Benjamin Franklin and Slavery

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Benjamin Franklin, an abolitionist? Why not?

            Ever thought of our founding fathers being involved in such a big case of all time--the most controversial and disgraceful marks in the history of our nation--Slavery? Well, Benjamin Franklin had definitely attached himself to the biggest scandal of our nation. Whether he was on the right or the wrong side of the issue is for us, the people, to decide. To begin this unsolvable argument about Franklin's insensitivity to racism in America, or the debate about why it took Franklin such a long time to finally pick a side on the problem, let's examine what Franklin actually thought about slavery. Did Franklin consider it a good thing? What was his role in slavery and the types of efforts did he make to promote equality when he finally did decide to take a stand on the issue?


Well, hold your kites ladies and gentlemen, we're getting there!



Image:  Newspaper Article- A Conversation on Slavery, The Public Advertiser Jan. 25, 1770. Retrieved from America's Historical Newspapers 


            While it is evident that Franklin assumed the abolitionist position in his last years, it is questionable whether Franklin held the anti-slavery views his entire life.  Although, much of Franklin's writings reveal a transformation in his view about slavery, there is very little evidence that shows what sparked the change in our founding father. Many of Franklin's early writings can be used as a reflection of Franklin's opinion on slavery, though they provide very little to determine his true intention about slavery. However, his works do reveal that Benjamin Franklin was not ignorant about slavery.



 Image: Anti-slavery medallion: Am I Not a Man and a Brother, William Hackwood and Josiah Wedgwood. American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia -

            Franklin's essay Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, makes, what some critics may call, "radical" remarks about slavery. In an essay, Emma J. Lapsansky-Werner notes that "Franklin--typical of white Americans of his time--still had negative things to say about both slavery and black people", in regards to Franklin's essay Increase of Mankind.[i] She highlights that Franklin believed that "slavery was financially risky" and that Franklin also suggested a slave could be expected to be "sullen, malicious, revengeful,' and by 'Nature a thief." Werner equates these words of Franklin in a negative light, showing him to be utterly racist.  This type of interpretation of Franklin's essay aims to leave no room for disagreement, especially when supplemented with supports that Franklin, in the same essay, demeaned people of other races. Werner indicates that Franklin "characterized all Native Americans as drunken 'savages that delight in war and take pride in murder,' who should be pursued with 'large, strong, and fierce dogs.' He described German immigrants as 'Boors' who would 'swarm into our Settlements' and make Pennsylvania a 'colony of Aliens.'" Clearly, Werner's understanding of Franklin from this essay is that Franklin, in his early years was partial to the anti-slavery views. 

            However, the same essay is used to argue that Franklin was always keen on the issue of slavery and showed interests in abolition from the beginning. Alan Houston comments on Franklin's essay to be "proving that slavery was economically inefficient and morally corrupting".[ii] Houston focuses on Franklin's argument of slavery as "extremely costly", showing Franklin as an economist and a politician, evaluating slavery on economics terms, presenting it to be a disadvantage, because Franklin understood that slave owners were not concerned about morality of slavery but, the money. Houston argues "to strike a critical blow, it was necessary to prove that slavery was less efficient than free labor." [iii] Houston also highlights Franklin's argument on slavery and its negative effects on the owners: "slaves 'perjorate [make worse] the Families that use them. Children learn to be proud, and sneer at those who work with sweat on their brows.' Educated in Idleness, they are 'rendered unfit to get a Living by Industry.'"[iv] Houston is showing Franklin as an abolitionist who is concerned about the economy of the colonies and the value of laboring men.

            By observing the two, very polarized, interpretations of Franklin's essay, it is difficult to assume Franklin's original stand on slavery. One can say that he was not opposed to slavery in his youth by judging from his writings but, the other argument can be made that he was an abolitionist from the start. Franklin's earlier writings leave very little room to answer the remaining question whether he considered slavery a good thing.  If we are to follow Houston's argument then, our task is complete! However, Werner's argument complicates the issue, and we cannot disregard the fact that Franklin's essay Increase of Mankind, does carry a disturbing language, raising questions about racism.


Franklin's Print Shop and Slavery

            Ever imagined Franklin in bondage? Even better Franklin, a runaway servant? Didn't think so! Well, in truth, Franklin was an indentured servant to his brother James. Benjamin Franklin was bound to be his brother's apprentice and servant until the age of twenty-one.  Franklin in his autobiography describes his brother's "harsh and tyrannical treatment".[v]  In fact, the treatment was so harsh, that Franklin eventually ran away. Franklin, later on, after his escape, was able to set up his own printing shop.

