Some scholars have hailed Franklin’s outspoken leadership of American abolitionism in the last years of his life. Others have been more reserved, emphasizing that it was only then that he came round to the cause. But the visit to the Negro school, 25 years before his assumption of the presidency of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, was the turning point. Within less than a decade of that revelatory day, he was “act[ing] in concert in the affair of slavery” with Granville Sharpe and Anthony Benezet, the very vanguard of the intrepid little band that would one day bring down slavery in the British Empire. Years before he gave up hope of reconciliation between Britain and its rebellious colonies, at a time when he still hoped to play a moderating role in the imperial crisis, Franklin had become a radical in his opposition to slavery. Benezet referred to him in 1772 as his “real friend and fellow traveler on a dangerous and heavy road.”

Liberal Britons congratulated themselves on the Somerset case, which outlawed slavery in England. Franklin expressed his impatience with the trifling effect of the celebrated decision. While it reached a handful of slaves at home, it left untouched almost a million men, women, and children in bondage in British colonies and another hundred thousand arriving in the slave trade every year. Even if nothing could be done to free the poor souls already snared in slavery, at least a law could be passed “for abolishing the African commerce in slaves and declaring the children of present slaves free after they become of age.” More than that, he posed questions that would still be asked by none but extremists for another half-century. “Can sweetening our tea &c. with sugar be a circumstance of such absolute necessity” as to justify slavery? “Can the petty pleasure thence arising to the taste compensate for so much misery produced among our fellow creatures and such a constant butchery of the human species by this pestilential, detestable traffic in the bodies and souls of men?”

Franklin addressed this scathing rhetoric to his American countrymen as much as to his mother country. He saw and said that colonists who demanded liberty for themselves and enslaved others were hypocrites. He wrote that the rebels had to “get clear of a practice that disgraces them.” In 1773 he went out of his way to visit the enslaved American poet Phillis Wheatley in London and to offer her “any services [he] could do for her,” despite the disapproval of her American master. A decade later, Thomas Jefferson, disdaining even to spell Wheatley’s name right, would dismiss her work—the first American poetry ever to receive the metropolitan recognition of publication in London—as “below the dignity of criticism.”

In his last years, Franklin would devote much of his time and energy to abolition. He would write and sign the first remonstrance against slavery ever addressed to the new American Congress, and when the Congress disavowed authority to interfere in the internal affairs of states, he would petition once more. He would forgive a debt owed him by his son-in-law in return for the manumission of the son-in-law’s slave, thereby purchasing the freedom of that slave. He would dedicate his last public writing to a satirical assault on slavery.

But his efforts on behalf of blacks were not a belated effort to make right a lifetime of wrong. For more than three decades, he had done more to promote the enlightenment and uplift of African Americans than all but a handful of the most heroic abolitionists. Time after time, he had risked a reputation of which he was inordinately protective in order to do justice. And though his commitment had grown incrementally over the years, it had formed most profoundly on his visit to the Negro school and his realization there that black boys and girls were as educable as anyone else.

Franklin’s mid-18th-century proposals for the education of youth in Pennsylvania were more innovative by far than Jefferson’s design for higher learning in Virginia many decades later. As Charles and Mary Beard wrote, in The Rise of American Civilization, Franklin’s idea of a university not only “anticipated the most enlightened program evolved by the liberal university of the late nineteenth century” but also “stands out like a beacon light in the long history of human intelligence.”

But Franklin attended to much more than the education of the privileged few. He also wrestled conscientiously and creatively with educational issues that perplex and preoccupy us to this day, issues of class, gender, and race about which Jefferson has nothing to tell us except to mark the distance we have traveled from his failures of intelligence and fellow-feeling.

Of all the Founding Fathers, perhaps only Benjamin Rush was Franklin’s equal as an educational thinker. Certainly no one was his superior. No one was any more far-thinking or visionary than he, or any more humane and generous, or any more insightful and illuminating on the questions that still concern us most.

Michael Zuckerman C’61 is a professor of history at Penn. This essay is adapted from “Founding Fathers: Franklin, Jefferson, and the Educability of Americans,” in “The Good Education of Youth”: Worlds of Learning in the Age of Franklin, copyright © 2009 Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania, edited by John H. Pollack and published by Oak Knoll Press and the University of Pennsylvania Libraries.

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