Commentary / History

The American Revolutionaries’ International War Against Slavery

Part I. Ben Franklin and Massachusetts Lead the Way

By Colin Lowry

March 19, 2019

In the original draft of the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and John Adams, is a paragraph condemning King George III of Britain for the crime of promoting and enforcing the slave trade upon America. This paragraph was removed from the final draft that was signed by the delegates in 1776, by a request of a tiny minority from South Carolina and Georgia. It read as follows:

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of INFIDEL powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.

The British Crown had repeatedly intervened directly or through its Royal Governors, to veto and stop repeated attempts by the American colonial legislatures to abolish slavery, or to prohibit the slave trade, from 1766 until the beginning of the American Revolution in 1775. This fact, well known until the beginning of the 20th century, has been covered up and obscured. Most current revisionist history portrays the Founding Fathers as a group of slave owners who did nothing to end slavery, and that somehow slavery itself was an American institution. This lie is refuted by the actual historical record of the battle against the slave trade and the institution of slavery itself by the majority of the leaders of the Revolution.

The American Revolutionaries' International War Against Slavery

A portrait of Benjamin Franklin in 1762.

Among those leaders, Benjamin Franklin was the primary organizer. He created an international anti-slavery alliance of scientists, clergy, economists, writers, and political representatives, from America, France, and England, a full two decades before the first military battles of the Revolution commenced. This group would include key figures in France who would later help create the French-American alliance that Franklin negotiated in 1777, to bring France and Spain into the Revolutionary War against the British Empire.

Surprising to a modern reader, would be the fact that all of the colonies had already agreed to end the slave trade in America in 1774, by refusing to import any more slaves from Britain. This was done at the First Continental Congress in September of 1774 at Philadelphia, in the Non-Importation Association. The second article of the agreement read: “That we will neither import, nor purchase any slave imported, after the first day of December next; after which time, we will wholly discontinue the slave trade, and will neither be concerned in it ourselves, nor will we hire our vessels, nor sell our commodities or manufactures to those who are concerned in it.” This was signed by the Delegates from states that decades later were known to be bastions of slavery, including Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

How could this be? What is now mostly unknown today, is that the elimination of the slave trade, and even the abolition of slavery itself, was the majority opinion of those political leaders who identified with the Patriot cause leading into the Revolution. The political battle for an independent America, and the ideals contained in the opening paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence itself, included a repudiation of the British view that some men could be kept as beasts of burden, and had no natural rights.

The Roots of Anti-Slavery in Massachusetts

Of all of the Founding Fathers, no one had a larger influence over such a long period of time on the outcome of the Revolutionary movement than Benjamin Franklin. He was involved in efforts against slavery early in his career as a printer, and then widened that struggle to include the uplifting of mankind through scientific discovery and inventions that could better the economic life of all people.

To understand the roots of Benjamin Franklin’s commitment against slavery, we need to look at what was happening in Boston when he was born there in 1706. His father was a member of the Old South Church, where the Puritan leader Cotton Mather still preached. Mather himself had taken the extraordinary step in 1693 of founding a Society of Negroes, in which he taught both slaves and freed blacks to read the bible and other works. A few years later, he founded a school for blacks and Native Indians. At this time within the Puritan Congregational church, he also was baptizing blacks and Indians, and this practice was also spreading in other churches in New England.  Once these people were accepted as church members, this brought up the challenge to treat them with the same standards expected of any Christian, a theme Mather often used in his sermons.

The American Revolutionaries' International War Against Slavery

Old South Meeting House in Boston was a center of anti-slavery sentiment.

Young Benjamin Franklin and most of his family, were friends of Cotton Mather, and this allowed him to have access to Mather’s excellent library, which at that time was the largest in the colony. Cotton Mather’s Essays to Do Good, was according to Franklin’s autobiography, the single most influential work he read during his youth. From it, he expanded on the ideas of how to create a republican citizenry that would be committed to the general welfare of a nation. He later modelled his Philadelphia-based society, called the Junto, which discussed and debated scientific and philosophical questions, on Cotton Mather’s Young Men Associated clubs, founded in Boston decades earlier.

