Franklin also came to be convinced, long before the colonies claimed their independence, that African Americans had as much capacity for schooling as European Americans did. How he came to that conviction is a long and winding story, and it does not end at the point of his conversion. But it is a story utterly at odds with any that can be told of Jefferson.

Jefferson’s aspersions on African capacity for education and indeed for civilization are now as notorious as they are noxious. His gratuitous inventory of black deficiencies marked the dawn of scientific racism in America. Dichotomizing “the blacks” and “the whites,” he drew one invidious distinction after another. Blacks were incapable of “fore-thought.” Their griefs were merely “transient,” their afflictions “less felt” and “sooner forgotten.” Their existence had in it “more of sensation than reflection.” Compared to whites, they were “in reason much inferior” and “in imagination ... dull [and] tasteless.” Among them there was “no poetry.” Not a one of them had ever “uttered a thought above the level of plain narration.” Jefferson admitted that it was “right” to “make great allowances for the difference of condition” of blacks and whites. But he devoted himself to discounting the difference rather than developing it.

Just as Jefferson’s misogyny makes his ideas and ideals of female education useless to us, so his racism makes his ideas and ideals of minority education worthless to us and worse. He could not bring himself to grant African Americans any “rights of will” or to consider them any more capable than “children of taking care of themselves.” And he could not contemplate a prospect of whites living together with blacks in any relation other than as masters and slaves. Were those in bondage to be freed, they would have to be deported. Coexistence was never, in his mind, a feasible alternative to colonization. If emancipated slaves were not “removed beyond the reach of mixture,” their presence would “produce convulsions” that would “never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.”

Franklin never harbored such homicidal racist fantasies. He did hold slaves, and he did take for granted the lesser aptitude for learning of African Americans. But he always insisted on the relativity of cultural norms. He reminded his countrymen that “we” call others savages “because their manners differ from ours, which we think the perfection of civility,” but that “they think the same of theirs.”

He did not doubt that he had preferences, but he did not pride himself on his prejudices. In fact, he tried—far more successfully than most—to overcome them. He conquered his initial antipathy to the German immigrants he once scorned as “Palatine boors” and wound up working closely with them in politics. He knew that partiality to one’s own “is natural to mankind,” but he tried to wean himself from it. He reveled in the endlessness of education.

Franklin’s education in the educability of black youth began in 1757, when his wife and a Philadelphia clergyman enticed his interest in the Associates of Dr. Bray. Dr. Bray was an Anglican cleric. His organization, based in London, had been sending books and catechists to America since 1724, in an unavailing effort to promote education and conversion among slaves in the colonies. After three decades of desultory accomplishment, the Associates were ready to try another approach. Thinking to organize formal Negro schools in the New World, they turned to Franklin for assistance.

Franklin was enthusiastic. He knew that, “at present, few or none give their Negro children any schooling, partly from a prejudice that reading and knowledge in a slave are both useless and dangerous” and partly because no schoolmaster would “take black scholars, lest the parents of the white children in the school should be disgusted and take them away.” Franklin was willing to brave the hostility of his fellow Philadelphians. He persuaded the Associates that “a separate school for blacks” would afford slave children the education otherwise denied them, and by the spring of 1758 he had secured funding for a school in Philadelphia that opened the following fall. That school was such a success that the Associates approved three more a year later, soliciting and accepting Franklin’s advice on where to establish them and whom to appoint as superintendents in each place. All of them lasted to the eve of the Revolution, and the Philadelphia school, for which Franklin secured a substantial endowment, reopened after the Revolution with Franklin and a friend in charge.

But the real transformation in Franklin’s views did not occur until he returned to Philadelphia and visited the Negro school in 1763. Observing the progress of the black boys and girls, he wrote to John Waring that he “was on the whole much pleased.” He did not simply come to hold “a higher opinion of the natural capacities of the black race than [he] had ever before entertained.” He actually came to conceive “their apprehension ... as quick, their memory as strong, and their docility in every respect equal to that of white children.” When he reported what he made of what he had seen to the Associates, he had a sense that they would not be as impressed as he was by his newfound conviction of the parity of black and white aptitudes. He suspected that they would “wonder perhaps” at his original doubts of the potential of their black pupils more than at his recent conversion. In his extenuation, he knew he had little to offer. “I will not undertake to justify all my prejudices,” he wrote, “nor to account for them.”
 

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