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Benjamin Franklin - Abolitionist

One of Franklin's great strengths was his openness to ideas and his ability to change his position on issues as he learned more about them. His attitude toward slavery and toward African Americans evolved over his lifetime. Early in his career he accepted the prevailing view on slavery, took advertisements for slaves in his newspaper and owned slaves himself. In the 1750s he began questioning slavery in part because of what he perceived as its negative effect on white society. As a member and sometimes chair of the Associates of Dr. Bray, a philanthropic group whose goal was the education and religious training of slaves, he was responsible in 1758-1760 for the opening of several free schools for blacks. In 1763, visiting a Philadelphia school he had helped sponsor, Franklin wrote that he had "conceived a higher opinion of the natural capacities of the black race than I had ever before entertained."

Franklin was influenced by the writings of British and Quaker abolitionists such as Alexander Benezet and John Woolman and by the 1770s he was calling slavery "a Practice that has so long disgrac'd our Nation and Religion." In his last years, he took a leadership position on the issue, becoming the president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. His final public action in February 1790 was to sign a memorial to the new federal Congress requesting the abolition of slavery in the United States.

Anthony Benezet, 1713-1784.
Observations on the Inslaving, Importing, and Purchasing of Negroes . Germantown: Printed by Christopher Sower, 1760.

Born to French Huguenot parents who fled France because of religious persecution, the Benezet family settled in Philadelphia in 1731, where Anthony Benezet founded the African School for Blacks. Among his students were Absalom Jones, the first African American priest in the Episcopal Church, and Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Franklin credited Benezet's anti-slavery pamphlets with the 1772 decision of the Virginia House of Burgesses to petition the King for an end to the slave trade.

John Woolman, 1720-1772.
Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes; Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes . Northampton, Mass.: Gehenna Press, 1970.

John Woolman was a Quaker leader and abolitionist who published important essays opposing slavery. The first printing of Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes was published by Franklin in 1762. This modern edition of the work includes an illustration by Leonard Baskin.

Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery.
The Constitution of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and the relief of Free Negroes, unlawfully held in bondage, begun in the year 1774 and enlarged on the twenty-third of April 1787. To which are added the Acts of the General Assembly of Pennsylvania for the gradual abolition of slavery . Philadelphia: Printed by J. James, 1787.
Poems on Various Subjects Phillis Wheatley, 1753-1784.
Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral . London: Printed for A. Bell, bookseller, Aldgate; and sold by Messrs. Cox and Berry, King-street, Boston, 1773.

In 1773, the American slave Phillis Wheatley became the first person of African descent to publish a book of poems in the English language. The toast of London and lauded by Europeans as diverse as Voltaire and Gibbon, Wheatley was for a time the most famous black woman in the West. Franklin called upon Wheatley in London in 1773. She intended to dedicate her next volume of poetry to him, but it was never published.

Purchased through the Matthew Newkirk Memorial Fund

Thomas Clarkson, 1760-1846.
An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, Particularly the African ... Philadelphia: Joseph Crukshank, 1786.

Thomas Clarkson was a twenty-five year old divinity student when he wrote an essay on slavery for a Latin essay contest. Not only did the essay win first prize, but the research he did changed his life. He was so affected by what he discovered about the slave trade that he became an abolitionist and spent the rest of his life fighting to abolish slavery.

Thomas Clarkson, 1760-1846.
An Essay on the Impolicy of the Slave Trade, in Two Parts. Philadelphia: Printed by Francis Bailey, 1788.

As one of the founders of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, Thomas Clarkson was convinced that slavery was offensive to law and to Christianity. But he saw that overcoming the strength of the slaveholders would need arguments based on economics as well. In his Essay on the Impolicy of the African Slave Trade, he contended that, once all the numbers were done correctly, the slave trade could be shown to be uneconomic.

Introduction | Printer | Author | Scientist | Statesman

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Last modified: 12/21/10

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