Franklin, Lincoln and The Abolition of Slavery

Stuart A Green, M.D.


Benjamin Franklin fired the first shot of America’s Civil War and Abraham Lincoln absorbed the last. The gunfire was, of course, about slavery. We find it impossible today to accept the institution of slavery or even understand how one group of humans could ever place another in such a degrading status. Yet, through the course of history, slavery has been the rule rather than the exception. In ancient Rome, for example, one third of the population was enslaved; a similar situation existed in Athens or Thebes centuries earlier. Most slaves were acquired through military capture. Rather than be slaughtered, the conquered chose salvation through servitude at the mercy of the victorious. Slaves were the living dead, without rights enjoyed by citizens, valued only for their labor.


There usually existed a religious justification for slavery as well. The belief that one’s birth station is predestined by heavenly powers served the interests of sovereigns and slave-owners alike. Monarchs in all eras, including our own, claim supernatural ordination: “Dieu et mon droit” (God and my right) was the motto of French kings. Japanese emperors asserted their personal divinity. Popes crowned Europe’s rulers. Indeed, the convenient mutual support arrangement between church and state, high priest and king, caliph and sultan, shaman and chief, has been a fact of life since the beginning of human existence. Under such circumstances, the nobility, the middling sorts, and the lowly born all understood their place in the divinely ordained structure of society.


In an absolute monarchy where a king can, on a whim, order “off with his head,” everyone is a slave. A Russian czar, for instance, owned every thing and every person in his realm. Power over life and death implies such ownership. In our own time, we need not seek permission to “put to sleep” a dog or cat that keeps wetting the carpet, because animals are property, without an independent right to life. And so it was with American slaves. In pre-Civil War Virginia, a master who beat his slave to death could not be charged with murder, or even manslaughter, because the law assumed the death was accidental. After all, slaves were property and who would purposefully destroy their own property?


Involuntary servitude still exists today. Outright slavery—master and chattel—occurs in the deserts of Somalia and other places in Africa. Indentured servants, often children sold by their parents, weave rugs and gather firewood in India and Pakistan. Pre-teen sex slaves earn fortunes for their Thai owners as prostitutes. Altogether, 55 million people now live in some form of modern slavery, unable to control their own labor or to come and go as they please.


Benjamin Franklin’s father indentured him, for a predetermined period of time, to his brother James—a form of servitude from which there was no legal escape. Many Europeans arrived in colonial America as indentured servants, trading seven years’ labor for a prepaid passage across the Atlantic. African slaves, of course, received nothing in exchange for their services, which lasted a lifetime—unless liberated by their owners. Once free, however, an industrious former slave could purchase land on credit, work it successfully and eventually buy his own slaves to help in his fields. In fact, some black slave owners even had white (usually Irish) indentured servants, although there were no white lifelong slaves in British North America.


Slavery was far more common in colonial North America than most people realize. Tens of thousands of slave lived in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and other northern colonies. As a young Philadelphia businessman, Franklin owned a slave couple, which he subsequently sold because they were too costly to maintain. Moreover, his Pennsylvania Gazette frequently advertised slaves for sale. The justification for slavery in North America (and throughout Europe for nearly two millennia) 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 missionaries Christianized Africans, either before they were captured in their homeland or after they were already enslaved. Each denomination dealt with the issue in its own way, often influenced by the economic needs of its congregants. In principle, however, many sects prohibited importing blacks who were already Christians before capture in Africa.


Gradually the notion took hold among certain sects, especially those in northern colonies, 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. Within two years, missionaries in several others colonies offered similar instruction. 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 supported by an offshoot of the British Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. He 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 seemed uncomfortable with his earlier notions about the learning capacity of Blacks. He wrote, “You will wonder perhaps that I should ever doubt it, and I will not undertake to justify all my Prejudices, nor to account for them.” His ideas about slavery gradually evolved thereafter, especially while spending time in Europe with leading intellectuals and clergymen, the Quakers in particular. In the process, Franklin transformed himself from a slave owner into his new nation’s most prominent abolitionist. In like manner, Pennsylvania and other northern states gradually eliminated slave ownership within their borders whereas the southern states did not.


During the 1787 Constitutional Convention, the issue of slavery almost sank the ship of state before it ever sailed. Because the delegates knew that a unified central government was essential for progress and security, they realized that they could not come to any conclusion about the legality of slavery in North America without creating an irreparable schism between northern and southern states. For this reason, the delegates chose to “table” any possible anti-slavery legislation for 20 years. Section 9, Clause 1 of the Constitution reads, “The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight…” Thus, by setting aside the matter of slavery, convention delegates joined to form a union.


