Benjamin Franklin on making the transition from slavery to civil liberty (1789)

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) warns that after having been brutalised by being enslaved the freed slave faces additional problems of adjusting to a life as a free person. Franklin was a member of a society which sought to raise money to assist them in making this transition:

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 by extreme labor, age, and disease.

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

Franklin here raises the problem of the transition between unfreedom and freedom. As an ardent opponent of slavery - what he called “an atrocious debasement of human nature” - he formed a Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery with other like-minded people in Philadelphia which was active in the 1780s. But he came to realise that it was not sufficient to just abolish the practice of slavery and the laws which made it possible because of what years of slavery had down to morally and physically “debase” the people who had been held in that condition. Thus, he and his friends decided to expand the activity of their Society to include assistance in the immediate post-slavery period and to achieve this end they wanted to provide “Relief of Free Negroes unlawfully held in Bondage”. They circulated this letter appealing for funds from their supporters in order to assist freed blacks make the transition to freedom by providing them with advice, assistance in finding jobs, educating their children, and learning how to “exercise and enjoy” their civil liberty.