In the Massachusetts Bay’s original Charter, and the Body of Liberties in 1641, slavery was expressly prohibited. As the British began to increase their slave-capturing and trading operations in Africa in the late 1640s, pressure was exerted from London to introduce changes and loopholes in the laws to permit the slave traders to import and sell directly into the New England colonies. This had been resisted repeatedly, but by 1700, the issue was thrust into the public debate by a famous pamphlet called The Selling of Joseph, written by Samuel Sewall, then an Associate Justice of the Superior Court of Massachusetts Bay. In this work, Sewall argues against slavery mostly on religious grounds, using biblical references, but he also introduces natural law, saying “It is most certain that all Men, as they are the Sons of Adam, are Coheirs; and have equal Right unto Liberty, and all other outward Comforts of Life.” In answer to the arguments made by the slave-trading companies, that by purchasing a man, they somehow could own him, he said, “There is no proportion between twenty pieces of silver, and Liberty.”

In 1715, after the end of another war with the Spanish and French, the victorious British Empire acquired the rights to the majority share of the slave trade from Africa into the Caribbean and South America, including the right to import slaves into Spanish ports. Within a few years, British slave-trading companies, operating under Royal Charters, such as the Royal African Company, and the South Sea Company, controlled most of the global slave trade from Africa into the Americas, capturing and shipping as many as 80,000 African slaves per year. The effect of this, was that many more slaves each year that could not be sold off in the sugar plantations of the Caribbean West Indies, were imported into the North American colonies in much larger numbers beginning in the early 1720s.

Franklin’s Early Career in Philadelphia

It was in this period that Franklin began his printing and political operations in Philadelphia, both of which were to play a key role in his anti-slavery organizing.

He returned to Philadelphia after a journey to England in 1726, and set up his first print shop, which he built up in a few years to include the newspaper, Pennsylvania Gazette. With the newspaper as a vehicle for his own writings, he quickly attracted the attention of the most active political people in Pennsylvania. Since he was an independent printer, he could also print things that would have been censored by the officials within the Society of Friends (Quakers). Such was the case with a short book by Quaker Ralph Sandiford, who came to Franklin in 1729 to publish his work, A Brief Examination of the Practice of the Times, which included strong rebukes of the slave-owning practices of many Quaker merchants.

The American Revolutionaries' International War Against Slavery

Cotton Mather was one of the major influences on Ben Franklin’s life.

Franklin began writing and publishing Poor Richard’s Almanac in 1732, giving his work an even wider audience. In 1737 he published the incendiary anti-slavery book by Benjamin Lay, titled All Slave Keepers Who Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates.  Benjamin Lay was expelled from the Philadelphia Society of Friends, as a result of his anti-slavery activities and disruption of many Quaker meetings; his book was certainly one of the most radical abolitionist works of the time, accusing all who kept slaves as false Christians and violators of God’s law. His work influenced another important Quaker, Anthony Benezet, who would form part of the core of Franklin’s anti-slavery alliance in the 1760s.

Franklin became increasingly involved in creating the new institutions in America, that would later help form an independent nation. Using the Junto club  he had formed in 1727 and its members as the starting point, he founded the Philadelphia Library Company in 1731. This was the first subscription library, where books could be shared among the members, and money collected went toward acquiring better books for the collection. In 1736, he was appointed clerk of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, and his contract included the printing of the colony’s official state papers, and afforded him even closer contact with the political representatives in power. In that same year, he founded the Union Fire Company, the first organized fire department in the country. In 1737, he became the Postmaster of Philadelphia. In 1743, he founded the American Philosophical Society, devoted to “the promotion of useful knowledge, and philosophical discourse”, and started a correspondence between the Royal Society in London, and the Dublin Society in Ireland. He was elected as a representative to the Pennsylvania General Assembly in 1744, his first political office, all the while continuing his printing business.

Franklin the International Man of Science

It was in the 1740s that Franklin became an international celebrity, and built an extensive international network that would conduit his ideas, anti-slavery included, throughout Europe.

In 1747, he began his first serious experiments into electrical phenomena, after receiving some equipment from Peter Collinson, a noted scientist and botanist in England, who was an influential member of the Royal Society. Franklin started to first recreate the known experiments he had read in the Transactions of the Royal Society, and then went further with new experiments. This led him to experiments with static electricity, and finally to a successful attempt to prove that the electricity observed in static electricity generated by simple devices, was the same in character as that seen in lightning.

In the space of only five years, Franklin completely rewrote the understanding of electrical phenomena, introducing the single fluid theory of electricity, which still stands today. His careful descriptions of how these experiments were done, and his observations on what the results might mean, were written in letters to Peter Collinson, who then had them printed in the Transactions of the Royal Society, where they quickly spread throughout Europe. Soon, electrical experiments based on Franklin’s new theories of electricity, were being conducted in France, England, Italy, Germany, and Russia, creating a scientific network of correspondence, with Franklin at the center. In 1751, Franklin requested that Collinson collect and then print his work on electricity as a single book, so that it could be easily acquired throughout Europe and America.

