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How The Founding Fathers Fought For An End To Slavery
Denise and Frederic W. Henderson
At the time of the founding of the American nation, a preponderant number of the leading figures in the revolutionary struggle against Britain, opposed black chattel slavery. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, James Wilson, and Thomas Jefferson, to name the most prominent, all organized to end a practice and policy they knew to be inconsistent with, and in fact, subversive of the principles upon which that Revolution had been based. Among this group, Benjamin Franklin was the most outspoken and active in his opposition to the practice of African slavery. In addition to countless public and private expressions of his opposition to human slavery, Benjamin Franklin founded the Pennsylvania Abolition Society in 1789. The following parody written by Franklin against those who argued in opposition to the Pennsylvania Abolition Society's memorial to the First Congress, to end slavery in America was published in the March 25, 1790 edition of the Federal Gazette. To the Editor of the 'Federal Gazette.'
MARCH 23, 1790.
SIR,-- Reading last night in your excellent paper the speech of Mr. Jackson in Congress against their meddling with the affair of slavery, or attempting to mend the condition of slaves, it put me in mind of a similar one, made about one hundred years since, by Sidi Mehemet Ibrahim, a member of the Divan of Algiers, which may be seen in Martin's Account of his Consulship, anno 1687. It was against granting the petition of the sect called Erika, or Purists, who prayed for the abolition of piracy and slavery as being unjust. Mr. Jackson does not quote it: perhaps he has not seen it. If, therefore, some of its reasonings are to be found in his eloquent speech, it may only show that men's interests and intellects operate, and are operated on, with surprising similarity in all countries and climates, whenever they are under similar circumstances. The African's speech, as translated, is as follows:--
``Allah Bismillah, &c. God is great, and Mahomet is his Prophet.
``Have these Erika considered the consequences of granting their petition? If we cease our
cruises against the Christians, how shall we be furnished with the commodities their countries produce, and which are so necessary for us? If we forbear to make slaves of their people, who, in this hot climate, are to cultivate our lands? Who are to perform the common labors of our city, and in our families? Must we not then be our own slaves? And is there not more compassion and more favor due to us as Mussulmen than to these Christian dogs? We have now above fifty thousand slaves in and near Algiers. This number, if not kept up by fresh supplies, will soon diminish, and be gradually annihilated. If we, then, cease taking and plundering the infidel ships, making slaves of the seamen and passengers, our lands will become of no value for want of cultivation; the rents of houses in the city will sink one-half; and the revenue of government, arising from its share of prizes, be totally destroyed. And for what? To gratify the whims of a whimsical sect, who would have us not only forbear making more slaves, but even manumit those we have.
``But who is to indemnify their masters for the loss? Will the State do it? Is our treasury sufficient? Will the Erika do it? Can they do it? Or would they, to do what they think justice to the slaves, do a greater injustice to the owners? And, if we set our slaves free, what is to be done with them? Few of them will return to their countries; they know too well the greater hardships they must there be subject to; they will not embrace our holy religion; they will not adopt our manners; our people will not pollute themselves by intermarrying with them. Must we maintain them as beggars in our streets, or suffer our properties to be the prey of their pillage? For men accustomed to slavery will not work for a livelihood when not compelled. And what is there so pitiable in their present condition? Were they not slaves in their own countries?
``Are not Spain, Portugal, France, and the Italian States, governed by despots, who hold all their subjects in slavery, without exception? Even England treats its sailors as slaves: for they are, whenever the government pleases, seized, and confined in ships of war; condemned not only to work, but to fight, for small wages, or a mere subsistence, not better than our slaves are allowed by us. Is their condition, then, made worse by their falling into our hands? No: they have only exchanged one slavery for another, and I may say, a better; for here they are brought into a land where the sun of Islam gives forth its light, and shines in full splendor; and they have an opportunity of making themselves acquainted with the true doctrine, and thereby saving their immortal souls. Those who remain at home have not that happiness. Sending the slaves home, then, would be sending them out of light into darkness.
``I repeat the question, What is to be done with them? I have heard it suggested that they may be planted in the wilderness, where there is plenty of land for them to subsist on, and where they may flourish as a free State; but they are, I doubt, too little disposed to labor without compulsion, as well as too ignorant to establish a good government, and the wild Arabs would soon molest and destroy or again enslave them. While serving us, we take care to provide them with every thing, and they are treated with humanity. The laborers in their own country are, as I am well informed, worse fed, lodged, and clothed.
``The condition of most of them is, therefore, already mended, and requires no further improvement. Here their lives are in safety. They are not liable to be impressed for soldiers, and forced to cut one another's Christian throats, as in the wars of their own countries. If some of the religious mad bigots, who now tease us with their silly petitions, have, in a fit of blind zeal, freed their slaves, it was not generosity, it was not humanity, that moved them to the action: it was from the conscious burden of a load of sins, and a hope, from the supposed merits of so good a work, to be excused from damnation.
``How grossly are they mistaken to suppose slavery to be disallowed by the Alcoran! Are not the two precepts, to quote no more, `Masters, treat your slaves with kindness; slaves, serve your masters with cheerfulness and fidelity,' clear proofs to the contrary? Nor can the plundering of infidels be in that sacred book forbidden, since it is well known from it that God has given the world, and all that it contains, to his faithful Mussulmen, who are to enjoy it of right as fast as they conquer it. Let us, then, hear no more of this detestable proposition,--the manumission of Christian slaves; the adoption of which would, by depreciating our lands and houses, and thereby depriving so many good citizens of their properties, create universal discontent, and provoke insurrections, to the endangering of government, and producing general confusion. I have, therefore, no doubt but this wise council will prefer the comfort and happiness of a whole nation of true believers to the whim of a few Erika, and dismiss their petition.'
``The result was, as Martin tells us, that the Divan came to this resolution: `The doctrine that plundering and enslaving Christians is unjust, is, at best, problematical; but that it is the interest of this State to continue the practice, is clear; therefore let the petition be rejected.'
``And it was rejected accordingly.''
``And since like motives are apt to produce in the minds of men like opinions and resolutions, that the petitions to the Parliament of England for abolishing the slave-trade, to say nothing of other Legislatures, and the debates upon them, will have a similar conclusion? I am, sir, your constant reader and humble servant,