Slavery is the darkest cloud over the early history of the United States, including the country's founding. Slavery was a point of deep controversy among the American Founders themselves, and their positionor positionson the issue, have been debated ever since. Slavery carries such heavy moral and political freight that, in every age, the polemics about the founders' treatment of it have been little less than arguments about America's soul. For the same reason, these debates often reveal more about the polemicists' ideology than about the founders. This is especially true in our politically correct age. The taint of slavery on the founding has been "rediscovered" so many times in the past few scholarly generations that books with titles like the present one naturally arouse a certain wariness in the reader.
Benjamin Franklin has sometimes played the part of the founders' antislavery conscience in retellings of the founding story. Virtually his last public act was to sign an antislavery petition presented to the first Congress elected under the newly-adopted U.S. Constitution. The petition was drawn up by the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, of which Franklin had been president for a number of years. It denounced slavery in the strongest terms, as an "abomination of human nature." Needless to say, the petition created controversy within the Congress. It is thought that the Senate refused to vote a period of mourning when Franklin died shortly thereafter, because of his sponsorship of this petition.
The irony of this is that Franklin's position on slavery, taken over his whole life, or even the last years of his life, was not as the petition he signed might make it appear. This is a major theme of David Waldstreicher's Runaway America. Franklin owned slaves for extended periods during his life, though the details are difficult to establish, and did not take an unambiguous antislavery stance until the very end. In 1768, when he became an agent for the colonial government of Georgia in Londonhe was already agent for Pennsylvania, and would shortly become an agent for New Jersey and Massachusetts as wellone of his first tasks was to seek approval for the newly-minted slave laws there. During these years, when the breach between London and the colonies was widening, Franklin became the foremost propagandist in England for the American cause. This role required him to finesse the issue of colonial slavery. It took considerable art to balance the argument for colonial rights on the one hand with slaveholding on the other, since slaveholding was one of the rights claimed by many if not most colonies. How could the colonies assert their right to liberty, while denying it to many of their own inhabitants?
The task was rendered more delicate by the fact that antislavery opinion during this period was gaining ground in England (as in the Northern colonies). One of Runaway America's strengths is its attention to the evolving views of slavery on both sides of the Atlantic during Franklin's lifetime. Waldstreicher, a professor of history at Notre Dame, summons a wealth of historical research on these views, and on the economics of slavery, in the 18th-Century British Empire. In the colonies, slavery powered the plantations of the Southin that respect they were economically more akin to the Caribbean sugar islands than to their Northern cousinsbut slaves were common enough in the North as well. Franklin had his few slaves in Philadelphia, and he was not alone. Waldstreicher reports estimates that slaves constituted 6 to 10% of the population of that city at mid-century, and perhaps 15 to 20% in New York's Manhattan. Slavery even had a significant presence in New England. The General Court of Boston issued a declaratory opinion as early as the 1720s preferring free to slave labor, to little effect.
This wove slavery into the life of the colonies in sometimes unexpected ways. Cotton Mather, the famous Boston divine, whose Essays to do Good had a profound influence on the young Franklin, included in that tome a condemnation of the slave trade. Yet he owned a slave given him by his congregation. This in turn gave slavery a supporting, or perhaps an obfuscating, role in the polemics in Boston over the novel and controversial medical treatment of inoculation. Mather learned of the treatment from his slave (the procedure was apparently in use in parts of Africa), and became an advocate of the procedure in Boston. This allowed his opponents to denounce inoculation as "negroish," in addition to being an affront to Providence. One of the anti-inoculators even renamed his own slave "Cotton Mather" in derision. This did not sit well with the Brahmin.
