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.

From Preserving the Union to Emancipation: President Lincoln’s Views on Slavery

President Lincoln believed that he would be best remembered for writing the Emancipation Proclamation. Although many people remember him as the president who freed the slaves, some of the facts surrounding that achievement have been clouded with the passing of time.

Although Abraham Lincoln hated slavery, his goal was not to free the slaves at the beginning of his presidency. Instead, he wanted the Southern states to remain in the Union and tried to prevent them from pulling out. He promised Southerners that he would not interfere with slavery in states where it already existed, but this assurance was not enough to prevent the Civil War.

As the war dragged on, however, Lincoln realized that freeing the slaves and preserving the Union were inseparable issues. Lincoln informed his cabinet of his plan to issue emancipation for the slaves in summer 1862, but was advised to wait for a Union army victory. When victory came, he pulled the proclamation out of his desk drawer. In his message to Congress in December 1862, he explained his actions: “In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve.”

Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. It stated that from that date “all persons held as slaves within any state or states, wherein the constitutional authority of the United States shall not then be practically recognized…shall then, thenceforward, and forever, be free.” Criticism came from within his own party. Conservative Republicans thought it was too radical, while the radicals complained that the proclamation only freed slaves in Southern states that the Union army had no authority to help.

In the military, some soldiers resented having to fight a war for the slaves and others did not want blacks to have the opportunity to join the Union army. Lincoln, however, felt that the former slaves had a stake in fighting for their freedom.  He was also impressed by the abilities of black troops on the battlefield. He wrote that when peace came, “there will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet, they have helped mankind on to this great consummation [eliminating slavery and saving the Union]; while…there will be some white ones unable to forget that, with malignant heart, and deceitful speech, they have strove to hinder it.” In just a few years, Lincoln transformed from a politician who wanted little to do with the issue of slavery, to a statesman who wanted to destroy it.

Mary Todd Lincoln: From Slaveholder’s Daughter to Antislavery Advocate

Mary Todd Lincoln

Mary Todd Lincoln

As one of her biographers wrote, “history has not been kind to Mary Lincoln.” In fact, she experienced unpopularity during her years in the White House, partly because of her spending habits, but also because she had relatives fighting for the Confederacy. Though Mary had faults, she was loyal to her husband and the Union, and she became increasingly opposed to slavery.

Mary learned about slavery growing up in Kentucky. Her father’s involvement in state politics meant that his children heard political issues debated at home. One of these issues was slavery. Robert Todd opposed the trading of slaves among whites, which tore them from their relatives. Naively, he hoped that the practice of holding slaves would eventually die out.

His convictions did not, however, keep him from owning a few household slaves. One of these slaves, Aunt Sally, was a mother figure for Mary when her own mother died. When Mary heard a knocking outside one night, Sally explained that she had made a mark on the Todd’s fence to signal to runway slaves that they could stop there for food. Although she knew helping runaway slaves was illegal, Mary was thrilled that Sally shared a secret with her and never told anyone. Her father’s politics and her relationship with Aunt Sally gave Mary an unfavorable view of slavery that became stronger later in her life.

Shortly after she became First Lady and moved to Washington, Mary struck up a friendship with her African American dressmaker and former slave Elizabeth Keckly. When former slaves came flocking to the capital during the Civil War without food or a place to sleep, Elizabeth made it her mission to help them. Mary wrote to her husband, President Abraham Lincoln asking him to support her friend’s charity. She also made contributions herself. In a letter to her husband, she wrote, “She [Elizabeth] says the immense number of contrabands in Washington are suffering intensely, many without bed covering and having to use any bits of carpet to cover themselves—Many dying of want…I have given her the privilege of investing $200 here in bed covering…this sum, I am sure, you will not object to being used in this way—The cause of humanity requires it.”

Unaware of Mary’s growing antislavery feelings, radical abolitionist Jane Swisshelm expected Mary Lincoln to be a Confederate sympathizer. When they met at the White House in 1863, however, Swisshelm believed that Mary was “more radically opposed to slavery” than the President. By listening to her African American friend’s descriptions of suffering, Mary took up the cause of helping former slaves. Through this cause, Mary gained a perspective on slavery that most whites, including the President, did not have.

