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Benjamin Franklin and the First Abolitionist Petitions

Written by: Bill of Rights Institute

By the end of this section, you will:

  • Explain the continuities and changes in regional attitudes about slavery as it expanded from 1754 to 1800

Suggested Sequencing

This Narrative should be assigned to students at the beginning of their study of Chapter 4.

On February 11, 1790, two groups of Quakers entered the House of Representatives, then meeting in New York. They respectfully submitted a petition to the government for a redress of rights, which was a traditional right reaching far back into English constitutional history. The content of the petition, however, sparked a fierce debate on the floor of the First Congress. The persons who signed the controversial petition were calling on the federal government to ban the African slave trade.

Several members of Congress supported the petition. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts wished “to see measures pursued by every nation to wipe off the indelible stain which the slave trade had brought upon all.” Thomas Scott of Pennsylvania asserted, “I look upon the slave trade as one of the most abominable things on earth.”

Southern representatives angrily rose to their feet to denounce the petition and question the patriotism of the pacifist Quakers, who had refused to fight in the War for Independence. James Jackson of Georgia and William Loughton Smith of South Carolina attacked the petition and cited Article I, section 9, paragraph 1 of the Constitution, which specifically banned Congress from interfering with the slave trade until 1808. They also articulated a biblical defense of slavery and argued for the economic necessity of enslaved labor. Jackson feared that, “if through the interference of the general government, the slave trade was abolished, it would evince to the people a general disposition toward a total emancipation.”

An image of James Jackson.

James Jackson was a war hero during the American Revolution. While serving in Congress, he was a staunch defender of states’ rights and slavery.

The next day, a petition arrived from the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and its president, Benjamin Franklin. The octogenarian Franklin had accepted the presidency of the society shortly after returning from Europe, where he had negotiated the peace treaty ending the Revolutionary War. Now a world-renowned Enlightenment scientist and statesman, he had dedicated his lifetime of public service to the causes of liberty and civic virtue and had become a convert to the cause of antislavery. The year before, Franklin had signed a Society statement that declared slavery “an atrocious debasement of human nature.” He had almost presented a petition from the society to the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787 but withheld it. Now, he was courageously opening the question of slavery at the dawn of the new nation.

The petition was a model of equality and justice: “Mankind are all formed by the same Almighty Being, alike objects of his care, and equally designed for the enjoyment of happiness.” All people were entitled to the “blessings of liberty . . . without distinction of color.” It noted the contradiction of slavery and freedom in the American experiment while seeking the means “for removing this inconsistency from the character of the American people,” and it called on Congress to grant “liberty to those unhappy men who alone in this land of freedom are degraded into perpetual bondage.” It advocated not only the end of the slave trade, as the Quaker petition had the day before, but the end of slavery itself.

The petition was on solid grounds of justice but weaker on constitutional support for its case. Finding no clauses authorizing Congress to ban slavery, the society argued that Congress had the general grant of power in the general welfare and necessary and proper clauses. The House voted overwhelmingly to refer the petitions to a committee, over the objections of the South Carolina and Georgia delegations.

On March 5, the committee submitted its report to the House. Representative Jackson jumped to his feet and launched into a day-long harangue against the petitions. He declared that “the southern states must be left to themselves on this subject” and reiterated the arguments he had previously made. He admitted that slavery was an “evil habit,” but one, he thought, that was sanctioned in the Bible and history. Smith followed Jackson the next day with a two-hour speech. Both personally attacked the Quakers’ character and assailed Franklin as a senile fool. The Pennsylvanians defended Franklin for his dedication to the cause of liberty and equality for all. They thanked him for speaking the “language of America, and to call us back to our first principles.”

Jackson and Smith also argued that African Americans were ill-suited by nature for freedom and citizenship if emancipated. They warned of intermarriage between the races if enslaved persons were freed. Franklin anticipated these prejudiced arguments and reasoned that slavery debased the enslaved and ruined their natural intellectual equality. “The galling chains that bind his body do also fetter his intellectual faculties and impair the social affections of his heart.” Therefore, Franklin advocated a plan of education for free blacks to train them in knowledge and virtue for good citizenship. The plan would “instruct, to advise, to qualify those who have been restored to freedom, for the exercise and enjoyment of civil liberty . . . [to] promote the public good, and the happiness of these our hitherto much neglected fellow [humans].”

An image of Benjamin Franklin at a desk, reading a paper.

One of the most versatile of the Founders, Benjamin Franklin was an inventor, philosopher, philanthropist, writer, and statesman. This portrait of him was painted in 1767 and, as of 2019, hangs in the White House. The inclusion of books and the bust of Isaac Newton hint at Franklin’s interests.

On March 23, the House voted to adopt the resolutions contained in the committee report, including one that prevented Congress from interfering with slavery where it already existed in the South, making tangible the Constitution’s silence on the issue. The humane petitions to end the slave trade and slavery had been received, but the debate ended with Congress endorsing slavery’s protected status in the new nation. The question was hardly settled, however, and seven decades of fierce debate over slavery and its expansion ensued.

Franklin responded to the conclusion of the controversy in his typical manner – he wrote a biting satire. It took the form of a fictional speech by Muslim Sidi Mehemet Ibrahim of Algiers apologizing for piracy and Christian slavery in a way that mirrored the southern arguments. “If we cease our cruises against the Christians, how shall we be furnished with the commodities their countries produce, and which are so necessary? . . . . Let us then hear no more of this detestable proposition, the manumission of Christian slaves.”

