Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Franklin and Slavery1

Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Franklin and Slavery1

Article excerpt

THIRTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, doing research on slaves and slaveowners in Philadelphia, I was amazed to find the slave property of Benjamin Franklin recorded in manuscript tax lists for Philadelphia. My amazement grew when I found that many of Franklin's neighbors and friends also owned slaves. At that time the histories of Philadelphia and the biographies of Franklin gave nothing more than fleeting glimpses of how slavery had been grafted onto what was assumed to be the free labor economy of the northern colonial cities. Franklin himself had written in 1770 that "perhaps, one family in a Hundred ... has a slave in it" in the northern cities.2 After examining tax records, constables' household censuses, and other unvisited records, I was stunned at what they revealed: about one of every twelve Philadelphians on the eve of the American Revolution was enslaved and about one of every five white households contained slaves.3 Deborah and Benjamin Franklin, we now know, were not unusual in owning human property in prerevolutionary Philadelphia.

In recent decades, historians of the colonial economic and labor systems and biographers of the founding fathers have brought slavery from the periphery of our gaze to a prominent place near the center. In 1975, two years after my "Slaves and Slaveowners in Colonial Philadelphia" appeared in the William and Mary Quarterly, Eugenia Herbert, part of the first editorial team of the magisterial Papers of Benjamin Franklin, documented for the first time the involvement of Franklin in slavery.4 Since then, slavery and the Founding Fathers has been a perennial topic. It speaks to our growth as historians, and to the growing sophistication of the historically minded public, that we can speak frankly about Franklin on tender subjects such as racism and slavery without losing our respect, even our affection, for such an engaging polymath.

We still lack many details about Franklin's involvement in slavery because his purchase and sale of slaves, as well as the birth and death of slaves in his possession, are recorded in bits and pieces in the massive papers he left behind. Like most other northern slaveowners, he did not keep a record of slave births, deaths, and marriages because slaveholding was not central to productive processes as it was in the plantation South. This much we know:

* As early as 1735, five years after entering a common-law marriage with Deborah Read and not yet thirty years old, Franklin possessed a "Negro boy," evidently named Joseph.5 This purchase occurred during a large increase in slave importations, spurred by the lapse of the two pound per head import duty on slaves in 1731.

* Either this boy or another male was in the Franklin household in 1745, as evidenced by the purchase of a racoon hat for him. At this time, the Franklins' son, William, and daughter, Sally, were about sixteen and two respectively.

* By 1750, the Franklins had purchased Jemima and Peter, evidently the couple Franklin told his mother they wanted to sell that year. This sale did not happen, for in departing for England in 1757, Franklin provided for the manumission of "my Negro Man Peter and his wife Jemima" in the event of his death. No evidence has been found to say whether Peter returned to Philadelphia with Franklin in 1762; nor do we know what became of Jemima.

* Just before Franklin's first departure for England, a fourth slave lived in the Franklin household-"a Negro Child" described as susceptible to a punishing smallpox epidemic that struck Philadelphia in 1756.6

* Probably also acquired at about this time was King, given to son William Franklin and taken to England along with Peter in 1757. King was the slave who famously fled to find refuge outside London with a kindly woman who prepared him for a life of literacy and Christian commitment.

* Othello, a young boy, was purchased to replace King and Peter when William and Benjamin Franklin went to London in 1757. …

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