The New England Courant, the newspaper where young Franklin then apprenticed for his brother James, was among the most vocal opponents of Mather and his medical advice (Ben Franklin later became an advocate of inoculation). This was not the only way in which they roiled the waters of formerly-placid Boston. The Courant's routine challenges to the entrenched authorities of the town earned James Franklin some jail time, in addition to a personal summons of divine wrath upon his head by patriarch Increase Mather. Waldstreicher does a good job of situating this journalistic enterprise, to which young Ben Franklin contributed with glee, in the larger ecclesiastical-political setting of Boston.
Slavery was found in quarters where 21st-century readers would not expect to see it. Not only was slaveholding well known in Franklin's Philadelphia, but it became increasingly common among Quakers in the 1720s and '30s. When Ralph Sandiford, one of their number, published an antislavery pamphlet in 1729 (Franklin was the printer but did not put his name on it), he was banished from the Communion for publishing without the approval of the Quaker yearly meeting. It would be decades before the Quakers developed an antislavery consensus.
Economic necessity was partially responsible for making slavery a staple, if relatively minor, prop to the economies of the northern colonies. The attraction of the frontier, where a man could establish himself with relatively little investment, produced a continual drain on the labor pool of the cities. Franklin described this effect in pamphlets, invoking it as cause of the prosperity of the colonies, and their attractiveness to immigrants. But he himself, as an employer, felt the resulting pinch. Workers were often brought over from Europe as indentures, contracting their labor for five or seven years in return for the cost of passage. After that, they often left for open land. Many ran out on their indentures prematurely. Under these circumstances, slavery helped shore up the labor supply. Slaves could even be rented, for about half the cost of free labor.
Ironically, then, slavery in the Northern colonies was partially an offshoot of the liberating effect of the frontier. Waldstreicher appropriately highlights this kind of historical irony, but unfortunately, becomes overly enthusiastic for it. It comes to dominate his entire narrative, which finds ironyor, more darkly, hypocrisywhere scarcely warranted. The title of the book refers to a conceit whereby Franklin, and the whole American Revolution, are alleged to depend on slavery, literal and virtual. Franklin's freedom was premised on the unfreedom of others, whether slaves or indentures. Moreover, the principal difference between Franklin and other "runaways" (Franklin skipped out on his indentured apprenticeship to brother James in Boston) is simply that he was fortunate enough to meet with success, while they did not.
Waldstreicher sprinkles his book with short biographies of other individualsconscientious apprentices who did not make good, runaway slaves whose hard work was not rewarded in the end, business partners of Franklin himself who struggled and failedas illustrations of this thesis. There but for the grace of God, we are to think, goes Franklin himself. This makes Franklin's paeans to hard work and thrift, moralizing his success and stigmatizing the failure of others, into naïveté at best, hypocrisy at worst. More broadly, it makes the "American dream" of opportunity and reward, pioneered by Franklin and his fellow founders, a kind of smug delusion.
It may be that Franklin underestimated the importance of luck in his own rise, and the rise of other successful men. Perhaps America in his day was not as rich in opportunity as he made out, or those opportunities were beset with more obstacles than he admitted. Or perhaps, more gently, Franklin and his alter ego Poor Richard intentionally oversimplified the "Way to Wealth," for popular consumption. Perhaps it is a misunderstanding of Franklin to think that he actually conceived of the path to success as broad and clear and free of pitfalls. This would exonerate Franklin of naïveté or hypocrisy, but make him guilty perhaps of false advertising.
More sinister is Waldstreicher's pervasive claim that Franklin succeeded only by exploiting the unfreedom of others. In his telling, Franklin cheated his brother of an apprentice, then joined the conspiracy of masters and made his own fortune by ensuring that others did not do likewise. It so happens that a significant proportion of the advertising in his Pennsylvania Gazette consisted of notices for the capture of runaway slaves and servants. It even carried announcements of slave auctions. Thus, we are told, did Franklin's success depend upon human bondage. Tropical products such as sugar, coffee, and rice were advertised in his paper, and sometimes held for sale in Franklin's own shopyet all these goods were "unthinkable without slavery." Thus was Franklin effectively a co-conspirator in the abominable institution.