Franklin died only a few weeks later at the age of 84 years. He had spent a lifetime in service to the republic and to the universal ideal that all humans were created free and equal. His last act on the public stage was to submit a petition for the end of slavery and the slave trade. He and a few Quakers initiated the movement urging the new United States to live up to its Founding principles and end the stain of slavery.

Review Questions

1. Southern representatives used all the following arguments to condemn the Quaker petition presented to the House of Representations in 1790 except

  1. the Constitution supported noninterference with the institution until 1808
  2. public support for slavery existed throughout the United States
  3. slavery was economically necessary for the viability of the South’s agricultural industry
  4. the Bible defended the use of slavery

2. The most vocal support for slavery came mainly from

  1. trade merchants in the Middle Atlantic states
  2. yeoman farmers west of the Appalachian Mountains
  3. land owners in Georgia and South Carolina
  4. small businessmen in North and South Carolina

3. What was Benjamin Franklin’s purpose in presenting the petition from the Pennsylvania Society to Congress?

  1. To open a healthy national debate about the morality of slavery
  2. To encourage Congress to not only ban the slave trade but also end slavery
  3. To forestall the impending civil war
  4. To challenge public support for slavery

4. The right to present a petition to Congress reflects

  1. the American tradition since the signing of the Declaration of Independence
  2. the colonists’ rights as Englishmen since the seventeenth century
  3. rights expressed in the Constitution
  4. a political philosophy first expressed during the Enlightenment

5. What was the strongest constitutional approach available to those who supported the abolition of slavery in the United States in the late eighteenth century?

  1. The immorality of the institution of slavery
  2. Growing public opinion that slavery should be abolished
  3. The use of the general welfare and necessary and proper clauses in the Constitution
  4. The support of political leaders from all regions of the United States

6. All the following resulted from the debate caused by the Quaker and Pennsylvania Society’s petitions to Congress except

  1. Congress endorsed slavery’s protected status in the new nation
  2. a fierce debate over slavery and its expansion continued into the next century
  3. Franklin wrote a satire to express his commentary on Congress’s decision
  4. the Quakers withdrew their petition

Free Response Questions

  1. Describe Benjamin Franklin’s arguments for the emancipation of enslaved persons.
  2. What were the arguments against Franklin’s petition?

AP Practice Questions

“That mankind are all formed by the same Almighty being, alike objects of his Care & equally designed for the Enjoyment of Happiness the Christian Religion teaches us to believe & the Political Creed of America fully coincides with the Position. Your Memorialists, particularly engaged in attending to the Distresses arising from Slavery, believe it their indispensable Duty to present this Subject to your notice. They have observed with great Satisfaction that many important & salutary Powers are vested in you for ‘promoting the Welfare & Securing the blessings of liberty to the ‘People of the United States.’ And as they conceive, that these blessings ought rightfully to be administered, without distinction of Colour, to all descriptions of People, so they indulge themselves in the pleasing expectation, that nothing, which can be done for the relive of the unhappy objects of their care, will be either omitted or delayed. From a persuasion that equal liberty was originally the Portion, It is still the Birthright of all men, & influenced by the strong ties of Humanity & the Principles of their Institution, your Memorialists conceive themselves bound to use all justifiable endeavours to loosen the bounds of Slavery and promote a general Enjoyment of the blessings of Freedom. Under these Impressions they earnestly entreat your serious attention to the Subject of Slavery, that you will be pleased to countenance the Restoration of liberty to those unhappy Men, who alone, in this land of Freedom, are degraded into perpetual Bondage.”

Benjamin Franklin, President of Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery, Petition from the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery, February 3, 1790

Refer to the excerpt provided.

1. At the time the excerpted petition was presented to Congress, Americans were beginning to debate the issue of slavery because

  1. the English had forced slave labor upon the colonies against their will
  2. slavery was a contradiction of the freedom for which the colonists had fought during the Revolution
  3. the institution of slavery was increasingly necessary
  4. it had been agreed that slavery was to be outlawed within the next quarter-century

2. During the late eighteenth century, which group would most likely support the sentiments expressed in the excerpt?

  1. A yeoman farmer from New York
  2. A congressman from Virginia
  3. A Quaker from Pennsylvania
  4. A trade merchant from South Carolina

3. The point of view presented in the petition excerpted suggests what about the institution of slavery?

  1. The immorality of slavery outweighs potential economic gains from the use of slave labor.
  2. The economic and social arguments in favor of slavery are paramount.
  3. The social and cultural structure of American society in the late eighteenth century make slavery unnecessary.
  4. Although an “evil habit,” slavery is necessary for the United States to remain a viable economic power.

Primary Sources

“Petition from the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery to Vice President John Adams signed by Benjamin Franklin (front), February 3, 1790; Records of the U.S. Senate, RG 46.”

Suggested Resources

Bickford, Charlene Bangs, and Kenneth R. Bowling. Birth of the Nation: The First Federal Congress, 1789-1791. Lanham: Rowman Littlefield, 2002.

Bordewich, Fergus M. The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016.

Brands, H.W. The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin. New York: Anchor, 2000.

Ellis, Joseph J. Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. New York: Knopf, 2000.

Morgan, Edmund S. Benjamin Franklin. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.

Wood, Gordon S. The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin. New York: Penguin, 2004.

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