What would Benjamin Franklin say about America’s first black president?
Here’s what he’d say: “I told you so!” Franklin, after all, both created the job of president and promoted the abolition of slavery, so Barack Obama’s inauguration represents the final conjunction of two of Franklin’s most significant contributions to life in America.
Franklin first proposed a central government for British North America during the Albany Congress in 1754, fully 27 years before the U.S. Constitution incorporated his ideas in our founding document. The head of this central government would be a president-general, appointed by the British monarch. In this way, Franklin hoped the constant feuding between the 13 colonies would end, easing trade.
Regarding slavery, as a young Philadelphia businessman, Franklin owned a slave couple, which he later sold because they were too costly to maintain. Moreover, his Pennsylvania Gazette frequently advertised slaves for sale. The justification for slavery in North America revolved around the status of Africans as either “beasts” or infidels — heathens who didn’t know Christian teachings and hadn’t been baptized. This stance led to heated debates about what happened when Africans became Christianized.
Gradually the notion took hold among certain sects that blacks who converted to Christianity should be freed from bondage. Quakers were among the first to insist on this principle, excommunicating meeting house members who held Christianized slaves. This, in turn, fueled missionary zeal among those who saw slavery as ungodly. They set up schools to teach blacks the reading skills needed to study and absorb the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
In 1758, a school for Negroes was opened in Philadelphia. Many slave owners disparaged such schools, claiming that Africans were incapable of learning to read or write. Franklin, however, came to the opposite conclusion. In 1763 he visited one such school and wrote about the experience to a British friend, saying that he had “visited the Negro School … and had the Children thoroughly examin’d.” Franklin reported, “They appear’d all to have made considerable Progress in Reading for the Time they had respectively been in the School, and most of them answer’d readily and well the Questions of the Catechism; they behav’d very orderly, show’d a proper Respect and ready Obedience to the Mistress, and seem’d very attentive.” Franklin concluded, “From what I then saw, [I] have conceiv’d a higher Opinion of the natural Capacities of the black Race, than I had ever before entertained. Their Apprehension seems as quick, their Memory as strong, and their Docility in every Respect equal to that of white Children.”
Franklin, during the 1787 U.S. Constitutional Convention, was effectively governor of Pennsylvania and head of his state’s delegation to that assemblage. Shortly after the convention ended, however, Franklin returned to private life, at least for a while, retiring from Pennsylvania’s presidency on November 5, 1788. By then, Franklin was already president of an organization started 10 years earlier by righteous-minded Quakers called The Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage and for Improving the Condition of the African Race. The group’s stated objective was “to use such means as are in their power, to extend the blessings of freedom to every part of the human race.”
As soon as his government duties ended, Franklin got down to the business of abolishing slavery. He used his considerable energy, skill, and prestige to make things happen. He thus became the leader of the abolitionist movement.
Franklin approached the antislavery project with a level of commitment equaling his dedication to civic achievement during his earlier tradesman days. In November 1789, Franklin issued “An Address to the Public” in which he called slavery “such an atrocious debasement of human nature” that eliminating it without proper preparation could “open a source of serious evil.”
Franklin’s antislavery campaign ultimately led to America’s Civil War. Our nation’s new constitution put off for 20 years any laws limiting slavery. This would allow congressmen to set the matter aside and deal with more pressing questions, such as how to pay off national debts and whether to maintain a standing army during peacetime.
However, Benjamin Franklin, the nation’s patriarch, sent a petition to the First Continental Congress soon after it convened. This document, from Franklin’s pen, raised religious and moral issues to condemn slavery.
Franklin’s petition reminded Congress that they had been given power for “promoting the Welfare and securing the blessings of liberty to the People of the United States” and declared “that these blessings ought rightfully to be administered, without distinction of Color, to all descriptions of People.” The document asked Congress for “the Restoration of liberty to those unhappy Men, who alone in this land of Freedom are degraded into perpetual Bondage … groaning in servile Subjection.” Franklin’s signature at the bottom of the petition, seemingly larger than usual, insured open debate on the subject. And debate they did: The discourse laid out the issues that continued to come up with increasing animosity for the next 70 years.
Indeed, Franklin opened a can of worms that Congress could not close. At the time, however, the balance between free and slave states shackled progress towards emancipation. The debate in our nation’s capital over the contentious issue of slavery, however, eventually split the country in two.
Abraham Lincoln was, in effect, carrying out Benjamin Franklin’s objective when he emancipated slaves in the conquered regions of the South.
If Ben Franklin came back to life today, he’d burst with pride over the outcomes of two of his favorite projects: the abolition of slavery and the formation of a national American government. However, he’d wonder why it took more than 230 years for these two objectives to coalesce in the election of a black president of the United States of America.