Saturday, January 02, 2010

Benjamin Franklin's Last Act of Freedom

The following are some details of Benjamin Franklin's final act to rid his new country of the evils of slavery. The bill he produced to Congress in 1790 was rebuffed by southern Congressmen however and it failed on Constitutionality grounds. The United States, at that time, in other words, fully supported the constitutionality of slavery. Franklin, in his usual sense of ironic humor, responded only a month before his death, with a humorous and sarcastic letter from a fictional Muslim arguing against the enslavement of Christians in the Barbary pirate states of North Africa, soon to become an issue for President Jefferson in 1801. Franklin was the undisputed master of the literary arts.

From "Featured Documents" of the Legislative Branch: The Center for Legislative Archives at the National Archives website []:

Benjamin Franklin Petitions Congress (portion):

"Franklin did not publicly speak out against slavery until very late in his life. As a young man he owned slaves, and he carried advertisements for the sale of slaves in his newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette. At the same time, however, he published numerous Quaker pamphlets against slavery and condemned the practice of slavery in his private correspondence. It was after the ratification of the United States Constitution that he became an outspoken opponent of slavery. In 1789 he wrote and published several essays supporting the abolition of slavery and his last public act was to send to Congress a petition on behalf of the Society asking for the abolition of slavery and an end to the slave trade. The petition, signed on February 3, 1790, asked the first Congress, then meeting in New York City, to "devise means for removing the Inconsistency from the Character of the American People," and to "promote mercy and justice toward this distressed Race."

The petition was introduced to the House on February 12 and to the Senate on February 15, 1790. It was immediately denounced by pro-slavery congressmen and sparked a heated debate in both the House and the Senate. The Senate took no action on the petition, and the House referred it to a select committee for further consideration. The committee reported on March 5, 1790 claiming that the Constitution restrains The committee reported on March 5, 1790 claiming that the Constitution restrains Congress from prohibiting the importation or emancipation of slaves until 1808 and then tabled the petition. On April 17, 1790, just two months later, Franklin died in Philadelphia at the age of 84."

added from wikipedia:

James "Left Eye" Jackson (September 21, 1757 – March 19, 1806) was an early Georgia politician of the Democratic-Republican Party. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1789 until 1791. He was also a U.S. Senator from Georgia from 1793 to 1795 then from 1801 until his death, and was Governor of Georgia from 1798 to 1801. Jackson was well known as a duelist with a fiery temper. Jackson County, Georgia is named in his honor.



The representatives from the Deep South combined vitriolic attacks on the antislavery memorials with a vivid defense of slavery, an institution, as Jackson described it, that "the most noble minds have sanctioned" from ancient times to the present. The Bible, Jackson declared, looked kindly upon slavery and slaveholders. If the antislav- ery societies "searched that book," he challenged, they would drop their assault. William Loughton Smith chastised the memorialists for fighting against the natural order. The white race needed slaves to work the fields and to clear swamps and frontiers, and, Smith continued, Africans needed white guidance to survive their transition from barbarity. Smith charged that abolition was a curse not just to whites but to blacks as well: emancipatory schemes would only make slaves' lives harder and masters' whips harsher. If benevolent societies were truly concerned about slaves' well being, he concluded, they would defend, not condemn, both slavery and the slave trade.


From the Pulitzer Prize winning author Joseph Ellis’ book, Founding Brothers, regarding the Congressional debate on “Constitutional” slavery…Thomas Scott from Pennsylvania speaking for those who abhorred the practice of slavery argued that although the Constitution restricted Congress’ ability to regulate the practice, the Constitution did not preclude them from entirely abolishing slavery. Following Scott:

“(James) Jackson (from Georgia) then launched into a sermon on God’s will, which he described as patently proslavery, based on several passages in the Bible and the pronouncement of every Christian minister in Georgia. Alongside the clear preferences of the Almighty, there was the nearly unanimous opinion of every respectable citizen in his state, whose livelihood depended on the availability of slave labor and who shared the elemental recognition, as Jackson put it, ‘that rice cannot be brought to market without these people.’ William Loughton Smith preferred to leave the interpretation of God’s will to others, but he seconded the opinion of his colleague from Georgia that slavery was an economic precondition for the prosperity of his constituents, noting that ‘such is the state of agriculture in that country, no white man would perform the tasks required to drain the swamps and clear the land, so that without slaves it must be depopulated.’”

Compare what Jackson says with the sarcasm of Benjamin Franklin and see if he isn't making fun of James Jackson's (to Franklin) silly views...
(If you didn't know that Ben was joking, you probably wouldn't catch it right away. He was so good at that!)

Benjamin Franklin to the Federal Gazette (unpublished)
To the Editor of the Federal Gazette.
March 23.

Reading last night in your excellent paper the speech of Mr. Jackson in Congress, against meddling with the affair of slavery, or attempting to mend the condition of slaves, it put me in mind of a similar one made about one hundred years since, by Sidi Mehemet Ibrahim, a member of the Divan of Algiers, which may be seen in Martin’s account of his consulship, anno 1687. It was against granting the petition of the Sect called Erika or Purists, who prayed for the abolition of piracy and slavery, as being unjust. Mr. Jackson does not quote it; perhaps he has not seen it. If therefore some of its reasonings are to be found in his eloquent speech, it may only show that men’s interests and intellects operate and are operated on with surprising similarity in all countries and climates, whenever they are under similar circumstances. The African’s speech, as translated, is as follows:

“Allah Bismillah, &c. God is great, and Mahomet is his Prophet.