Franklin, during the Constitutional Convention, was president of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Executive Council (effectively governor of the state) 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 by ten 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 administration duties ended, Franklin got down to the business of abolishing slavery. He used his considerable energy, skill, and prestige to make things happen. In 1788 Franklin sent identical letters to the governors of New Hampshire, Connecticut and Delaware noting his society’s “great distress that a considerable part of the Slaves who have been sold…have been imported in vessels fitted out in the State over which your Excellency presides.” He hoped that the governors’ “influence will be exerted hereafter to prevent a practice which is so evidently repugnant to the political principles and forms of Government lately adopted by the Citizens of the United States…” Franklin enclosed with such letters the Abolition Society’s constitution and Pennsylvania’s recently enacted anti-slavery laws. Samuel Huntington of Connecticut sent back a typical reply. First he assured Franklin that the Connecticut legislature had already “taken effectual measures to abolish Slavery in this State.” After that, Huntington promised that he would “prevent the nefarious practice of importing Slaves into the United States, by Vessels fitted out in this State.”


Franklin also attempted to halt the transatlantic slave trade by asking some of his friends in Europe to do what they could within their own countries. He informed Revolutionary War hero Lafayette that, “The final purposes of our Society are the suppression of the Slave trade & the gradual abolition of slavery itself.” He told Lafayette that right-minded Englishmen have submitted “pathetic & nervous Petitions to her Parliament to abolish this iniquitous traffic” but because of “national prejudices & jealousies” nothing favorable would likely happen in England “untill France concurs in it.” He therefore asked Lafayette to request that the King help end the “disgraceful Commerce in the human Species.”


Franklin approached the anti-slavery 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.” He went on to say, “The unhappy man, who has long been treated as a brute animal, too frequently sinks beneath the common standard of the human species.” To prevent this from happening, the society planned “To instruct, to advise…to furnish them with employments…to procure their children an education calculated for their future situation in life.” Doing all this requires “considerable pecuniary resources,” so Franklin ended the address with an appeal for “any donations or subscriptions of this purpose…”


Franklin’s anti-slavery campaign, however, did far more than raise money. Recall that the 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, what kind of federal monetary policy was needed, and whether to maintain a standing army during peacetime. Therefore, when petitions from Quaker groups in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania arrived in the First Congress on February 11, 1790, calling for a halt to transatlantic slave importation, they were briefly discussed in committee and then set aside. The constitution’s prohibition prevailed.


The following day, however, a third petition arrived that could not be ignored. This document, from the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery, was signed by the nation’s patriarch, Benjamin Franklin. It went far beyond the rather timid call of the Quaker petitions to stop importation of slaves. Instead, Franklin’s document raised religious and moral issues to condemn slavery altogether. He proclaimed, “That mankind are all formed by the same Almighty Being, alike objects of his Care, and equally designed for the Enjoyment of Happiness the Christian Religion teaches us to believe, and the Political Creed of America fully coincides…”


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: Congress sat as a Committee of the Whole to consider the petition. 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.


Although Franklin was feeling his age by 1790, his bladder stone and gout limiting him to a bed-and-chair existence, he nevertheless composed one of his most effective satires, mocking slave-owners by literally putting the shoe on the other foot. Writing as “Historicus” in a letter to the editor of The Federal Gazette, Franklin facetiously reproduced a speech he said was made a hundred years earlier by Mehemet Ibrahim, an Algerian Moslem leader. Ibraham objected to a petition asking the Algerians to stop seizing Christians on ships and enslaving them. Ibrahim asked, “If we cease our cruises against the Christians…who, in this hot climate, are to cultivate our lands? Who are to perform the common labours of our city, and in our families? ...And is there not more compassion and more favour due to us Mussulmen, than to these christian dogs?” Raising issues identical to those filling the chambers of Congress, Ibrahim wanted to know, “If then we cease taking and plundering the Infidel ships, and making slaves of the seamen and passengers, our lands will become of no value for want of cultivation; the rents of houses in the city will sink one half…who is to indemnify their masters for the loss?”


Ibrahim worried that the Christian slaves “will not embrace our holy religion” and asked, “must we maintain them as beggars in our streets; or suffer our properties to be the prey of their pillage?” He further claimed that, “men accostomed to slavery, will not work for a livelihood when not compelled.”


Franklin, through Ibrahim, even took a swipe at the absolute monarchies of Europe. He wrote, “Were they not slaves in their own countries? Are not Spain, Portugal, France and the Italian states, governed by despots, who hold all their subjects in slavery, without exception?…Is their condition then made worse by their falling into our hands? No, they have only exchanged one slavery for another: and I may say a better: for here they are brought into a land where the sun of Islamism gives forth its light, and shines in full splendor, and they have an opportunity of making themselves acquainted with the true doctrine, and thereby saving their immortal souls.” Ibrahim, at the conclusion of his speech, recommended rejecting the “detestable proposition” that Christian slaves be freed, “And it was rejected accordingly.”


