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timeline: 1787
citizen ben
Franklin montagenetworkerfirefighterfounding fatherportrait: young Franklin
Franklin montageabolitionistinsurance ben-efactorportrait: young Franklin
Franklin montageabolitionist
Franklin montage
sketch: Pennsylvania Abolition Society medallion
A sketch based on a medallion of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society
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Slavery was an accepted way of life in early colonial America. Without the work of slaves and indentured servants, the growing economy of the colonies would have been limited. Almost all of our country's founding fathers owned slaves at one time or another, including Benjamin Franklin.

Franklin owned two slaves, George and King, who worked as personal servants, and his newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, commonly ran notices involving the sale or purchase of slaves and contracts for indentured laborers.

In addition to slaves from Africa, the colonies depended upon other forms of cheap labor. Many people of European descent paid their way to the colonies by signing letters of indenture. Indentured servants and workers were basically slaves who were legally bound to their masters for years. In many ways, indentured servants were of less worth than actual slaves, because as indentured laborers they couldn't be sold to another owner.

Like most people of his period, Franklin initially believed that African slaves and their offspring were inferior to white Europeans and that they couldn't be educated. He began to question his beliefs when he visited a school where young African children were being taught. In 1763, he wrote a letter to an English friend where he stated, "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."

Some scholars believe that Franklin's conversion to abolitionist beliefs was hastened by his animosity towards the British. Franklin often expressed his belief that the British meant to enslave the colonists. This may have led him to examine the enslavement of Africans who were brought from their native countries to be used as property and cattle.

The abolitionist movement in colonial America was fairly limited and considered quite radical. By the mid-1770s, a number of abolitionist organizations had begun to form.

After Franklin returned from France in 1785, he joined and eventually became president of an abolitionist group founded a decade earlier by the Pennsylvania Quakers. The group was called the Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and the Relief of Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage. Franklin was convinced that not only the slave trade, but slavery itself should be eliminated. He eventually freed his own two slaves.

Franklin recognized that freed slaves could not fend for themselves without help, so he advanced the idea that slaves needed to be educated in order to become contributing members of a free society. In his position of president of the abolitionist society, Franklin wrote and published an "Address to the Public," in which he addressed the education of former slaves. The plan was to "instruct, to advise, to qualify those who have been restored to freedom, for the exercise and enjoyment of civil liberty; to promote in them habits of industry, to furnish them with employment suited to their age, sex, talents, and other circumstances. . . which we conceive will essentially promote the public good, and the happiness of these hitherto much neglected fellow-creatures."


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