This Day in History: Founders against slavery
On this day in 1775, a scathing rebuke of slavery is published in a Pennsylvania newspaper. It is presented anonymously and signed only: “Justice and Humanity,” but many historians believe that the essay “African Slavery in America” was written by Thomas Paine.
“As [those in slavery] are not convicted of forfeiting freedom,” the essay concluded, “they have still a natural, perfect right to it; and the governments whenever they come should, in justice set them free, and punish those who hold them in slavery.”
America’s first abolitionist group was formed just one short month later, with Paine as a founding member. Later, a successor group would be formed with the much-respected Benjamin Franklin at its head.
Franklin hadn’t always been such an outspoken advocate for ending slavery. Indeed, before the Revolution, his newspapers had carried advertisements for the sale of slaves. He’d owned slaves. For a while, he believed that white Europeans were superior. As early as 1763, however, he began to question these views. He wrote a friend that he’d “conceived a higher opinion of the natural capacities of the black race, than I had ever before entertained.”
Some historians speculate that Franklin’s views were influenced by the Revolution. He thought that the British meant to enslave the American colonists. If that type of slavery was wrong, then by what right did Americans enslave the Africans who had been brought into their country?
Franklin was in France for much of the Revolution; however, soon after his return to America, he was elected President of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. This society was the successor of the group that had been formed by Paine and others on April 14, 1775.
Franklin became quite outspoken about the need to end slavery. His position developed late in his life, but it was a strong one. He not only wanted to see slaves freed, but he also wanted to adopt a general policy of educating former slaves and integrating them into free society. It would “essentially promote the public good,” he wrote in 1789, “[t]o instruct, to advise, to qualify those, who have been restored to freedom, for the exercise 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.”
One of Franklin’s final acts was to present a petition to Congress. It was presented to on February 12, 1790, on behalf of his abolition society. It urged congressmen “to countenance the Restoration of liberty to those unhappy Men, who alone, in this land of Freedom, are degraded into perpetual Bondage.” He reminded Congress 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.”
The petition did not get too far in a Congress that was not yet ready to deal with slavery. (Possibly Congress could not have done much, anyway. The U.S. Constitution prohibited Congress from interfering with the slave trade until the year 1808.)
Unfortunately, Franklin passed away two short months later.
Many of today’s history books are quick to brand the founding generation as a bunch of evil slave owners. But isn’t it nice to know that at least some of our Founders were fighting against the institution of slavery? Yes, they may have done it imperfectly, but at least they saw the need for it, right from the beginning.
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An Address to the Public, from the Pennsylvania Society for promoting the Abolition of Slavery, and the Relief of Free Negroes, unlawfully held in Bondage (signed by Benjamin Franklin, as its President) (Nov. 9, 1789)
Benjamin Franklin's Anti-Slavery Petitions to Congress (National Archives)
Gordon S. Wood, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin (2005)
James Parton, Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin (1864) (Vol. II)
Thomas Paine, African Slavery In America (1775) (reprinted HERE)
Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (2003)