Twenty-five days after his anti-slavery satire appeared in print, Benjamin Franklin passed away, his final mission unfulfilled. After Franklin died, the slavery debate’s rhetorical volume muted. Neither side had a sufficient majority to move the issue in one direction or the other. The big fear, for both the pro- and anti-slavery forces in Congress, was that new states entering the union could, depending upon their orientation, tip the balance in an adverse way. The Northwest Ordinance (left intact from the Articles of Confederation), for instance, banned slavery in territories north of the Ohio River. When the union reached 22 states in 1819, half were free and half slave, insuring further stalemate on any emancipation proposal. As Federal territories requested statehood, one side or the other of the slavery issue would object, depending on the incoming region’s slave issue status. The Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850, and the Nebraska-Kansas Act were all attempts to maintain a balance, more or less, on the slavery issue.


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 non-slave 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 claimed that, “the Dred Scott decision was, in part, based on assumed historical facts which were not really true.” He went on to paraphrase the opinion of dissenting Justice Benjamin Curtis who pointed out that, at the time the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution were approved, five of the original thirteen states had free black men whom, like whites, could vote to either accept or reject the Declaration and the Constitution. Therefore, the phrase in the Constitution stating that it “was ordained and established by the people of the United States” meant all persons with the right to vote “upon the question of its adoption.” Since whites and free blacks had equal votes in the states permitting such suffrage, the blacks, by having the capacity to approve the documents, clearly established themselves as citizens in the new nation.


In his very first debate with Douglas, Lincoln 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. Before he became the party’s standard-bearer for the presidency, however, aspiring candidate Lincoln was invited by the abolitionist minister Henry Ward Beecher (brother of Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe) to deliver a speech in New York City. At first, Beecher planned the oration for his Brooklyn church, but widespread curiosity about Lincoln caused a venue change to the Cooper Institute (now Cooper Union), a facility large enough to hold the 1,500 people who ultimately showed up.


Among those attending Lincoln’s February 27, 1860 lecture at Cooper Institute were Republican Party bigwigs Horace Greeley and William Cullen Bryant, who wanted to see if Lincoln might make a more suitable presidential candidate than the current frontrunner, New York Senator William Seward.


Lincoln spent months preparing the address. His Springfield law partner, William Herndon, noted that, “No former effort in the line of speech-making had cost Lincoln so much time and thought as this one.” Herndon said that the presentation was “in some respects like a lawyer's brief,” complete with supporting footnotes in the printed version.


Lincoln attacked his former (and future) debating foe, Illinois Senator Stephan Douglas, for his position supporting slavery in the Federal territories. Lincoln started by first quoting a statement Douglas made in a Columbus, Ohio speech claiming, “Our fathers, when they framed the Government under which we live, understood this question just as well, and even better, than we do now.” Lincoln next 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.” He then described as many of the signers’ positions on the issue of slavery as he had been able to discover. Using carefully documented evidence from their public pronouncements on the subject, 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. 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.”


A New York newspaperman reported that, “No man ever before made such an impression on his first appeal to a New York audience.” Lincoln’s Cooper Institute speech helped propel him into the Republican Party’s presidential candidacy. During that campaign, Republican Party workers circulated the printed version of the Cooper Institute presentation, ensuring wide distribution of Lincoln’s (and Franklin’s) viewpoint.


The rumblings of secessionism filled the halls of Congress during the 1860 presidential campaign. After being elected President, Lincoln, in his First Inaugural Address, told southerners, “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you....You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to preserve, protect and defend it.”


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 Thirteenth 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 create to Pennsylvania Hospital and other enterprises: 1) Establish or take over a group dedicated 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 4, and 5.


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 eighteenth century cameos depicting human bondage were worn as ornaments by ladies who espoused abolition. The British started the fad. When the potter and anti-slavery 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 words, “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.)


Wedgwood and Franklin knew each other quite well; both had been elected to the Royal Society. (Years before fabricating the anti-slavery piece, Wedgwood made a lovely white-on-white cameo honoring Franklin for his achievements.) In 1788, Wedgwood, on learning that Franklin had assumed command of the Pennsylvania abolition group, shipped the venerable philosopher some of the anti-slavery medallions. Wedgwood wrote in the accompanying letter that he was sending Franklin “a few Cameos on a subject which…is daily more and more taking possession of men's minds on this side the Atlantic as well as with you.” Wedgwood told Franklin that it gave him “great pleasure to be embarked on this occasion in the same great and good cause with you, Sir, and I ardently hope for the final completion of our wishes.”


Franklin thanked Wedgwood for the “valuable Present of Cameo’s, which I am distributing among my Friends.” He predicted that the kneeling figure “may have an Effect equal to that of the best written Pamphlet, in procuring Favour to those oppressed People.” Franklin was right, of course. 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.) Sojourner Truth, an ex-slave who became an activist preacher and abolitionist, modified the suppliant’s “Am I not a man and a brother” motto to “Ain’t I a woman” during an 1851 speech in Ohio. (She wanted to emphasize the double burden female slaves endured.) Abraham Lincoln invited Truth to the White House in 1864 to thank her for recruiting blacks to fight for the North during the Civil War and to compliment her on the Ohio presentation as well.


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 would meet to discuss foreign affairs with the black woman who serves as the nation’s Secretary of State. He would eventually 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.