Benjamin Franklin

on slavery

Early 1730s:  “To be sold: A likely Negro girl, about 14 years of age, bred in the country but fit for either town or country business/  Enquire of the printer hereof.”   (One of several similar ads in BF’s newspaper. He may have been the owner or merely acting as agent in this case, but he definitely owned slaves at this point.)(Brands, p118-9)

1751: “’Tis an ill-grounded Opinion that by the Labour of Slaves, America may possibly vie in Cheapness of Manufactures with Britain. The Labour of Slaves can never be so cheap here as the Labour of working men is in Britain…  Reckon then the Interest of the first Purchase of a Shave, the Insurance or Risque on his Life, his Cloathing and Diet, Expences in his Sickness and Loss of Time, Loss by his Neglect of Business (Neglect is natural to the Man who is not to be benefited by his own Care or Diligence), Expence of a Driver to keep him at Work, and his Pilfering from Time to Time, almost every Slave being by nature a Thief, and compare the whole amount with the wages of a Manufacturer of Iron or Wool in England, you will see that Labour is much cheaper there than it ever can be with Negroes here. Why then will Americans purchase Slaves?  Because Slaves may be kept as long as a Man pleases, or has Occasion for their Labour; while hired Men are continually leaving their Master (often in the midst of his Business,) and setting up for themselves.(Franklin, p 369-370)

1764:(BF visited a school for Black children.) “I was on the whole much pleased, and from what I then saw, have conceived 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.” (Brands, p255)

1770:  “In Truth, there is not, take North America through, perhaps, one Family in a Hundred that has a Slave in it.   Many Thousands there abhor the Slave Trade…. Perhaps you may imagine the Negroes to be a mild tempered, tractable Kind of People.  Some of them indeed are so.  But the Majority are of a plotting Disposition, dark, sullen, malicious, revengeful and cruel in the highest Degree...”  (Franklin, p 647-649)

1772: “Can sweetening our tea, etc, with sugar, be a circumstance of such absolute necessity?  Can the petty pleasure thence arising to the taste, compensate for so much misery thence arising to the taste, compensate for so much misery produced among our fellow creatures, and such a constant butchery of the human species by this pestilential detestable traffic in the bodies and souls of men?” (Franklin, p 678)

1772: “I am glad to hear that the Disposition against keeping Negroes grows more general in North America…  I hope in time it will be taken into Consideration and suppress’d by the Legislature.”(Franklin, p 876)

1776: “Slaves rather weaken than strengthen the state, and there is therefore some difference between them and sheep.  Sheep will never make insurrections.”(Brands, p514)

1789:  (Writing as president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery) “Slavery is such an atrocious debasement of human nature, that its very extirpation, if not performed with solicitious care, may sometimes open a source of serious evils.  The unhappy man who has been treated as a brute animal, too frequently sinks beneath the common standard of the human species. The galling chains, that bind his body, do also fetter his intellectual faculties, and impair the social affections of his heart…To instruct, to advise, to qualify those, who have been restored to freedom, for the exercise and enjoyment of civil liberty… and to procure for their children an education calculated for their future situation in life; these are the great outlines of the annexed plan, which we have adopted.” (Franklin, p1154-5)

1790: BF responded to a Congressman’s defense of Black slavery by quoting (actually making up) a defense of Christian slavery supposedly made by an Algerian pirate in the 1600s.  “If we cease our Cruises against the Christians… if we forbear to make Slaves of their People, who in this hot Climate are to cultivate our Lands? …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.” (Franklin, p1158-9)

Return to home page