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Conversations with America: Franklin's Conversation

Updated on April 22, 2011

Cities, Commerce, and Slaves

The wealth of the English colonies in North America was a product of slavery. This is most easily seen in the plantation economies of Virginia and the Carolinas, but is no less true of the commercial wealth of the colonies of New England. As a way of analyzing the position of New England within the slave system, and its moral difficulties in honestly addressing slavery, I will be analyzing a short work by Benjamin Franklin written January 30, 1770, as a response to English accusations of hypocrisy and injustice in colonial claims to liberty.

"A Conversation on Slavery" frames Franklin's argument within a conversation between an American, an Englishman, and a Scotsman. The Englishman begins the conversation: "You Americans make a great Clamour upon every little imaginary Infringement of what you take to be your Liberties; and yet there are no People upon Earth such Enemies to Liberty, such absolute Tyrants, where you have the Opportunity, as you yourselves are." The Englishman has read Granville Sharp's indictment of slavery,A Representation of the injustice and dangerous tendency of admitting the least claim of private property in the persons of men, in England,etc, published in 1769, and repeats the charges that early English abolitionist made against the slave trade as a whole, with specific reference to the Americas alone.

The American's response, with a few interruptions to carry the reader forward towards his conclusions, is an exercise in skillful equivocation and obfuscation. The American praises Mr. Sharp's humanity and zeal, rather reminiscent of Mark Antony's "honorable men" oration inJulius Caesar, only to deny his conclusions as unjust regarding Americans and an exercise in partiality for ignoring the sins of the English1. The American is interested, in other words, in both separating Americans in general from the crime of slavery and in shifting at least some of the blame for the institution upon the English themselves. It is a confession to sin that avoids the consequences of confession, a position I think can be applied to the New England colonies as a whole during the pre-Revolutionary period in regards to the slave trade.

Let us see what Franklin's American has to say. First, the American points out that there are few slaves in the most populous English colonies, those of New England, and the slaves in these colonies are "chiefly in the capital Towns", employed "as Footmen or House-maids". He claims the same is true of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Furthermore, he says that the Slaves of Virginia and the Carolinas, where they are chiefly field-hands, are the possessions of a very few wealthy men. Slave ownership is not a general condition, even where slaves are most numerous, and therefore the crime of slavery is that of a very few men; it should not be charged on the public as a whole.

Let us now measure what Franklin has said so far against what we know to be true of the English colonies in the eighteenth century. In New England, slaves composed less than 3% of the colonial population during this period. Most slaves in New England were concentrated in cities and specific counties; slavery was neither widespread nor a necessary engine to agriculture in the region. Certainly, New England masters feared their slaves less, for there were few slaves to fear, and the plantation system was, by and large, avoided. It was not avoided in Rhode Island, the single New England colony which saw a substantial increase in its slave population during the eighteenth century, fueled by large farming concerns on Naragansett Bay. These farms, worked by slave gangs, provided provisions to the West Indian monoculture societies, where the land was dangerously dominated by sugar. Such provision-estates also developed in the Hudson Valley of New York2. Franklin is, therefore, broadly correct in his statements, even that which assigns slave-ownership to a small, wealthy elite. Although economic success and growth in the colonies extended the ownership of slaves to a wider group of people, the slavery envisioned by abolitionists, that of the plantations, was practiced by a very few people who owned a large number of slaves and a large amount of land.

Franklin's American continues his argument by pointing to the humanity of some slave-owners, those who care for their slaves in sickness and health, and compares it, facetiously, to the care taken of the English poor. The English poor, the American points out, may not be chattel, but they are not free either. They are obliged by English law "to work for their Masters so many Hours at such a Rate, and [these laws] leave them no Liberty to demand or bargain for more, but imprison them in a Workhouse if they refuse to work on such Terms". Franklin's American is establishing a parallel between the treatment of the Poor and the treatment of the Slave that he will continue to use to some effect. The treatment of the Poor in England was scandalous, and those, like the Englishman of this Conversation, who read and approved of the arguments of a man such as Sharp were conscious of that scandal and shame. The American's use of this inexact parallel to shift the argument from the sins of the colonies to the sins of London leads us to a very important portion of the Conversation, one that applies as well to New England as it does to England.

The American confesses that some colonists buy slaves, but it was England who began the trade, her merchants that steal, ship, and sell them. He writes:

"You bring the Slaves to us, and tempt us to purchase them. I do not justify our falling into the Temptation. To be sure, if you have stolen Men to sell to us, and we buy them, you may urge against us the old and true saying, that theReceiver is as bad as the thief. This Maxim was probably made for those who needed the Information, as being perhaps thatreceivingwas in it's Nature as bad asstealing: But the Reverse of the Position was never thought necessary to be formed into a Maxim, nobody ever doubted thatthe Thief is as bad as the Receiver"3.

How honest is Franklin being now? Well, he is on the right track, as far as he goes, but it is in what he leaves out that we must have a care. England dominated the slave trade in 1713, and as it monopolized the trade, New England prospered4. New England prospered as the shippers, carriers, and merchants of the slave trade. English captains might have dominated the direct route to Africa, but New England shippers had their own concerns in the trade, and their own profits to be made. England was not innocent of the trade, but neither was New England or any colony in English North America. In the long run, slavery was more profitable to the New England shippers, pirates, and merchants than to the plantation owners, or, at least, the shippers, pirates, and merchants put their profits to better use after the Revolution. According to Kevin Philipps, "The plantation South, with the richest mainland colonies of the prewar period, was devastated by British military campaigns and slave losses", lost tobacco markets, and found indigo and naval stores less profitable without British subsidies5.

