Slavery's Foe, at Last

LEARNING TO BE AN ABOLITIONIST

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HO CHE ANDERSON / TIME

When Benjamin Franklin was 24 years old, he was already owner of the Pennsylvania Gazette, and he advertised in its pages the sale of "a likely Negroe Woman" who lived at "Widow Read's in Market Street." That same address is where Franklin found a wife, the daughter of Widow Read, and where he had his first close contact with an enslaved African. Over a long life, Franklin remained engaged with slavery--as a buyer, seller and master of slaves and finally as an abolitionist.

Franklin and his wife Deborah purchased slaves--Peter and Jemima--for the first time in the late 1740s, but he was uneasy about keeping them in the succession of small rented houses where the Franklins lived. Franklin believed that owning slaves diminished the master's work ethic and ruined the white children in the families that owned them because they are "educated in idleness." Yet, while rearing son William, the Franklins bought more slaves, named Othello, King and George. The last two were in tow when Franklin left for England with his 26-year-old son in 1757.

To Franklin's dismay, King fled when his master was visiting outside London. King was later found in Suffolk in the service of a lady who had taught him to read and write and to play the violin and French horn. Franklin, who agreed to sell King to the woman, may have appreciated the slave's newfound skills because, at the time, Franklin was revising his opinion about Africans' capabilities. A few years later, after visiting an Anglican school for blacks in Philadelphia, he concluded, "Their Apprehension seems as quick, their Memory as strong, and their Docility in every Respect equal to that of white Children."

By 1772, Franklin was openly questioning the morality of slavery. In an unsigned letter to the London Chronicle, he asked readers whether it was absolutely necessary to sweeten their tea with slave-produced sugar. Could such a "petty pleasure...compensate for so much misery produced among our fellow creatures, and such a constant butchery of the human species by this pestilential detestable traffic in the bodies and souls of men?"

Despite such pronouncements, Franklin and his wife held on to their slaves. Like many other white colonists during the years leading up to the American Revolution, they grew to dislike slavery but not so much as to sacrifice their investments. When he returned to Philadelphia in May 1775, five months after Deborah died, Franklin passed along ownership of one slave, George, to his daughter Sally and her husband but kept Peter and Jemima at his side.

By his 81st birthday, Franklin was speaking openly against slavery. Accepting the ceremonial presidency of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, he signed a public exhortation that declared "the Creator of the world" made "of one flesh, all the children of men." Still, the surviving records from the Constitutional Convention give no indication that Franklin raised the issue.

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