The American Revolutionaries' International War Against Slavery

An artist’s rendition of Franklin’s kite experiment.

During this year, Franklin had perfected the experiments showing that pointed metal rods could attract electricity, and proposed the design of lightning rods that could protect buildings from the constant threat of fires ignited by lightning storms. In 1752, Franklin conducted his most famous experiment, what is now called the kite experiment, gathering electrical charge from a wire on a kite connected to a metal key during a thunderstorm, and then transferring that charge to a Leyden jar, which acts as a simple battery, proving his single fluid theory of electricity beyond doubt. After this success, his work was printed as a book in England, called Experiments and Observations on Electricity, Made at Philadelphia in America, by Mr. Benjamin Franklin. Collinson’s good friend and prominent Quaker, Dr. John Fothergill, had written the preface for the English edition. The book generated immediate interest in electricity across Europe. This brought Franklin international fame and recognition on a scale that no American had ever known before him. In 1753, Franklin became the first American to be awarded the Copley Gold Medal by the Royal Society, for his experiments and theories on electricity. He was now a member of the prestigious Royal Society in England, and would be looked upon as a peer by the scientists in Europe.

The reaction to Franklin’s theories in Europe also created a faction that did not accept his work, and could not believe that someone from the “uncultured and savage” New World of America could discover, explain, and even capture something as important as lightning from the heavens. In France, the electrical scientists had split around 1751, into Franklinistes and anti-Frankliniste, the latter being led by the Abbé Nollet. When Franklin’s lightning experiment was reproduced by Thomas-François Dalibard in France in 1752, the anti-Frankliniste group steadily lost credibility. The final blow came the next year, when King Louis XV himself sent a letter of commendation to the Royal Society in England, thanking Franklin for his useful work on electricity, and especially the design of the lightning rod. This amazing recognition by the King of France, would be used by Franklin in the next decade, to organize the scientific, economic and anti-slavery circle within France, that would later help cement the alliance with America.

In 1751, Franklin wrote one of his famous papers, Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, in the wake of several actions by the British Parliament to restrict the American colonies’ development. The first was the Iron Act of 1750, which outlawed the further building of iron works, and manufacturing of iron into products other than solid bars. This was followed by the Currency Act of 1751, which restricted the New England colonies from issuing paper currency, effectively strangling the development of new industries, and making the colonies completely dependent on Britain for credit. Franklin himself was a well-known advocate for paper currency, having written A Modest Enquiry into the Nature and Necessity of a Paper-Currency, in 1729.

The American Revolutionaries' International War Against Slavery

The opening page of Franklin’s document

Franklin’s Observations  paper is unusual in that it is done as a numbered series of statements and questions, a style he used often to present arguments within the Junto, where he does not always let the reader know whether the argument he is presenting, is what he really believes. The paper starts with a discussion on what factors tend to increase the population, and then moves quickly to other related questions, including the economically wasteful and costly use of slave labor. In point number 12 he says, “`Tis an ill-grounded opinion that by the labour of slaves, America may possibly vie in cheapness of manufactures with Britain. The labour of slaves can never be so cheap here as the labour of working men is in Britain.” He then shows that the total cost of using slave labor will actually tend to decrease the economic value of manufactures, and that will in turn diminish the population increase in the country.

Expanding upon that idea in point 17, he writes: “Some European nations prudently refuse to consume the manufactures of East India. They should likewise forbid them to their colonies; for the gain to the merchant, is not to be compared with the loss by this means of people to the nation.” This was a salvo against the practices of the British East India Company, and the dumping of cheap goods made by slave labor in India, into the American colonies, which became one of the primary issues leading to the Revolution. This paper was originally printed only in Philadelphia, but by 1755, it was printed in Boston, then in London in the Gentleman’s Magazine, and again in 1760 and 1761 in England, Scotland, and Ireland. It was also read in France by the young economists known as the Physiocrats, who would expand upon Franklin’s economic arguments against slavery in the mid-1760s, and open up a correspondence with him that would last for decades.

Franklin and the Albany Plan of Union

Franklin was involved in much more than his scientific work during the period from 1747 to 1753, and his influence in America was expanding dramatically.

