly, a moral law, which be ever binding as the will of God.” He further states “it is a maxim of the common Law of that the inferior law much give place to the [law].”
In his years in England he first served as an agent for the Pennsylvania Assembly and later as the colonies' representative. He successfully worked for the repeal of the Stamp Act among other things. But though he was well known and regarded among the scientific and philosophical communities, receiving honorary degrees from prestigious universities, and though he had many years of political experience in Pennsylvania, his political work in England was mostly a failure; and he became embroiled in a scandal that led to a public humiliation in the Privy Council. Franklin returned to America in 1775. Back at home, he became a member of the Continental Congress, but didn't use his position and reputation to help steer the Continental Congress toward the abolition of slavery. The Congress cut short his stay, for in 1776 the Congress sent him to France to negotiate a treaty with the French for help in the Revolutionary War.
Again as he had done before, Franklin spent many years overseas in this assignment. But there was a big difference between his arrivals in England and France. France loved Franklin. The French considered Franklin to be the quintessential American, a rustic philosopher though there was nothing rural about this life long city dweller, a man who showed all how we could control the heavens through his work with electricity, and a man representing an upstart group of colonies that were taking on the most powerful army, navy and government in the world, that just happened to be France's worst enemy. Franklin was feted wherever he went. The powdered and wigged women of Paris couldn't wait to receive his kisses, little pecks on their bared necks so as not to smudge the makeup or lipstick. His picture was on cups, vases, sold and displayed throughout France. The many years and the long lapses of time between negotiating sessions allowed Franklin to have time for socializing and meeting with France's greatest minds, for instance, the famous and often written about meeting between Franklin and the great philosopher Voltaire.
But Franklin met many others of the intellectual elite of the country and many of them were against slavery. The Marquis de Condorcet supported equality and liberty for all, individuals and groups. Some of his ideas were very extreme for his time like in his support for what we call gay rights. Trained as a scientist, Condorcet is considered one of the pioneers of modern social science though he impressed in many sciences like his work in setting up a coherent system of weights and measures to improve commerce. In 1773 he wrote Franklin without having met him before. Of course, when writing the world's most famous scientist and being one himself, Condorcet touched on science, but he also asked much about the condition, not only of slaves, but also freedmen in America. Franklin responded that the freedmen “are not deficient in natural Understanding, but they have not the Advantage of Education.” This remark shows that Franklin was still influenced by what he saw in that school in Philadelphia. They became friends, and as the Marquis continued his work to end slavery, the two remained friends until the end of Franklin's life. In 1781 Condorcet wrote his first major work on slavery called Reflections of Negro Slavery. He wrote
“To reduce a man to slavery, to purchase him, to sell him, to keep him in servitude, these are veritable crimes and they are crimes worst than theft. In effect, we strip the slave, not only of all mobile and financial property, but his ability to acquire it, including everything that nature has given him so he may conserve his life or satisfy his needs.”
He further stated that slavery was a criminal act and those who participated in the slave trade should be prosecuted. In the 1780's with Jacques-Pierre Brissot he formed an abolitionist society allowing him to continue to correspond and work with Franklin on this issue after Franklin returned from France in 1785.
Franklin returned to America with two sterling successes. He negotiated a treaty for France's help in the war, and this aid of money and military is recognized as possibly the most important aspect of the victory of the colonies as he was not representing a recognized government, as the colonies' army rarely won a battle and as America had no idea or way to reimburse the French for their financial help. But more importantly he returned with a peace treaty with Britain.
On the long sail home he continued his very active life, doing experiments at sea, observing weather patterns, and sea animals. He also wrote in his "Maritime Observations," about slavery questioning whether the “employment it affords is equal to the mischief of hazarding so many lives on the ocean.” Further he writes that "it is clearly the means of augmenting the mass of human misery." Franklin marvels at "the ships and lives risked in fetching tea from China, coffee from Arabia, sugar and tobacco from America, all which our ancestors did well without." He also cites "an eminent French moralist" (perhaps Condorcet) about whom he says, "that when he considers the wars we excite in to obtain
slaves, the numbers necessarily slain in those wars, the many
prisoners who perish at sea by sickness...and how many afterwards die from the hardships of slavery, he cannot look on a piece of sugar without conceiving it stained with spots of human blood!"
In 1785 was seventy nine years old, his great age a testament to the benefits of never retiring, by remaining curious and committed to the public good. He was still the open minded person, a faculty that seems to recede, not increase with age which allowed yet another foe of slavery to influence him, Dr. Benjamin Rush. At the forefront of medical ideas, some of them controversial, Rush was also an avid reader and deep thinker about all issues. Quite religious, Rush, unlike so many Americans, saw his Christianity as being opposed to the slave trade. In 1787 they helped re-form America's first abolitionist society, the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. Certainly, the hypocrisy of a country fighting a revolution to establish that all men are created equal while legally sanctioning slavery wasn't lost on Franklin and others. The famous Dr. Samuel Johnson of England asked “...how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?”
At the same time he was involved in the debate in the Constitutional Convention about regarding any Negro as merely three-fifths of a person. Franklin uttered no words arguing for the equality of slaves. Perhaps he felt the need to endorse and pass a constitution, any constitution, as more immediately important. In a stirring speech about urging the ratification of the constitution Franklin starts by saying that he doesn't “entirely approve of this constitution.” But Franklin didn't go into details about what he didn't approve of.