The Englishman responds by pointing to the slave codes, laws written and enacted by colonial Assemblies, and "therefore the Act of the whole". Does not codifying the conditions of slavery, and making the policing of slaves a duty, create responsibility for, and therefore guilt of, the institution throughout the society? According to Franklin's American, it does not. Rather it indicates an extreme level of fear where slaves greatly out-number whites, resulting in more severity than is necessary; in other words, fear leads to error, but not to evil. In colonies where fear is not great, as in those where slaves are few, slave laws are mild in comparison. This appears to be a reasonable argument. The slave codes were most savage where slave-owners felt the most fear, and were most reasonable where the slave-owners felt little fear.

Then the American pushes forward, and his argument becomes less reasonable and more racist. The severity of law, he proposes, may be necessary given the type of persons under that law.

"Perhaps you may imagine the Negroes to be a mild tempered, tractable Kind of People. Some of them indeed are so. But the Majority are of a plotting Disposition, dark, sullen, malicious, revengeful and cruel in the highest Degree. Your Merchants and Mariners, who bring them from Guinea, often find this to their Cost in the Insurrections of the Slaves on board the Ships upon the Coast…"6

He accuses African princes of shipping off their criminals for servitude elsewhere, as England ships its convicts to the colonies. The American continues with a long paragraph on the harsh laws and treatment of indentured servants in the colonies as necessary considering the quality of man sent to them.

In the above portion of his argument, the American, still attempting to blame others for the abuses present within his own country, uses a strange illustration to prove the savagery and evil nature of the Africans, this nature that requires such severity in government that the slave codes of the South are justified. The Africans resist being taken from Guinea, and thus are "plotting…dark, sullen, malicious, revengeful and cruel". Slave codes must be cruel, for Africans did not submit meekly to their condition, and, anyway, they were probably criminals, just like the white convicts whose indentures were purchased on their arrival in the colonies. There is a certain desperation and willful blindness entering the American's arguments now, a desperation and blindness that appears to be shared by Franklin. Franklin is most interested in defending the political interests of the colonists and making the English feel their guilt. The truth does not in any real way concern him.

The American objects to the exportation of English criminals into the American colonies. Let us see how well he answers the Scotsman's reasonable objection to his positioning of the colonists as innocent victims of England's (and Africa's) exportation of its criminals. The Scot says: "You should not say we force the Convicts upon you. You know you may, if you please, refuse to buy them". If the colonists' sense of liberty was real, according to the Scot, they would not endure slavery at all, "purchase neither Slaves nor Convict Servants"7. Franklin's American responds through evasion and equivocation. Of course, he says, prudent men act as the Scot suggests, but there are many who are tempted by the cheapness of the labor and the term of service provided by the contract. Unfortunately, the English do not allow the colonies to forbid the sale of convict labor. "I say you force upon us the Convicts as well as the Slaves", the American says, and then quickly moves to the existence of slavery, the enslavement of white men, women, and children, in the Scottish collieries. Not only is slavery alive and well in Scotland, it is the same in England. Who are these English slaves? Why, sailors and soldiers are so, and more than this, they may be ordered to commit murder and other wickedness

This is the end of Franklin's argument, and, as you can see, it is a strange exercise he undertakes, one in which he manages to evade most of the questions regarding slavery by turning the accusations against his accusers. His accusers fail to effectively respond, as they could, in this manner: Your New England thrives on the profits of an immoral trade, being in this certainly as culpable as the English. In framing laws and making society itself responsible for the security and maintenance of slavery in the colonies, certainly the population at large not actively involved in abolition is culpable in the institution of slavery, not as slave-owners, but as supporters of the institution and processes by which men, women, and children are owned. The market availability of a slave does not force his or her purchase, and the failure of the colonists to, on a large scale and volubly, refuse human property is proof of guilt, not innocence, in this human traffic.

Franklin's Conversation shows a man of New England, proud of the small number of slaves in his province and the relative humanity of the practice there in comparison with that of the South, put in a rather delicate position. He must defend a practice he knows to be morally wrong, and one that brings with it physical dangers and a destructive element to all involved in it, as it is an institution wed to the success of the South's wealthy plantations and one of the commercial foundations of the North. Many men and women of the North found themselves in a similar position, although not quite so publicly as Mr. Franklin, and most made their accommodation to hypocrisy. Some, like the small but growing Quaker movement for emancipation, did not.

It is notable also that the tension between Liberty and Slavery was known to be a problem before the Revolution's success. Englishmen were not shy in pointing it out. It would continue to be a problem through the Civil War, and afterwards would suffer a change in terms and a new subtlety of situation, but remain a key dilemma of United States politics in local and international contexts.


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    I read the Conversation as printed in The Library of America's 2002 printing of Benjamin Franklin: Silence Dogood, the Busy-Body, and Early Writings, pp. 640-647. However, the reader may find it online at should they wish to follow Franklin's entire argument.

    1. Franklin is not being fair with Mr. Sharp, who certainly did not see the only guilty parties in slavery as residents of the colonies. For a brief description of Sharp's life and abolition efforts, see .
    2. From Slavery to Freedom: a history of African Americans, 9th edition, by John Hope Franklin and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, pp.66-68.
    3. Franklin, Benjamin, "A Conversation on Slavery", The Library of America, 2002, pp.640-647. p. 642.
    4. Franklin and Higginbotham, p. 66
    5. Phillips, Kevin,Wealth and Democracy: a political history of the American Rich, NY: Broadway Books, 2002, p.15.
    6. Franklin, "Conversation", p. 643
    7. Franklin, "Conversation", p. 644

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