Benjamin Franklin and Slavery

Throughout his life, Benjamin Franklin had a tendency to change his mind on political issues. For example, he initially supported the Stamp Act and only later decided that the American colonies should separate from Britain. Yet often Franklin ended up on the winning side of an argument, even if the argument was not settled in his lifetime.

Like his opinion of the American Revolution, Franklin’s views on slavery changed, too. He owned a couple of slaves at various times of his life and published ads for slave auctions when he worked as a printer. Still, he and his wife Deborah made sure that their slaves received an education from a Philadelphia school for black students. Most slave owners didn’t think slaves could learn, but after Franklin visited the school he commented that he had “higher opinions of the natural capacities of the black race.” He also published a few articles arguing against slavery. Until 1787, however, Franklin never gave the abolition of slavery his complete support.

By 1787, the year of the Constitutional Convention, Franklin became president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. During the convention, he sought to include a statement about the freeing of slaves in the U.S. Constitution. Like many of the Founding Fathers, however, Franklin feared that the union between northern and southern states would not be created if he argued too forcefully for the end of slavery.

Franklin’s silence on the abolition of slavery lasted only until the Constitution was ratified and the new federal government was in place. In 1790, he submitted a petition on the society’s behalf to the U.S. Congress. Franklin declared that slavery contradicted the principles of the American Revolution, particularly the ideas that all men were created equal and that they were entitled to liberty. The petition stated that Congress had an obligation to ensure “the blessings of liberty to the people of the United States without distinction of color.”

The anti-slavery petition set off a heated debate in Congress. It angered pro-slavery advocates like Congressman James Jackson of Georgia. He stated that the Bible supported slavery and that slaves were needed to do the work on the South’s plantations. Though in poor health, Franklin didn’t miss the opportunity to mock Jackson’s speech in print. He compared it to a speech supposedly given one hundred years earlier by an Algerian pirate who had Christian slaves. The pirate argued that it was “in the interest of the state to continue the practice; therefore let the petition be rejected.” He also said that his religion permitted the enslavement of Christians, and that they were better off living as slaves than as free men in Europe “where they would only cut each other’s throats in religious wars.”

Like Franklin’s fictional Algerian pirate, Congress rejected the petition to end slavery. After the debate ended, George Washington wrote to a friend, “the slave business has at last [been] put to rest and will scarce awake.” The contradiction of slavery and the promises of liberty for all Americans awoke again in the nineteenth century, resulting in the Civil War. Once again, Franklin had picked the point of view that eventually prevailed.

Deborah Read: Wife of Benjamin Franklin

Other than a surge of interest in Abigail Adams, wives of the American revolutionary era remain largely ignored, especially in school textbooks. How many of you have heard of Deborah Read? She was Benjamin Franklin’s wife. Their partnership contributed to Ben Franklin’s later successes, which though not always fun for his wife, led him to serve the revolutionary cause.

According to Franklin, he met Deborah Read while walking through the streets of Philadelphia with one bread roll under each arm and one in his mouth. He looked so odd that Deborah laughed aloud. Franklin may have made this part up, but he did end up lodging in her mother’s house. It was common at the time for women with little income to take in borders, and Deborah’s mother was a widow. Franklin proposed marriage to Deborah before he left for London to try and purchase a printing press. Deborah’s mother insisted that they wait until after Franklin’s trip. The idea seemed reasonable, but Deborah heard little from Franklin while he was in London and ended up married to someone else. John Rogers was a potter with a talent for running up debts. Whether they parted mutually or Rogers just left her, Deborah was alone again when Franklin returned.

He didn’t get the printing press, but he met many girls in London. Eventually he ran into Deborah again, who had news that her husband may have died—something that could never be proved. Franklin may have felt responsible for her loneliness or maybe he realized that she had the qualities he wanted in a wife. Either way, they moved in together as husband and wife. They couldn’t legally get married because Rogers might still be alive. The people of Philadelphia, including Deborah’s mother, accepted the match.

Deborah kept busy not only with housework but also with her husband’s printing business. She managed the accounts from Franklin’s business ventures for years and helped him expand printing franchises throughout the colonies. Franklin said of her, “Frugality is…a virtue I could never acquire in myself, but I was lucky enough to find it in a wife, who thereby became a fortune to me.” Thanks to Deborah’s help, Franklin retired early and focused on his inventions and politics. As Franklin became more famous, she entertained the crowds who dropped in to see him and bragged about how quickly she could make cakes for surprise visitors.

Franklin’s notoriety and love of politics led to subsequent trips to London where he represented the Pennsylvania Assembly. Deborah had no intention of coming with him. Instead she ran the postal service in his absence and bought more real estate. She even kept the family home safe from a mob that suspected Franklin of supporting the Stamp Act. Though she sent the children away, she stood her ground. She wrote Franklin, “Cousin Davenport came…Towards night I said he should fetch a gun or two as we had none. I sent to ask my brother to come and bring his gun also…I ordered some sort of defense upstairs such as I could manage myself. I said, when I was advised to remove, that I was very sure you had done nothing to hurt anybody, I had not given offense to any person at all, nor would I be made uneasy by anybody…but if anyone came to disturb me I would show proper resentment.” With the help of a few friends, Deborah saved the home, much to the pride and delight of her husband.

Both husband and wife seemed to sense that Philadelphia gave Deborah her own identity as a businesswoman and Franklin’s partner, whereas in London she would only be the wife of her famous husband. Enjoying his public life, Franklin did not return from London, even when he learned Deborah had a stroke. When she passed away Franklin came home to manage his interests and began to appreciate his “old and faithful companion.”

Libraries in Early America

Today’s Americans take the ability to freely check out books and other materials from their local libraries for granted. The opportunity for the average person to borrow books did not exist in America, however, until Benjamin Franklin suggested it to a group of his friends. In the eighteenth century, private libraries were common among wealthy people and churches sometimes had their own libraries. Franklin’s idea of a subscription library, however, was unique.

Since his club of local tradesmen was already holding regular meetings, Franklin suggested that they each bring books to the meetings so members could share. Although members brought books in, Franklin soon discovered that money was needed to supervise and maintain the collection. He tried to get subscribers from the club and elsewhere to pay a fee for the right to borrow from the collection, but there were few literate people in eighteenth century Philadelphia. The subscribers did raise enough money to hire a librarian, who kept the library open from two to three on Wednesdays and from ten to four on Saturdays. The fees also helped the library buy books from London on topics such as history, science, and politics. Anyone could look at the books in the library, but only subscribers could check them out.

Eventually subscription libraries appeared in all the American colonies. Franklin stated, “These libraries have improved the general conversation of the Americans, and made the common tradesmen and farmers as intelligent as most gentlemen from other countries.” Unfortunately, America’s libraries are currently suffering from budget cuts which threaten the services they provide as well as the existence of the libraries themselves. Americans must work to protect these educational institutions that students and others depend on for free access to knowledge.