The Reading Room
Benjamin Franklin and Slavery, Part Two
In 1757, the Pennsylvania Assembly selected Benjamin Franklin to serve as the colony’s agent in London to moderate the Penn Proprietor’s harsh treatment of the colony. While there, he helped the Associates of Dr. Bray, a charity concerned with the education of Black children in the colonies, select sites for schools.
On returning to America, he visited one of the Associates’ schools in Philadelphia, and on December 17, 1763, wrote to his original contact with the organization, John Waring. After brief comments on the curriculum and the students’ progress, he offered his general impressions. “I was on the whole much pleas’d, and from what I then saw, have conceiv’d a higher Opinion of the natural Capacities of the black Race, than I had ever before entertained. Their Apprehension seems a quick, their Memory as strong, and their Docility in every Respect equal to white Children.” He concluded with a self-reflective, but enigmatic, statement: “You will wonder perhaps that I should ever doubt it, and I will not undertake to justify my Prejudices, nor to account for them.”
This letter was written six years before “A Conversation on Slavery,” which I discussed in a previous post, in which Franklin wrote, “The majority [of Negroes] are of a plotting Disposition, dark, sullen, malicious, revengeful and cruel in the highest degree.” How explain the difference in tone between the two? In one case he is talking about adults who have spent their lives as slaves, and in the other children attending school. Equally important, however, is that the letter to Reverend Waring was a private communication, and the “Conversation on Slavery” was a very public and political document, intended to protect the interests of the American colonies and weaken the British position.
One interpretation of Franklin’s “The Sommersett Case and the Slave Trade,” published in the London Chronicle on June 20, 1772, is that it returns to the trajectory of criticism of the slave trade—and perhaps of slavery itself—that his thought had been slowly following. Chief Justice Lord Mansfield ruled that the former Virginia slave, James Somerset, was free once he arrived on English territory. Franklin wrote (anonymously), “It is said that some generous humane persons subscribed to the expence of obtaining liberty by law for Somerset the Negro. It is to be wished that the same humanity may extend itself among numbers; if not to the procuring liberty for those that remain in our Colonies, at least to obtain a law for abolishing the African commerce in Slaves, and declaring the children of present Slaves free after they become of age.” A contrary interpretation, of course, is that this was another maneuver in Franklin’s effort to paint Britain as hypocritical and thus to promote American interests.
In 1787 Franklin became president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. Members of the Society had urged Franklin to speak against slavery at the Constitutional Convention, which he declined to do, fearing that pushing hard on that issue could undermine support for the proposed Constitution.
As President of the Society, on November 9, 1789, Franklin signed “An Address to the Public” outlining its concerns and program. The Address was clear both about the evil of slavery and the need to think and act carefully in efforts to eliminate it. “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 Address focuses directly on the problems faced by an adult who has lived their entire life under the direction of others. “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 by extreme labor, age, and disease. Under such circumstances, freedom may often prove a misfortune to himself, and prejudicial to society.” To assist with the transition from slavery to freedom, Franklin developed a “Plan for Improving the Condition of Free Blacks,” based around committees to deal with moral and social relations, safety, education, and employment.
In February 1790, Franklin, on behalf of the Society, signed a petition to both houses of Congress urging the abolition of slavery. Members of the Society “conceive themselves bound to use all justifiable endeavours to loosen the bounds of Slavery and promote a general Enjoyment of the blessings of Freedom.” Further, the Petition asks members of Congress to give “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.”
In his Last Will and Testament, dated July 17, 1788, after listing his bequests to his son-in-law Richard Bache, Franklin requested that he “immediately after my decease manumit and set free his Negro man Bob.”