“Have these Erika considered the consequences of granting their petition? If we cease our cruises against the christians, how shall we be furnished with the commodities their countries produce, and which are so necessary for us? If we forbear to make slaves of their people, who, in this hot climate, are to cultivate our lands? Who are to perform the common labours of our city, and in our families? Must we not then be our own slaves? And is there not more campassion and more favour due to us Mussulmen, than to these christian dogs? We have now above 50,000 slaves in and near Algiers. This number, if not kept up by fresh supplies, will soon diminish, and be gradually annihilated. If then we cease taking and plundering the Infidel ships, and making slaves of the seamen and passengers, our lands will become of no value for want of cultivation; the rents of houses in the city will sink one half? and the revenues of government arising from its share of prizes must be totally destroyed. And for what? to gratify the whim of a whimsical sect! who would have us not only forbear making more slaves, but even to manumit those we have. But who is to indemnify their masters for the loss? Will the state do it? Is our treasury sufficient? Will the Erika do it? Can they do it? Or would they, to do what they think justice to the slaves, do a greater injustice to the owners? And if we set our slaves free, what is to be done with them? Few of them will return to their countries, they know too well the greater hardships they must there be subject to: they will not embrace our holy religion: they will not adopt our manners: our people will not pollute themselves by intermarying with them: must we maintain them as beggars in our streets; or suffer our properties to be the prey of their pillage; for men accostomed to slavery, will not work for a livelihood when not compelled. And what is there so pitiable in their present condition? Were they not slaves in their own countries? Are not Spain, Portugal, France and the Italian states, governed by despots, who hold all their subjects in slavery, without exception? Even England treats its sailors as slaves, for they are, whenever the government pleases, seized and confined in ships of war, condemned not only to work but to fight for small wages or a mere subsistance, not better than our slaves are allowed by us. Is their condition then made worse by their falling into our hands? No, they have only exchanged one slavery for another: and I may say a better: for 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. Those who remain at home have not that happiness. Sending the slaves home then, would be sending them out of light into darkness. I repeat the question, what is to be done with them? I have heard it suggested, that they may be planted in the wilderness, where there is plenty of land for them to subsist on, and where they may flourish as a free state; but they are, I doubt, too little disposed to labour without compulsion, as well as too ignorant to establish a good government, and the wild Arabs would soon molest and destroy or again enslave them. While serving us, we take care to provide them with every thing; and they are treated with humanity. The labourers in their own countries, are, as I am well informed, worse fed, lodged and cloathed. The condition of most of them is therefore already mended, and requires no farther improvement. Here their lives are in safety. They are not liable to be impressed for soldiers, and forced to cut one another’s christian throats, as in the wars of their own countries. If some of the religious mad bigots who now teaze us with their silly petitions, have in a fit of blind zeal freed their slaves, it was not generosity, it was not humanity that moved them to the action; it was from the conscious burthen of a load of sins, and hope from the supposed merits of so good a work to be excused from damnation. How grosly are they mistaken in imagining slavery to be disallowed by the Alcoran! Are not the two precepts, to quote no more, Masters treat your slaves with kindness: Slaves serve your masters with cheerfulness and fidelity, clear proofs to the contrary? Nor can the plundering of infidels be in that sacred book forbidden, since it is well known from it, that God has given the world and all that it contains to his faithful Mussulmen, who are to enjoy it of right as fast as they can conquer it. Let us then hear no more of this detestable proposition, the manumission of christian slaves, the adoption of which would, by depreciating our lands and houses, and thereby depriving so many good citizens of their properties, create universal discontent, and provoke insurrections, to the endangering of government, and producing general confusion. I have therefore no doubt, but this wise Council will prefer the comfort and happiness of a whole nation of true believers, to the whim of a few Erika, and dismiss their petition.”

The result was, as Martin tells us, that the Divan came to this resolution, “The doctrine that plundering and enslaving the Christians is unjust, is at best problematical; but that it is the interest of this state to continue the practice, is clear; therefore let the petition be rejected.”

And it was rejected accordingly.

And since like motives are apt to produce in the minds of men like opinions and resolutions, may we not, Mr. Brown, venture to predict, from this account, that the petitions to the parliament of England for abolishing the slave trade, to say nothing of other legislatures, and the debates upon them, will have a similar conclusion. I am, Sir, Your constant reader and humble servant


This "1790 satirical piece, his last published letter, Ben Franklin, in the midst of a Congressional debate on slavery, compares the arguments of pro-slavery Southerners (“Mr. Jackson”, a South Carolina [actually, Georgia] delegate) to the arguments of a hypothetical Algerian Muslim “Mussulmen” pirate, Sidi Mehemet Ibrahim. The rationalizations, justifications and excuses of Franklin’s “Sidi” are almost word-for-word those of the Georgia and South Carolina Congressional delegates. The Algerian Islamic “Erika” sect was an allegory to members of the American Christian “Quaker” sect who in 1790 unsuccessfully petitioned Congress, with Franklin’s support, for an end to the importation of slaves from Africa. Ben Franklin died on April 17, 1790, just 25 days after his letter was published."

Franklin tried to save our nation some hurt... but, we didn't listen. All he could do was use his humor to salve his conscience that he tried. If we had learned from our past in 1790 and behaved responsibly then, America could be that much closer to realizing the freedom that we all claim to love. We still have some steps to take. For me, I prefer to follow in the steps of this great man.

No comments: