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Benjamin Franklin and His Fight to Abolish Slavery

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by June 6, 2010 blog

Benjamin Franklin has always been my favorite Founding Father. Of all the Founding Fathers, he seemed the most witty, the most personable. When I watched the movie 1776, I really enjoyed the jolly Benjamin Franklin persona that I watched on the screen. I admire Franklin’s accomplishments as a scientist, a politician, and a diplomat to France and England. When I read the book Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph Ellis, I didn’t realize the extant of Benjamin Franklin’s involvement in the fight to abolish slavery in the early nation. Ellis’ book details Benjamin Franklin’s attempt in 1790 to force Congress to confront the issue of slavery. This last crusade of Benjamin Franklin before he died was the culmination of a lifetime where he evolved in his views on slavery and the equality of African Americans.

In his early life, Franklin held many of the same views of race as his fellow neighbors. His newspaper publication had ads for slave trades and he personally owned a slave couple until 1751. That year he wrote an essay Observations on the Increase of Mankind which argued against slavery on economic grounds, but was demeaning of Africans as a race. Franklin’s attitudes on race began to change when he joined the Associates of Dr. Bray to establish schools for blacks in America.

Walter Isaacson’s book Benjamin Franklin: An American Life describes how Franklin’s wife Deborah had enrolled her servants in the Philadelphia school and expressed her “high opinions of the natural capacities of the black race.” Benjamin Franklin himself observed how these African American children were just as smart and learned just as quickly as their white counterparts, and this led to a change in his opinions.

In the book A Benjamin Franklin Reader edited by Walter Isaacson, Franklin wrote a letter to Reverend John Waring in December 17, 1763 about his change in attitude:

This is chiefly to acquaint you, that I have visited the Negro school here in company with the Rev. Mr. Sturgeon and some others; and had the children thoroughly examined. They appeared all to have made considerable progress in reading for the time they had respectively been in the school, and most of them answered readily and well the questions of the catechism; they behaved very orderly, showed a proper respect and ready obedience to the mistress, and seemed very attentive to, and a good deal affected by, a serious exhortation with which Mr. Sturgeon concluded our visit. I was on the whole much pleased, and from what I then saw, have conceived a higher opinion of the natural capacities of the black race, than I had ever before entertained. Their apprehension seems as quick, their memory as strong, and their docility in every respect equal to that of white children. You will wonder perhaps that I should ever doubt it, and I will not undertake to justify all my prejudices, not to account for them.
From that time on, Franklin began a slow process of supporting abolitionist sympathies. In the 1770s, he expressed sympathy for the views of Philadephia abolitionist Anthony Benezet and the Quakers in their demands for the quick end of the slave trade, although Franklin hoped for a gradual abolition of slavery rather than Benezet’s and the Quakers’ wishes for a quick abolition. He began to write articles, like the 1772 The Somerset Case and the Slave Trade, which argued against Britains foisting of slavery on America.

Most significantly, Joseph Ellis notes in his book Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation that during the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin had wanted to introduce a statement of principle in the Constitution condemning slavery and the slave trade to commit the government to eventual emancipation. Several northern delegates, however, persuaded Franklin not to introduce the statement on the grounds that it put the fragile Sectional Compromise that held the Consitutional Convention together at risk.

In 1787 Benjamin Franklin agree to serve as president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society and he made the abolitionist cause the final project of his life. The Pennsylvania Abolition Society set out not only to abolish slavery, but also to set up programs to help freed slaves to become good citizens and improve the conditions of free African Americans. Benjamin Franklin recommended that a committee of 24 people be set up to guide freed African American slaves in moral instruction, set up apprenticeships to teach their children in a trade or other business, to set up schools for education, and to procure meaningful employment. The book A Benjamin Franklin Reader has a speech that Franklin gave on November 9, 1789 that told of the need for any abolition plan to include programs to help prepare freed slaves to integrate into society.

Slavery is such an atrocious debasement of human nature, that its very extirpation, if not performed with solicitous care, may sometimes open a source of serious evils.
The unhappy man, who has long been treated as a brute animal, too frequently sinks beneath the common standard of the human species. The galling chains that bind his body do also fetter his intellectual faculties, and impair the social affections of his heart. Accustomed to move like a mere machine, by the will of a master, reflection is suspended; he has not the power of choice; and reason and conscience have but little influence over his conduct, because he is chiefly governed by the passion of fear. He is poor and friendless; perhaps worn out be extreme labor, age, and disease.

Under such circumstances, freedom may often prove a misfortune to himself, and prejudicial to society.

