In an earlier blog, I explained why Ben Franklin, an early and active abolitionist, would have felt a sense of pride that an African-American became our 44th president. With Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday celebration afoot, what would Franklin say about the Great Emancipator?
Here’s what he’d say: Franklin would honor Lincoln for “securing the blessings of liberty to the People of the United States … that these blessings ought rightfully to be administered, without distinction of color, to all descriptions of people.”
Benjamin Franklin fired the first shot of America’s Civil War, and Abraham Lincoln absorbed the last. The gunfire was, of course, about slavery. Franklin knew quite a bit about involuntary servitude; his father indentured him, for a predetermined period of time, to his brother James—a form of servitude from which there was no legal escape.
Slavery was far more common in colonial North America than most people realize. Tens of thousands of slaves lived in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and other northern colonies. Thus, when Franklin became leader of Pennsylvania’s abolitionist movement, he had much to do.
The singular event that, more than any other, energized emancipation forces was a Supreme Court decision regarding Dred Scott, a slave whose master had died. Since Scott spent time with his owner in Illinois and in Wisconsin territory (both nonslave regions) and had two children in those places with his new wife (also a slave), he sued the heirs to his master’s estate for his freedom when he was moved back to Missouri. A Missouri State Court denied Scott his freedom but determined that he could sue in Federal Court if he chose to. Scott and his wife did just that, but lost in Federal District Court as well. Scott, in 1857, appealed his case the U.S. Supreme Court.
In a split decision that has forever stained the entire era, a majority of the high court’s justices ruled that Scott, as a slave, was not a citizen and therefore had no right to sue in Federal Court. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, author of the majority opinion, further stated that all blacks (whether slave or free) never were, and would never be, citizens of the United States. The Court’s majority went even beyond the issues in the Dred Scott matter. They also declared unconstitutional the provision of the Missouri Compromise that precluded slavery in the Western territories.
It didn’t take long for lawyers, especially those in Illinois where the Scotts spent some time, to realize the implication of the Dred Scott decision: If a slave couple (like the Scotts) leave their master, escape to Illinois, and have children there, both the parents and their offspring still belong to their owner, just as would a pair of errant horses that wandered into Illinois, plus their new foals. This meant that some persons born in Illinois were not, in reality, free, making Illinois a de facto slave state.
A group of young attorneys living and working in Springfield, the Illinois capital, thereafter became active in politics, determined to somehow reverse the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott ruling. They prevailed upon one of their number, the eloquent Abraham Lincoln, to carry the torch of Illinois freedom into the political arena via the new Republican Party. (They even promised to sustain his law practice while Lincoln was on the stump.) Lincoln challenged Democrat Stephan Douglas for the U.S. Senate seat for Illinois. A substantial portion of the debates between Lincoln and Douglas revolved around the Dred Scott decision and the related issues of free vs. slave statehood for entering territories.
Lincoln, in a typically long-winded pre-Fourth of July (1857) speech argued that the people of Illinois, not the Supreme Court, had the right to determine the status of persons born within the state’s own borders. He said that, “Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, Hamilton, Jay, and the great men of that day, made this Government divided into free States and slave States, and left each State perfectly free to do as it pleased on the subject of slavery.” Douglas won the Illinois Senate seat that year, but the debates launched Lincoln to national prominence within the Republican Party. Lincoln made a February 27, 1860 lecture at Cooper Institute that showed him a more suitable presidential candidate than the current frontrunner, New York Senator William Seward.
In his oration, Lincoln asked (and answered), “Who were our fathers that framed the Constitution? I suppose the ‘thirty-nine’ who signed the original instrument may be fairly called our fathers who framed that part of the present Government.” Using carefully documented evidence from their public pronouncements on slavery, Lincoln proved that a majority of “our fathers” opposed the spread of slavery from the original slave states. The strongest opponents of all, Lincoln said, “were several of the most noted anti-slavery men of those times — as Dr. Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and Gouverneur Morris.”
Lincoln’s supporting footnote for this assertion included “Franklin’s Petition to Congress for the Abolition of Slavery” of February 1790 (mentioned in a previous blog). Moreover, Lincoln, in that footnote, quoted Franklin’s core demand: “That you will be pleased to countenance the restoration of liberty to those unhappy men, who alone in this land of freedom are degraded into perpetual bondage, and who, amidst the general joy of surrounding freemen, are groaning in servile subjection; that you will devise means for removing this inconsistency from the character of the American people; that you will promote mercy and justice toward this distressed race; and that you will step to the very verge of the power vested in you for discouraging every species of traffic in the persons of our fellow-men.”
Benjamin Franklin’s 1790 Petition to Congress, aimed at “the gradual abolition of slavery,” finally achieved its objective 75 years and 600,000 casualties later. The U.S. Constitution’s 13th Amendment (1865) reads simply, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
Franklin’s role in the abolition movement proved pivotal by opening the issue to Congressional debate. To achieve this end, Franklin employed the same sequence of steps he used to create Pennsylvania Hospital and other enterprises: 1) Establish or take over a group dedicated to the goal; 2) Solicit public support through newspaper articles; 3) Raise money for the effort; 4) Write letters to important persons about the mission; 5) Petition the ruling powers for action. If these measures didn’t work, Franklin went to plan B: Publicly mock the opposition with biting satire and then repeat steps four and five.
Franklin’s effort to drum up public backing for abolition included every means an experienced media mogul would likely employ, including themed jewelry as a fashion statement. Just as today’s AIDS and breast cancer groups sell easily identifiable adornments to their supporters, in the late 18th century cameos depicting human bondage were worn as ornaments by ladies who espoused abolition. The British started the fad. When the potter and antislavery activist Josiah Wedgwood joined the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, he had his designer create a white-on-black cameo of the group’s seal. It depicted a kneeling African slave — chains and shackles around his wrists and ankles, arms raised in prayer — surrounded by the question, “Am I not a man and a brother?” Wedgwood’s factory made many such cameos, which abolitionists mounted in bracelets, brooches, tie-pins and combs. It was an effective emblem for the enlightened. (England abolished slavery in 1807.)
The cameo, its motto, and its image became as popular among American abolitionists as it was for their counterparts in England. Soon everything from painted silks to snuffboxes depicted what Franklin called “the suppliant.” (Today, the image is available on T-shirts, mugs, and mouse pads.)
Today, some malign Franklin for having owned slaves and for advertising slaves in his newspaper. It would be more appropriate, instead, to applaud Franklin for his transformation from slave owner to abolitionist — and an aggressive one at that — who spent the last three years of his life trying to end what he called the “atrocious debasement of human nature.”
If Franklin returned to the United States today, he would first be welcomed home by Philadelphia’s mayor, a man of African ancestry. Later, Franklin might meet to discuss foreign affairs with the black woman who served as the nation’s Secretary of State. He would be honored at the White House by our black president from whom he’d no doubt learn about Abraham Lincoln, his Cooper Institute speech of 1860, and the Civil War. And, although horrified by the extent of the bloodshed, Franklin would commend the outcome, for it represents the worthy culmination of his last public undertaking.