Benjamin Franklin's Evolving Views on Race and Ethnicity
Lapham, Steven S., Saunders, Andrew, Social Education
How DO STUDENTS react when they read this passage (see page 10)?
[The immigrants] who come [to America] are generally of the most ignorant stupid sort of their own nation, ... Their own clergy have very little influence over the people ... Not being used to liberty, they know not how to make a modest use of it ... they are not esteemed men till they have shown their manhood by beating their mothers ... now they come in droves ... Few of their children in the country learn English ...
The author is none other than Benjamin Franklin--inventor, diplomat, and founder-writing in 1753 about German immigrants to America. (1) Without knowing that, however, some readers might guess that the author was writing in the second half of the 1800s, during the great wave of Chinese immigration, or in the early 1900s, when immigrants from Eastern Europe crowded onto Ellis Island. Others might guess that it's a letter to the editor from a current newspaper.
"Swarthy" Germans and the Peculiar Institution
Franklin was clearly unhappy about the great number of Germans who were immigrating to his home town of Philadelphia, even though many supported him by patronizing his printing business. (2) Before the Revolutionary War, he grumbled about Philadelphia's bilingual (English and German) street signs and complained that the Pennsylvania parliament needed to use translators. After the war, people considered whether English or German should be the national language, and Franklin did not like the German option. For example, he wrote
Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.. Which leads me to add one Remark: That the Number of purely white People in the World is proportionably very small.... (3)
More telling than his negative comments about Germans' shortcomings, was Franklin's early attitude to slavery. In the 1730s, Franklin's newspaper, the Philadelphia Gazette, carried advertisements for black slaves, and he himself apparently participated in the slave trade, acting at the very least as the contact man for buyers and sellers. (4)
After reading the passages above, it might be easy for readers to jump to the conclusion that Ben Franklin was simply a racist. Before becoming attached to that opinion, however, it is worth taking a moment to read about a couple of other things that Franklin did in his long life.
Squelching a Race Riot, 1763
Benjamin Franklin's first diplomatic assignment was as Pennsylvania Indian Commissioner. He printed accounts of treaty councils conducted with Native American tribes. He studied Native American culture and politics, and discussed political ideas with the Indians, (5) but was not averse to calling in the militia to fight tribes that attacked settlers.
In 1763, in the aftermath of the French and Indian wars, a gang of armed frontiersmen (from the town of Paxton, on the Susquehanna River) gathered, wishing to massacre communities of innocent Indians who were not involved in the fighting. Benjamin Franklin, at great political risk, lobbied to protect the Native Americans, writing
If an Indian injures me, does it follow that I may revenge that injury on all Indians? ... If it be right to kill men for such a reason, then, should any man with a freckled face and red hair kill a wife or child of mine, it would be right for me to revenge it by killing all the freckled red-haired men, women and children I could afterwards anywhere meet with. (6)
Franklin formed a well-equipped militia that encountered the unruly mob, and he negotiated with its leaders, persuading them to return home to their farms. …