Friday, July 4, 2014

Liberty and Slavery

Some academics, the ones who have allowed sanctimony and self-interest to subdue their intellect, will say that the fact that many of our Founders held slaves is enough to cast their collective integrity in doubt. The day will come when our descendants look back on us and pronounce similar judgments. “How could Americans, who fought and died in the Civil War, choose to resurrect the institution of slavery in foreign lands? How could they countenance child labor and despotism in China and Mexico, and pretend that it has nothing to do with them?” This is only to say, when we judge others, we are usually giving ourselves too much credit.

Nonetheless, it does warrant reflection that some of the Founders held slaves even as they championed Republican virtue and liberty. But it is wrong to impugn the integrity of all the Founders on this account. John Adams provided a moral example: he never owned a slave. George Washington believed that if he freed his own slaves they’d be enslaved by others, and chose to keep them and treat them humanely. Others among the Founders, such as John Jay and Thomas Paine, were leaders of the earliest abolitionist societies in America and spoke out for abolition even when doing so threatened their livelihoods and social standing. 

The reason for bringing up the question of slavery on a day that ought to be reserved for celebration is this: there is a lesson to be learned from Benjamin Franklin’s evolving attitudes toward slavery. It is a lesson that is very germane to the spirit of liberty which we honor on the 4th of July. 

For a portion of his life, and despite his passion for scientific rigor and undeniable genius, Benjamin Franklin believed that Africans were an inferior race. However, the historical record shows that he became increasingly aware of the arguments of the anti-slavery writers starting at around the 1730s, his attitudes underwent a change during the 1760s, and that his final writings consisted of appeals to end slavery and polemics aimed at elected representatives who hypocritically defended slavery as a “states’ rights” issue while personally profiting from the institution of slavery.

The historical record also provides a likely explanation for why his attitudes changed. During the 1760s, Franklin had the responsibility of advocating for the people of Pennsylvania during trips to London. Of particular concern to Franklin was the fact that Pennsylvania was a proprietary province. In other words, unlike other territories that attained the status of Royal Colonies and were granted some small measure of liberty, Pennsylvania was governed by unelected oligarchs. 

This was of little concern when the proprietor was William Penn – who was by all accounts a man who respected liberty and was loved by his people. It became a concern when Penn’s descendants showed little interest in the welfare of the common people but showed a keen interest in the profits that might be gained from their position.

The 1760s were a period of embarrassment for Franklin. More a scientist and philosopher than a politician, he was naïve in believing that, just because they said so, British ministers and members of parliament were allies in his cause. He raised Pennsylvanians’ hopes for an end to proprietary government, and later had to admit failure. And it was also true that, as the British government descended further into corrupt and tyrannical modes, meaningful distinctions between “colony” and “proprietary province” had begun to evaporate. Because he sought to address the problems of Pennsylvania by working “within the system,” Franklin was slow to recognize that the only viable course for freedom-loving colonists was to declare independence. 

Under proprietary governance, oligarchs and not the people selected the governor. And the governor, in turn, performed the bidding of the oligarchs without the slightest concern for the common people. During a time when the French and their Native American allies harassed the outlying portions of the Pennsylvania territory, oligarchs were not asked to pay taxes toward the common defense. However, ordinary citizens were obliged not only to pay taxes but to fight and die on the battlefield. 

Taxes continued to rise, but only on the shoulders of the common people. Proprietors used tax revenue to create new patronage positions and new advantages for the privileged few. And there was, at the time, an additional form of taxation known as the quit-rent: the oligarchs owned the lion’s share of farmland in the territory, and if they were to live and work on this farmland, Pennsylvanian farmers had to pay a regular fee to the landowner.

Both Franklin and his friend and confidant Joseph Galloway declared that the people of Pennsylvania were falling into the “jaws of proprietary slavery.” If “slavery” strikes the reader as too strong a word – especially in comparison to the extent of slavery experienced by Africans brought into the colonies, consider the meaning of the word. 

To be a slave is to perform labor without sharing in the fruits of one’s labor, to be taxed by and brought into debt by the government, to be denied a humane standard of living by the government, and to be ordered to fight and die by the government, without being allowed to exercise the right to choose one’s own government. And Franklin knew that, in some respects, the people of Pennsylvania experienced a kind of slavery that was worse than that faced by the Africans. Whereas slave-owners had an economic interest in preserving the lives of their slaves, the proprietary oligarchs did not object to seeing the people of Pennsylvania die in the wilderness. To be free is to be a stakeholder in one’s government; to be a slave is to be forced to live in service to private interests. Because Franklin sincerely believed that he and his fellows were in fact slaves, this likely inspired his sympathy with the plight of African slaves.

In due time, outraged and embittered by the continuing proprietary system, Franklin declared in 1764, “our glorious Plan of public Liberty … is to be bartered away and we are to be made Slaves for ever!” And Franklin understood that slavery is an engine for increasing the movement of wealth out of the hands of the many into the hands of the few. In his studies of the African slave trade, he wrote,

The Negroes brought into the English Sugar Islands have greatly diminished the Whites there; the Poor are by this Means deprived of Employment, while a few Families acquire vast Estates; which they spend on Foreign Luxuries, and educating their Children in the Habit of those Luxuries; the same Income is needed for the Support of one that might have maintained 100.
Franklin characterized the proprietary government of Pennsylvania in these terms: a “fever of ambition and a lust for power” among a few oligarchs brought about “enfeeblement” of the law, corrupted courts of justice, and threatened the sanctity of property rights for all but a few. He spoke of the efforts by the oligarchs to divide the people of Pennsylvania into warring factions and thereby further their own advantage. In this connection, he alluded to Aesop’s fable of the lion and the bulls, to wit:

Three bulls fed in a field together in the greatest peace and amity. A lion had long watched them in the hope of making a prize of them, but found there was little chance for him so long as they kept all together. He therefore began secretly to spread evil and slanderous reports of one against the other, till he had fomented a jealousy and distrust amongst them.

No sooner did the lion see that they avoided one another and fed each by himself apart, than he fell upon them singly, and so made an easy prey of them all.

The quarrels of friends are the opportunities of foes.
I won’t extend this essay unnecessarily by providing examples of the many proverbs of Franklin which speak to the same point. He felt it necessary to proselytize endlessly to remind people that unity is of paramount importance if liberty is to be secured and maintained. Divisive partisanship, when it is observed, is evidence that private interests are at work attempting to preserve their separate advantages. When we as individuals worry about feeding our families, and tremble at the thought that our retirement savings have been plundered, pay ever higher taxes to ensure that private corporations remain untaxed or only lightly taxed, and feel helpless to change our government for the better, it is all too easy to succumb to partisan sentiment. That is why defending liberty is not an easy thing, but the Founders told us that it would never be an easy thing. 

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