In 1749, he founded the secondary school in Philadelphia, that would become chartered as the University of Pennsylvania in 1755. In 1751-2, he worked with several prominent doctors to establish the Philadelphia Hospital, the first public hospital in America, which would later include the first medical school. As the most prominent political figure in Philadelphia, he was appointed as a negotiator in 1753 to a peace conference with several Ohio Indian tribe leaders in Carlisle, as the French were already encroaching on territory claimed by Great Britain.

The French increasingly were attacking tribes friendly to the English, and attempted to gain full control of the Ohio Valley to the west of Pennsylvania. The French operations became bolder in late 1753, with incursions into northwest Pennsylvania and New York. By the summer of 1754, the young Colonel George Washington had already fought two small battles against the French troops and their Indian allies in western Pennsylvania, and while the war had not spread beyond America, the risk of another large war loomed on the immediate horizon. Some efforts were being made at negotiations between France and England in Europe, but the British Government directed the representatives of the American colonies to meet in Albany, New York, to determine the best course for their mutual defense.

Benjamin Franklin was chosen by the Governor of Pennsylvania, as one of the five delegates to attend this Albany congress of the colonies. This was to be his first attempt to politically unite the colonies under the threat of the impending war. Franklin proposed that the colonies form a new grand council, that would have representatives from each colony, and those representatives would be elected by the legislators from each colony. He then proposed that the grand council would have one executive, or president as he called it, that would be chosen by the British Government in London. The two would work together, and the grand council would coordinate the defense of the colonies, as well as address economic disputes between the various colonies.

The American Revolutionaries' International War Against Slavery

Franklin’s 1754 cartoon became a rallying cry for the revolution.

Franklin’s proposal met with stiff opposition, not just from the larger colonies who wanted to preserve their influence, but from smaller ones, who often had differing political structures, and did not want to give up their own local powers to a council that would be directly controlled by an official appointed from London. Franklin found an important ally, who backed up his proposals for a union among the colonies, in Stephen Hopkins, the delegate from Rhode Island. Before the conference, Franklin had printed much of his proposal in the Philadelphia Gazette, including the `Join or Die’ cartoon, showing the colonies as a snake that had been cut apart into 13 pieces.

For many reasons, Franklin’s plan of union was rejected at the Albany congress, but the seed of union had been planted which would bloom two decades later. This famous slogan and drawing resurfaced in the Stamp Act Crisis of 1765, and became associated with the Patriot cause during the Revolution. Stephen Hopkins became a good friend of Franklin, and the two would work against slavery in the years to come. Hopkins was also a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and became Governor of Rhode Island later. In 1755, the war would escalate in America, and by the next year, it would become a global war between Britain and France involving battles in Europe, Africa, India, the islands of the Caribbean, and even the Philippines. Franklin would travel to England in 1757, as the Agent of Pennsylvania to Parliament, where he would remain until 1762.

James Otis Ignites Resistance to British Slavery in Massachusetts

The Seven Years War (called the French and Indian War in America) was winding down in 1761, with the fighting in America now over, and the British army now in control of the Ohio Valley and Canada. The American colonies were heavily in debt from the war, and so was the British Government, which quickly devised schemes to increase the revenue. These efforts stoked the conflict between the colonies and the mother country.

The British Government’s first attempt was to give even more powers to customs officials and East India Company officers to search for any goods that were either smuggled or had not had the proper taxes paid, by granting them the power of what was called a Writ of Assistance. This was, in essence, a search warrant of unlimited scope and power, requiring no evidence to be presented, and could be used to force anyone to join searches started by any official with this Writ, which granted the ability to break into warehouses and homes with no prior notice. This was arbitrary power at its worst, and two merchants in Massachusetts who had been targeted by new Writs of Assistance issued by customs officials in 1761, ignited one of the most important court cases that awakened resistance to British power and slavery.

The American Revolutionaries' International War Against Slavery

An engraving from a portrait of James Otis, Jr, a lawyer from Colonial Massachusetts, created the phrase “Taxation without representation is tyranny”, 1900. From the New York Public Library.

James Otis, a prominent attorney with a position within the Massachusetts Colonial government, resigned his position and became the lead attorney for the defense of the merchants challenging the Writs of Assistance. Otis attacked the Writs with a detailed history of English law, showing that they had not been allowed to be used in almost 100 years, and were a tyrannical and arbitrary abuse of power of the rights guaranteed to all of the English subjects, including the colonists. He then asserted that these rights were inherent and inalienable under natural law to all subjects of his majesty, white or black. John Adams, then a young law clerk, witnessed the speech of Otis, and recalled years later that, “not a Quaker in Philadelphia or Mr. Jefferson in Virginia ever asserted the rights of negroes in stronger terms.”