            Although, our founding father's runaway story is a success, it is important to note that his printing business, not entirely but to some extent, depended on advertisements. Want to guess what type of ads B. Franklin ran? You got it! Franklin printed ads in his Pennsylvania Gazette about runaway slaves and the slaves "for sale" ads.  The following ad was published in Pennsylvania Gazette on May 9, 1751 by Nicholas Everson after the disappearance of his slave Tom. [vi] 



 Image: Newspaper Ad from Pennsylvania Gazette May 9, 1751. Retrieved from America's Historical Newspaper

The ad reads: "Run away in July last, from Nicholas Everson, living in East New-Jersey, two miles from Perth-Amboy Ferry, a mulatto Negroe, named Tom, about 37 years of age, short, well-set, thick lips, flat nose..."

            Being an indentured servant himself and living with slavery, and even though he was not a slave trader, Franklin was "intermediary between buyers and seller, owners and captors" of slaves.[vii]  Franklin's print shop played an important role for communications and exchange for the colonists. By observing the role of Franklin's paper in the colonial America, the advertisements about slaves and Franklin's own history of apprenticeship, there can be speculations that young Franklin was insensitive to slavery.

            However, Franklin was not biased to only print ads on slaves. In fact, the young Franklin, the staunch believer of free press, honorably printed anti-slavery pamphlets by abolitionist Quakers such as Ralph Sandiford and Benjamin Lay.[viii] The printing of slave ads and anti-slavery pamphlets can show that Franklin was inclined to be more neutral to the issue.



Image: Title Page of Benjamin Lay's pamphlet, All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, 1737 - 

            Running ads about slaves might seem like a minute erratum for the promoter of human rights and an abolitionist especially when balanced with justly printing of anti-slavery works. But, this issue is complicated further when Franklin is directly involved in slavery.


Benjamin Franklin was a Slave owner? No way!

            Franklin did own household slaves in his middle-age around 1740's. Franklin as a slave owner defames the virtuous, humanitarian image of Franklin. However, it is important to take in account that slavery was a norm of the eighteenth century and Franklin, being the busy man as he was, needed assistance in the print shop. By observing Franklin's Last Will and Testament, which was written in 1757, where Franklin clearly stated "I will that my Negro man and his wife Jemima, be free after my Decease"[ix], it can be assumed that Franklin was not a cruel slave-owner. It was very seldom that slave-owner would set their slaves free. In most cases, slaves were passed down as inheritance. The very fact that our founding father, Benjamin Franklin, wanted his slaves to be set free reminds us that he was indeed not swayed away from his libertarian values. Moreover, in a letter to his wife Deborah on June 27, 1760, Franklin discloses that one of his slaves, King, has ran away. Franklin never pursued to capture his runaway slave, and even when King was found, Franklin did not forcefully bring him back to bondage. Even with the evidence of a thoughtful master, Franklin's ownership of slaves tends to damage his reputation as advocate of freedom. 

            The track record of demeaning language towards people of other races, slave ads and redeeming quality of neutrality in press by printing anti-slavery pamphlets, and allowing his slaves to be freed, Franklin was not finished becoming one the most prominent figure in the history of slavery.



Image: Liberty Displaying the Arts and Sciences, or The Genius of America Encouraging the Emancipation of the Blacks, 1792 Samuel Jennings -  

Franklin's Transformation as an Abolitionist: Efforts to Refine Blacks in Colonial America. 

            It is a mere fact that Benjamin Franklin became the president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery in 1787. But, it is hardly known what stirred this changed in Benjamin Franklin. However, this change was not immediate; it took Franklin quiet sometime to join forces against slavery and perhaps some "eye-opening" experiences to change his views about slavery.

            The most remarkable change in Franklin's view of slavery and the African race was when Franklin joined the Associates of Dr. Bray to establish schools for blacks in America.[x] Franklin recommended a "separate school for Blacks" and so, a school for thirty boys and girls was opened in 1758.  The biggest supporter of this campaign was Franklin's wife Deborah, who immediately enrolled one of their household slaves, Othello, into the school. The involvement with the Associates broadened Franklin's view.  In 1763, Franklin made a visit to the schools in Philadelphia, and made an astonishing revelation. Franklin expressed: "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." [xi]  Franklin's realization that intellectual capacities of blacks and white were equal was one of the biggest milestones on the road to abolition.