Slavery and the American Revolution

The democratic ideals of the American Revolution probably caused African American slaves to hope that their status in society might improve. Slaves took part in the revolutionary movement and assumed new roles in the process. Slaves served the British and American armies and received bounties, land, or freedom in return. After the war a movement to abolish slavery began in the North. Various Northern states called for a gradual abolition of slavery so that slaves born after a certain date would be set free.

Although the American Revolution caused slaves to assume new roles and gave some their freedom, in general African Americans did not achieve the freedoms which the Declaration of Independence claimed for all men. It was one thing to limit slavery in the North, but slavery was most common in the South where it was an important part of the economic system. Plantation owners felt they needed slaves to work in the fields, and they did not want to lose their cheap labor. To southerners, the principles of liberty established in the Declaration of Independence did not apply to African Americans. Slaves were thought of as property and not as men so they could not be considered equal. Despite America’s promises of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all, slavery remained a fact of life for most African Americans, depriving them of each of these rights.

The failure of the American Revolution to grant basic rights to African Americans was not changed by the Constitution which developed after the fighting stopped. Delegates to the Constitutional Convention did not attempt to abolish slavery, though some wanted to, because they knew the southern states would not accept a constitution that eliminated their labor force. Establishing a constitution that would unite the states was more important to members of the convention than African American rights. The constitution permitted Congress to limit the Atlantic slave trade in 1808, but it failed to give those slaves who were already in the U.S. any additional freedoms. The failure of the Constitutional Convention’s delegates to fully address slavery meant that African Americans would continue to struggle for equality with whites for years.

The Attitude of Slaves Toward White Culture

Though African-Americans were forced to adjust to white culture during slavery, they chose to adopt elements which fit in with their former way of life in Africa. 


Christianity–the religion of the dominant culture–influenced African-Americans. Slaves were especially drawn to its teaching of a community of believers. Christianity gave them a sense of community, something that they could share beyond the common humiliations of slavery. While African-Americans adopted many elements of this new religion, they still retained many of the religious beliefs and practices from their homelands. In Africa they had accepted the notion of one supreme Creator who ruled over other gods, so in America they were able to consider the Christ and Holy Ghost of Christianity as lesser gods. The slave Nat Turner used a combination of the religious beliefs of both cultures as justification for revolting against whites. Though he believed in the God of Christianity, he felt that certain signs in the heavens foretold his destiny to lead slaves in an insurrection. Not only did Turner claim that the Holy Spirit had spoken to him, but also that a solar eclipse sent from heaven was “positive proof, that he would succeed in his undertaking…as the black spot had passed over the sun, so would the blacks pass over the earth.” While many African-Americans fully adopted Christianity, others like Nat Turner clung to a mixture of beliefs which distinguished them from the dominant religion.    


Another part of the dominant culture adopted by African-Americans was an Americanized view of the role of the sexes. Although African-Americans were not always able to establish nuclear families, the successful ones regarded the father as the head of the family in imitation of white family structure. This adaptation of the white culture’s view of women as domestic creatures and men as planners or fighters was in stark contrast to the matriarchal society that existed in their homelands.  Slaves copied this model not merely because they admired whites but in order to build a family unit which would allow them to create a sense of identity and belonging. 


 Education was a value of white culture which African-Americans used to their advantage. Like religion, education was sometimes used against white culture. A self-taught slave, Nat Turner learned to read the Bible at an early age. Other people recognized his intelligence and assured him of his greatness. In prison he states that, “my master, who belonged to the church, and other religious persons who visited the house…remarked I had too much sense to be raised, and if I was, I would never be of any service to any one as a slave.” Turner was certain that his intelligence made him unfit for slavery. Whites as well as fellow slaves reinforced this impression. Believing he was superior to his situation, Turner tried to change his circumstances. It was not only Turner’s religious beliefs but also his intelligence which was ultimately responsible for his rebellion against the white culture.