Attention to emancipate black people, it is therefore to be hoped will become a branch of our national police; but, as far as we contribute to promote this emancipation, so far that attention is evidently a serious duty incumbent on us, and which we mean to discharge to the best of our judgment and abilities.

To instruct, to advise, to qualify those who have been restored to freedom, for the exercised and enjoyment of civil liberty; to promote in them habits of industry; to furnish them with employments suited to their age, sex, talents, and other circumstances; and to procure their children an education calculated for their future situation in life, these are the great outlines of the annexed plan, which we have adopted, and which we conceive will essentially promote the public good, and the happiness of these our hitherto too much neglected fellow creatures.

On February 12, 1790, a petition from Benjamin Franklin and the Pennsylvania Abolition Society was presented to the House of Representatives calling for the federal government to take steps for the gradual abolition of slavery and end the slave trade. The petition stated that slavery and the slave trade were incompatible with the values of freedom of the American Revolution. The petition challenged the idea that the Constitution prohibited legislation against the slave trade until 1808 by suggesting that the “general welfare clause” (Article 1, Section 8) allowed the Congress to eliminate the slave trade and abolish slavery. The petition, from a website on historical documents, reads in full:

To the Senate & House of Representatives of the United States,
The Memorial of the Pennsylvania Society for promoting the Abolition of Slavery, the relief of free Negroes unlawfully held in bondage, & the Improvement of the Condition of the African Races.

Respectfully Sheweth,

That from a regard for the happiness of Mankind an Association was formed several years since in this State by a number of her Citizens of various religious denominations for promoting the Abolition of Slavery & for the relief of those unlawfully held in bondage. A just & accurate Conception of the true Principles of liberty, as it spread through the land, produced accessions to their numbers, many friends to their Cause, & a legislative Co-operation with their views, which, by the blessing of Divine Providence, have been successfully directed to the relieving from bondage a large number of their fellow Creatures of the African Race. They have also the Satisfaction to observe, that in consequence of that Spirit of Philanthropy & genuine liberty which is generally diffusing its beneficial Influence, similar Institutions are gradually forming at home & abroad.

That mankind are all formed by the same Almighty being, alike objects of his Care & equally designed for the Enjoyment of Happiness the Christian Religion teaches us to believe & the Political Creed of America fully coincides with the Position. Your Memorialists, particularly engaged in attending to the Distresses arising from Slavery, believe it their indispensable Duty to present this Subject to your notice. They have observed with great Satisfaction that many important & salutary Powers are vested in you for “promoting the Welfare & Securing the blessings of liberty to the “People of the United States.” And as they conceive, that these blessings ought rightfully to be administered, without distinction of Colour, to all descriptions of People, so they indulge themselves in the pleasing expectation, that nothing, which can be done for the relive of the unhappy objects of their care, will be either omitted or delayed.

From a persuasion that equal liberty was originally the Portion, It is still the Birthright of all men, & influenced by the strong ties of Humanity & the Principles of their Institution, your Memorialists conceive themselves bound to use all justifiable endeavours to loosen the bounds 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 into perpetual Bondage, and who, amidst the general Joy of surrounding Freemen, 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, & that you will Step to the very verge of the Powers vested in you for discouraging every Species of Traffick in the Persons of our fellow men.

Philadelphia February 3, 1790

B. Franklin
President of the Society

A strong debate took place in the House, with fierce opposition to the petition coming from the representatives of the Deep Southern states of South Carolina and Georgia. Congressman James Jackson of Georgia gave the strongest arguments for slavery in the South, arguing that slavery was sanctioned by the Bible, that the two races could not live together on equal terms and had to be separate, and that slaves were needed to do the labor for the Southern plantation economy. In response to Jackson’s arguments, Franklin wrote a parody of Jackson’s arguments in the March 23, 1790 edition of the Federal Gazette. Writing under the pseudonym Historicus, Franklin noted the similarity between Jackson’s defense of slavery of African Americans and the justifications of an Algerian pirate named Sidi Mehmet Ibrahim for the enslavement of Christians.

In the middle of the debate in Congress, Franklin died on April 17, 1790. Soon afterwards, the petition was tabled, and Congress would not debate the issue of slavery again until several decades later. The hopes for a gradual abolition plan for the U.S. died with Franklin.

Most of the Founding Fathers were against slavery. Of all the Founding Fathers, though, only Thomas Jefferson did as much as Benjamin Franklin to try to get the federal government to adopt some plan to gradually abolish slavery and end the slave trade. Benjamin Franklin remains my favorite Founding Father and his fight against slavery only adds to my esteem of him.


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