            When Franklin accepted his presidency of Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, he was hesitant to towards immediate abolition. One of the arguments he made was it was not practical or safe to free hundreds or thousands of adults into a society for which they were not prepared and therefore, the society dedicated itself with a goal to help slaves become "good citizens" after becoming free.[xii] Franklin drew up detailed charter and procedures called "Plan for Improving the Condition of the Free Blacks, 1789". There would be twenty-four-person committee divided into four subcommittees. The subcommittees ranged from advising freed slaves to placing them in apprenticeships to learn trade or business, and from educating the youth to finding employments for the freed slaves.

            With the society's plan to help the freed slaves during integration into the community, Franklin also present a formal petition to abolish slavery in February 1790 to the Congress. In the proposal, Franklin stated: "Mankind are all formed by the same Almighty Being, alike objects of his care, and equally designed for the enjoyment of happiness." Franklin also suggested that "the duty of congress was to secure the blessings of liberty to the People of the United States and this should be done without distinction of color. Therefore Congress should grant liberty to those unhappy men who alone in the land of freedom are degraded into perpetual bondage."[xiii]  Franklin's words were strong. At this point, Franklin openly took a stand against slavery and pleaded the Congress to abolish slavery in America.


Image: The Constitution of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery - 

            Unfortunately, Franklin's petition was denounced by the defenders of slavery, notably Congressman James Jackson of Georgia who declared that the "Bible sanctioned slavery and, without it there would be no one to do the hard and hot work on plantations."[xiv] But, this rejection did not discourage our Founding Father. Instead, Franklin wrote one of his last great parodies just less than a month before he died; it was called "An Edict from the King of Prussia", it presented a speech that resembled Jackson's speech and attacked a petition by a purist sect asking for an end to the practice of capturing and enslaving European Christians to work in Algeria.[xv] 

            One might wonder what took Franklin so long to finally pick a side in the matter and act on it. Well, the answer may never be known. But better late than never, right? Franklin himself owned a few years before his formal petition to abolish slavery that his "judgment on important matters was faulty at times". In 1787, during his speech in the Constitutional Convention, Franklin admitted, "for having lived long, I have experienced many Instances of being oblig'd, by better Information or fuller Consideration, to change Opinions even on important Subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise."[xvi] Perhaps, the important "subjects" Franklin mentions also include slavery.

            It is true that Franklin may have been insensitive to racism in his early years but, that cannot overshadow his final efforts to abolish slavery. Even if it took Franklin sometime to finally take a stand against slavery, he still paved a way for others to follow his footsteps and fight to end slavery. By his ultimate work to eliminate slavery in the United States, Franklin showed that he has certainly changed as he grew older and became more firm in his beliefs of liberty and equality for all. Franklin accepted that he might have been wrong on some subjects that he once thought right and that shows that a person can still do right. In fact, Franklin did right in his final years, when he joined the abolition society to bring complete and equal liberty to all people in America irrespective of their color and that truth cannot be disregarded.




[i] Lapsansky-Werner, Emma. "At the End, an Abolitionist?" Ed. Talbott Benjamin Franklin in Search of a Better World. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. 273-96. Print.

[ii] Houston, Alan. Benjamin Franklin and the Politics of Improvement. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. 201-16. Print.

 [iii] Houston, p. 206

 [iv] Houston, p. 207

 [v] Seavey, Ormond. Benjamin Franklin Autobiography and Other Writings. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.

 [vi] Waldstreicher, David. Runaway America. New York: Hill and Wang, 2004. Print

 [vii] See Houston, p.203

 [viii] "Benjamin Franklin and Freedom." Journal of Negro History. 4.1 (1919): 41-50. Web. 14 Apr. 2013.

 [ix] Franklin, Benjamin. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin. The American Philosophical Society and Yale University. Web. 4 Apr 2013. <>.

[x] Isaacson, Walter. Benjamin Franklin, An American Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003. 437-70. Print.

[xi] Juhnke, William. "Benjamin Franklin's view of the Negro and Slavery." Pennsylvania History. 41.4 (1974): 374-88. Web. 6 Apr. 2013

[xii] Isaacson, p.464

[xiii] Isaacson, Walter. A Benjamin Franklin Reader. New York: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 2003. 368-76. Print.

[xiv] Isaacson, An American Life, p. 466

[xv] Isaacson, A Benjamin Franklin Reader, p. 373

[xvi] Seavey, p. 350


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