In this way, of course, everyone involved in the commerce of 18th-century Europe and America could be tarred as a virtual slaveholder. But that is not all. Waldstreicher veers in a quasi-Marxist direction when he charges Franklin and his fellow-members of the bourgeoisie (not a word Waldstreicher uses) with turning his apprentices into slaves in all but name. Beholdsome indentures in the colonies openly lamented that they were no better than "white slaves"!
This kind of facile logic is unfortunately characteristic of Runaway America, and even forms the backbone of its argument. Waldstreicher does not consider whether Franklin himself might also be a "slave" in this sense, bound to market forces that he, his workers, and his partners, were all forced to battle. In Waldstreicher's eyes, Franklin and his ilkincluding the other foundersenjoyed a freedom that depended on the bondage of others.
Despite this, Runaway America is not a rant, and Waldstreicher does not play the fire-breathing ideologue. His paradoxes of freedom rooted in bondage, of runaway masters, of "white negroes," have more the feel of ingenious literary tropes, of jeux d'esprit, than engines of ideological warfare. In all likelihood, they are baubles thrown up by modern, or postmodern, historiography, where every interpretation can have its day, and cleverness is at a premium. As a result, the book's motifs are more annoying than maddening, to this reader at least. And Runaway America does have its virtues. There is something to be learned by reexamining Franklin's biography with relentless attention to the issue of slavery.
When we look at that biography though, even on the evidence Waldstreicher presents, we can come to prefer a significantly different interpretation than his. Waldstreicher concludes from Franklin's caginess in addressing issues of slavery, and his longstanding reluctance to come out unambiguously against it, that Franklin was simply not on the side of the angels. Yet one could also see Franklin, like other founders, as a man of prudence for whom antislavery was not as important as American rights, Amercan unity, and ultimately American independence. Unfortunately, advancing the American cause before independence required glossing over the issue of slavery. It is probably true that, in the 1760s and '70s, few if any of the founders saw slavery as an unmitigated evil; but their willingness to tolerate it in the name of the larger cause does not necessarily put them on the side of the devils. Waldstreicher is guilty of the common fault of holding past figures to a politically correct standard that is anachronistic, if not simply invalid. Fiat justitia, pereat mundus!but this excludes prudent temporizing for the sake of the longer-term good.
In Franklin's case, his position as mouthpiece for the American cause in London, and later Paris, put him in a more delicate situation than most of his American colleagues. The charges of hypocrisy, together with growing antislavery sentiment in England and in France, forced him into contortions. Those most hospitable to the American cause were often most likely to be antislavery, and he had to cater to them while also appeasing their governments. Franklin did publish some antislavery pieces in the 1770s, anonymously, but Waldstreicher dismisses these as mere "damage control" in the swirling polemics. He openly confessed antislavery views, but only to sympathetic listeners. This is not good enough for Waldstreicher. Franklin had come around to a clear antislavery position, but was not in the "vanguard" advancing that cause publicly.
In a sense, Franklin was cornered into his final antislavery gesture, the petition presented to Congress shortly before his death. The Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, &c., had wished to present a petition to the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787. Franklin, the Society's president, helped talk them out of itsuch a document could have broken the Convention apart. When the Society presented another petition in 1790, Franklin, virtually on his deathbed, apparently felt compelled to sign it. It created an uproar in Congress, bringing invective against Franklin in particular. He was accused of hypocrisy for countenancing slavery as a member of the Constitutional Convention, only to charge the new Congress, evidently, with the task of abolishing it. The Southerners attacked, and Franklin's friends held back. They were in the midst of attempting to get Hamilton's economic plan through Congress, and they needed Southern support. The timing, in other words, could not have been worse.
Was this a demonstration of the evil consequences of compromising with slavery, or of the foolishness of a moralism that refuses to compromise with necessities of time and place? Waldstreicher appears to believe the former, but his readers are free to draw their own conclusions.