The Reading Room

Benjamin Franklin and Slavery, Part One

As was the case with many in colonial America, Benjamin Franklin’s life intersected with the issue of slavery in many, and at times contradictory, ways. Franklin was a slave-owner beginning around 1735 until 1781, when George, whom he had acquired in a debt settlement in 1765, died. His newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, carried advertisements announcing slaves for sale.
His press also published at least two early anti-slavery works, Ralph Sandiford’s A Brief Examination of the Times and Benjamin Lay’s All Slave-Keepers that Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates. (Both were printed without the characteristic “B. Franklin” on the title page.) As a businessman, Franklin appeared to accept work for financial, not ideological or political, reasons. Franklin served as the British agent for a few colonies, including Georgia. Among his efforts on behalf of Georgia, he sought to have the British government accept its slave code.
Franklin also touched on the issue of slavery in his own writings throughout his life, and these writings reflect both his changing views on the questions of slavery and race and the self-reflective turn of his mind that evinced a certain skepticism concerning his own beliefs and attitudes.
In “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, Etc.” written and circulated in manuscript form in 1751 (and published in 1755), Franklin offers a brief economic and sociological critique of slavery. He argues that slave labor in America is not cheaper than wage labor in Britain, in part because of the overhead involved in keeping slaves, and in part because slaves pilfer “from Time to Time, almost every Slave [being] by Nature a Thief.” Why then do Americans continue to purchase slaves? “Because Slaves may be kept as long as a Man pleases, or has Occasion for the Labour; while hired Men are continually leaving their Master . . . and setting up for themselves.” 
The gist of Franklin’s argument in this pamphlet is that a rising nation needs a growing population, and that this requires the encouragement of marriage. He adds a list of “Things [that] must diminish a Nation,” and the sixth item on this list is “The Introduction of Slaves.” With the advent of slavery, poor whites are deprived of the opportunity to work, while the economic elite accumulate vast wealth, “which they spend on Foreign Luxuries, and educating their Children in the Habit of those Luxuries.” Slaveowners, “not laboring, are enfeebled, and therefore not so generally prolific [in producing children]”, while slaves are worked to death, thus requiring a constant supply of newly imported slaves. In a passage that foreshadows a famous passage from Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, Franklin writes, “the white Children become proud, disgusted with Labour, and being educated in Idleness, are rendered unfit to get a Living by Industry.” 
In this pamphlet Franklin is concerned with protecting the English heritage of the American colonies, and therefore is concerned not only about the impact of slavery but also the immigration of Germans into North America. “Why should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.” This leads to his concluding paragraph, in which he offers a rant concerning white, “tawny,” and red peoples around the world, and pleads to keep the “Blacks and Tawneys” out. 
After this outburst, his concluding sentence appears a bit sheepish. “But perhaps I am partial to the Complexion of my Country, for such Kind of Partiality is natural to Mankind.” It is this self-questioning turn of this final statement that sets Franklin apart from many of his contemporaries. One final note on this pamphlet: when Franklin reprinted it years later, he eliminated the concluding paragraph about keeping America white and he modified his comment about slavery and thievery to say, “every slave being by the nature of slavery a thief.”
On January 30, 1770, “A Conversation on Slavery” was published in a London newspaper, The Public Advertiser. This anonymous dialogue, written by Franklin, is a compendium of arguments explaining why the existence of slavery in the colonies did not undermine America’s commitment to liberty. Purporting to be a discussion between an Englishman, a Scotchman, and an American, it became a crib-sheet of arguments concerning slavery that would be echoed by Thomas Jefferson, in early nineteenth century political arguments, and leading up to the Civil War, and even in today’s arguments over race in American history.
The following is a list of the major arguments made by the American in defense of the colonies:
  1.  Slavery is not widespread; not more than one in a hundred families own a slave. Slaves “belong chiefly to the old rich Inhabitants, near navigable Waters.”
  2. Many “abhor the Slave Trade . . . and do every Thing in their Power to abolish it.”
  3. “Many treat their Slaves with great Humanity.” Here, for good measure, Franklin tosses in the old “If you think we’re bad, take a look at yourselves” maneuver. While English laborers are not legally slaves, “there seems something a little like slavery” in the laws that govern their employment and the ill treatment they may receive at their employers hands.
  4. England is responsible for the slave trade and for slavery in the colonies.
  5. Colonial efforts to restrict the slave trade have been prevented by the British government.
  6. Severe laws are found only where slaves outnumber whites, or the nature of the population requires severity. “Perhaps you may imagine the Negroes to be a mild tempered, tractable Kind of People. Some of them are indeed so. But the majority are of a plotting Disposition, dark, sullen, malicious, revengeful and cruel in the highest Degree.”
Tomorrow's post will discuss Franklin’s final views concerning slavery in America.