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June 12, 2008 / howardmestas

Distinguished Speakers, U-Penn College Hall

Wow!  Eleven days into the trip and we finally found someone who could say something bad about Benjamin Franklin.  Our first lecturer of the day was David Waldstreicher, a professor at Temple University and the author of “Runaway America,” a book that brings into question Franklin’s reputation as America’s antislavery founder.

According to Waldstreicher, Franklin is always viewed as being opposed to slavery, and by looking at his “official” record how could anyone come to a different conclusion.  For example, the following information about Franklin is well known:

  • 1787 – Joined the Pennsylvania Abolition Society
  • 1789 – Petitioned against the slave trade to congress
  • 1790 – Ridiculed southern state defenders of slavery
  • 1776 – While in France, he allows Parisians to create an image of him as an antislavery Quaker
  • ——No mention of slavery appears in his autobiography

And who could question his personal travails, himself having been a runaway from the abusive indentured servitude of his older brother in 1723.  Having lied about his servant status to a ship captain he eventually found his way to Philadelphia and a lucrative career as a printer.  Within 25 years he transformed himself from a servant to a colonial gentleman.

But what is rarely ever mentioned is the “unnoficial” record about Franklin, starting with how he attained his wealth.  His Pennsylvania Gazette newspaper became profitable by the advertisments for runaway slaves and slave auctions.  By the 1750’s there were hundreds of such ads in every edition and ironically the work in the printing office, both skilled and labor intensive, was accomplished mostly through slave labor.

Franklin’s chief complaint against George III in the Declaration of Independence is where the King has, “excited domestic insurrections amongst us.”  This part was specifically written in Franklin’s hand and refers to the crown’s support in the cause of abolition in the colonies.  Incidentally there were no provisions in his will for the freeing of his slaves upon his death.

Our second great speaker of the day was Dr. Robert Engs, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and a Civil War expert.

Mr. Engs started his lecture with what he called two great American myths:

  1. That Mr. Lincoln freed the slaves
  2. The south suffered a decade of negro rule following the war

Engs supported the argument that the slaves freed themselves, first by stifling the southern economy during the war by being less than productive on the plantations, and second, by serving gallantly for the Union Army.  He added that by 1861 there were four major questions in the north regarding southern blacks.

  1. Will they rebel?
  2. Will they want freedom?
  3. Will they fight for it?
  4. Will they know what to do once they are free?

Of course the slaves provided their “YES” answer through their actions, before, during, and after the war.  And it seemed as if the northern commanders were the ones who were unsure about what to do since they were still enforcing the fugitive slave act after winning battles early in the war.  Engs said that the slaves knew the war was about their freedom and they resisted attempts to flee the plantations until the safest and most opportune moments emerged.  Once it was clear they could run away safely, there were precision evacuations to the safety of the northern armies where slaves were more than willing to work hard on behalf of thier liberators.  It is estimated that over 400,000 escaped laborers contributed to the Union Army in various ways with about 12 to 15 percent of them consisting of enlisted men.

As for Lincoln, Engs contends that his motivation for the war was not to free the slaves, but to save the union.  And the Emancipation Proclamation may have been intended to neutralize any European forces (especially Britain) who might have supported the south in the war.  Once the Union made emancipation an issue, there would be an obvious distinction between the combatants that hadn’t existed before.

My favorite story of the day came from Mr. Engs and was about a former slave reflecting on his condition.  He reflected that during the time he was a slave, he worked hard, but had no responsibilities and no worries.  But now that he was free he still works hard, and has a wife and children to provide for, only now he has lots of worries, but he said that in the end, “I still chooses freedom!”








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