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RUNAWAY AMERICA by David Waldstreicher


Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution

by David Waldstreicher

Pub Date: Aug. 18th, 2004
ISBN: 0-8090-8314-0
Publisher: Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A Founding Father previously considered blameless comes in for hard scrutiny and is found wanting for his role in the slave trade.

Benjamin Franklin was one of the wealthiest Americans of his time, probably the wealthiest of those who did not inherit their fortunes. Much of his wealth came from newspaper publishing—and much of the income within that realm came from publishing notices of slave auctions and of runaway slaves. In the 1730s, Franklin recorded in his Autobiography, he set about acquiring the habits of mind and work that would make his fortune; adds Waldstreicher (History/Notre Dame; In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes, not reviewed), Franklin also acquired his first African-American slaves during that time, and for the rest of his life he would count humans among his possessions, using them to build his fortune as well. Unlike Walter Isaacson, according to whose Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (2003) Franklin came to see the incompatibility of slavery with revolutionary ideals, Waldstreicher depicts Franklin as more conflicted, only half-inclined to abolitionism while more than half-inclined toward the status quo. Indeed, Waldstreicher suggests, it is possible to argue that Thomas Jefferson “did more to undermine slavery during the era of the American Revolution than did Franklin”: whereas Franklin “projected the blame for slavery onto England and the West Indies,” Jefferson acknowledged that it had homegrown origins and “almost succeeded in closing the Northwest Territories to slaveholders.” This assertion, readers of Roger Kennedy’s Mr. Jefferson’s Lost Cause (2003) and Garry Wills’s “Negro President” (2003) will recognize, is controversial. Other readers will wonder at Waldstreicher’s worry that Franklin was hypocritical for keeping and profiting from slaves while publicly opposing slavery (though “he still kept his few strong statements about the wrongs suffered by Africans for the ears of the already converted”), as did so many of Franklin’s generation.

Franklin scholars and students of the revolutionary era should take a look—but overall you’d do better to turn to Gordon S. Wood’s Americanization of Benjamin Franklin (p. 264).