Otis had expanded the argument far beyond what the Royal officials were prepared for, and had linked the issue of slavery to the struggle to preserve the political rights of the colonists. Writing years later of the effect of Otis’ speech, Adams declared that “the child independence was then and there born, every man of an immense crowded audience appeared to me to go away as I did, ready to take arms against writs of assistance.” Due to the intense opposition to the Royal position, the Governor quietly referred the use of Writs of Assistance to a committee of the court, which took no further action. Otis became a folk hero in Massachusetts as a result of the case, and was elected to the General Court (also called the House of Representatives) in late 1761.

In 1763 a peace treaty finally ended the Seven Years War with France, and Britain gained the Ohio Valley country, and all of Canada, plus more territory in India. Americans were expecting to be able to expand westward into the Ohio Valley across the Appalachian Mountains since that expansion had been the trigger point of the war. But the British Board of Trade and King George III, wanted to restrict the colonies’ development even further. In October 1763, King George issued a proclamation, prohibiting new settlements west of the Appalachian Mountains, and instead allowing only native Indians the use of the Ohio Valley. The Board of Trade furthered this idea in a memo, saying that “keeping the colonists as near as possible to the ocean” would be best to keep them dependent on trade only with Britain. They advised that the interior of America should be “as wild and open as possible for the purposes of hunting.”

This betrayal by the British Crown of the American purposes of the late war, would be added to by the Currency Act of 1764, which prohibited paper currency in all of the colonies. To make matters worse, the Parliament then enacted the Sugar Act in the same year, imposing high taxes on imported sugar and molasses, and new prohibitions against trading with the French or Spanish island possessions in the Caribbean. This was a literal death blow to the American economy, and this plunged especially the New England colonies into a deep economic depression in 1764, which made it much more likely Americans would resist strongly any more attempts to restrict their economic rights.

The American Revolutionaries' International War Against Slavery

Emblem of the British Royal African Company.

James Otis and his good friend Samuel Adams were both ready to respond to this new attack by the British Government, from their positions in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Otis wrote and published a major pamphlet in 1764, called The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved, which also was circulated in England. In it he again argued that the rights of American colonists were granted by natural law, but he also went further in his attack against slavery. Otis declared that, “The Colonists are by the law of nature free born, as indeed all men are, white or black. No better reasons can be given, for enslaving those of any color than such…which threatens one day to reduce both Europe and America to the ignorance and barbarity of the darkest ages.”

Continuing his warning on the danger of slavery, he addresses the folly of prejudice:

Does it follow that tis right to enslave a man because he is black? Will short curl’d hair like wool, instead of Christian hair, as tis called by those, whose hearts are as hard as the nether millstone, help the argument? Can any logical inference in favour of slavery, be drawn from a flat nose, a long or a short face. Nothing better can be said in favour of a trade, that is the most shocking violation of the law of nature, has a direct tendency to diminish the idea of the inestimable value of liberty, and makes every dealer in it a tyrant from the director of an African company to the petty chapman in needles and pins on the unhappy coast. It is a clear truth, that those who every day barter away other men’s liberty will soon care little for their own.

The circulation of Otis’ pamphlet would lead to letters and debates in America over the now-joined issues of the natural rights of men and the inconsistency of allowing slavery to exist among a people who claimed the rights to liberty.  Letters attacking Otis’s position appeared in the English press later in the year. In the following year of 1765, the Stamp Act Crisis would create a political upheaval in America and England, with the issue of slavery and the elimination of the slave trade emerging among American colonial legislatures as a means of resistance to the policies of the British Crown.

To Be Continued.


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  1. Margaret Fairchild says:

    Thank you for this excellent piece, and the hard work and research you put into it, Colin. It is vital that Americans today understand the actual mission of our founders, and that they were not a bunch of greedy slavers, but in fact, fighters for the freedom of Mankind from the yoke of evil empire, a struggle which needs to be resolved even today.

  2. Michael D. Bowen says:

    Great read! Wonderful source of material. I teach Civics class for free to the community where I live and this information will be helpful in framing the foundation of our nation to those that have never looked into it before. Thank You for you work.

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