In a recent essay entitled, “At the End, an Abolitionist?” Emma J. Lapansky-Werner leads the reader through all aspects of Franklin's thoughts and actions regarding slavery. Because of his quiet on the subject at the Constitutional Convention and his various health problems, she points out that many scholars have viewed Franklin as a figurehead for the abolitionist society.
Franklin busied himself to rid the new nation of this hypocrisy. Many unpublished letters in Yale University's archive of Franklin's papers show him to be a very involved president. Franklin sent and received scores of letters as he corresponded with abolitionist societies in England and in France continuing his relationship with the Marquis de Condorcet. He sent a letter to the Pennsylvania Assembly urging the passing of a bill that would put money to the improvement of free blacks. On February 3rd 1790 he wrote a letter to the young nation's Congress stating,
“>From a persuasion that equal liberty was originally the Portion and is still the Birthright of all Men, and influenced by the strong ties of Humanity and the Principles of their Institution, Your Memorialists conceive themselves to use all justifiable endeavors to loosen the bands of Slavery and promote a general Enjoyment of the blessings of Freedom. Under these Impressions they earnestly entreat your serious attention to the subject of Slavery; that you will be pleased to countenance the Restoration of liberty to those unhappy Men, who alone in this land of Freedom are degraded in to perpetual Bondage, and who amidst the general Joy of Surrounding Free men are groaning in servile subjection, that you will devise means for removing this Inconsistency from the character of the American People, that you will promote Mercy and Justice towards this distressed Race, and that you will step to the very verge of the Powers vested in you, for discouraging every Species of Traffick in the person of our fellow Men.”
John Adams presented the letter to the Senate which debated the issue but did nothing more than talk. The House at least appointed a committee and then debated the issue for many days concluding, much to 's chagrin, that the House considered the issue to be left up to the individual states.
Enfeebled by gout, kidney stones, and the general pains and illnesses of old age, his remaining weeks numbered, Franklin continued his abolitionist cause by writing an essay published by the Federal Gazette, in which he assumed, as he had done many times in his public career and now for the last time, the persona of another this time one Sidi Mehemet Ibrahim, a fictitious Algerian Muslim prince. In it Ibrahim defends the enslaving of Christians. Franklin cleverly puts into Ibrahim's mouth the very words that many Christians in America were using to defend slavery. Less than a month later Franklin died, his funeral attended by thousands and conducted by the clergy from all the religions in Philadelphia. Seventy years later slavery was finally abolished with the violence of the Civil War.
On the one hand it seems easy from our vantage point to come down hard on Franklin, the most educated, inquisitive, and advanced thinker of his time to have taken so long to come to the very obvious, the inherent immorality of slavery. However, even coming from Franklin at the end of his life with his many accomplishments and fame, with his decades of experience and thought, as he was always analyzing and questioning, the idea of slavery as evil and the more radical idea that African-Americans are the equal to whites if given respect and education were extremely unpopular and which many from all levels of American life thought were dangerous and possibly ruinous to the future of the country. He did take what was considered a radical position.
One wonders about this gentleman of the Enlightenment, that force in the Western world that gave rise to the use and appreciation of the intellect and its reasoning powers as applied to the scientific view of the world. This is part of how he came to condemn slavery. His support of the school for African-American children was the working of a scientific hypothesis to test whether young children no matter what skin color can learn. And being a true scientist, he did change his thinking based on what he saw at that school. Yet, perhaps in his heart he had no way to change those deep negative feelings held for many decades that prevented him from having a more personal relationship with his slaves of many decades and from meeting those famous African-Americans like Phyllis Wheatley, with whom he had a chance to meet in London at one time, and then later expressed gladness that the meeting didn't happen. And he never met fellow Philadelphian Richard Allen, a freedman who spearheaded the formation of many institutions to help African-Americans similar to the ones Franklin formed many decades earlier for whites. Franklin was always one to meet those who were like him, ahead of his time, but he chose not to meet them. And one wonders at this man who along with all other talents was a skilled and frequent writer who wrote about most aspects of his life at length, but yet wrote little about his slaves of many decades and when he did, the words carried the evidence of a racist mind as he peddles the most demeaning of stereotypes and misnomers about this branch of humanity.
Franklin, the pragmatist, may have wanted to move sooner to his newfound position on slavery, but perhaps he thought it wasn’t prudent based on the extreme unpopularity of the anti-slavery sentiment. Having returned from France with a successfully negotiated treaty with France for help in the war and the more important peace treaty with Britain, given that his achievements were many and far reaching, and knowing his remaining years were few, perhaps he thought that now it was safe enough for him to publicly, for the first time, as head of the abolitionist society, commit himself to the abolitionist cause.
As Franklin shaped America in so many ways as printer, publisher, author, businessman, discoverer, inventor, philanthropist, politician, diplomat, he also mirrors America’s long and tortuous way to iron out the problem of race in this country. Just as he came very late to opposing slavery, so too has the country come late to abolish slavery, Jim Crow laws, lynching, and discrimination. He ended his life with his mind and heart probably in conflict with each other over this issue. And that is where our country remains, in that gray area of progress gained and progress needed, in that gray area of hope and despair as we continue the American Revolution to make manifest the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and principles of the Constitution.
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