Benjamin Franklin's Evolving Views on Race and Ethnicity

By Lapham, Steven S.; Saunders, Andrew | Social Education, January-February 2005 | Go to article overview

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. …

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