Benjamin Franklin and Slavery
Like many other American Founders, Benjamin Franklin was an active participant in the slave trade and is known to have benefited financially from it for much of his early life. However, it was during his time in London that Franklin’s views changed significantly. By the 1780s he was a vocal abolitionist writing a famous public address condemning slavery and urging Congress to act.
When Benjamin Franklin arrived in London in 1757, he had with him two African slaves that lived and worked at 36 Craven Street.
At Benjamin Franklin House, we aim to tell the stories of all the individuals that lived here. In this section, we will not only explore the history of Franklin’s involvement in slavery but also shine a light on the enslaved people that worked in his Philadelphia household and the lives of Peter and King who accompanied him to Britain to live and work in London during the 18th century.
Franklin and Slavery (1735-1757)
It is important to first note that many details chronicling Benjamin Franklin’s involvement in slavery, such as his purchase and sale of slaves, are logged fleetingly in the massive amounts of documents he left behind. Subsequently, it was also more common for northern slaveholders to not record slave births, deaths, and marriages since slaveholding was not as prominent in production processes as it was in the plantation South. However, we do know that Franklin was a slave owner and benefited from the institution.
The Franklin household owned slaves as early as 1735 until 1790, and was reported to have purchased at least seven slaves: Joseph, Jemima, Peter, King, Othello, George & Bob. 
In addition to ownership, Franklin also made financial gain by advertising the sale of slaves and publishing notices of runaways in his newspaper the Pennsylvania Gazette. Franklin’s relationship with slavery was complicated even during this early period, as he also published Quaker antislavery adverts.
Unfortunately, little is known about the lives of Franklin’s slaves, with their existence only documented in surviving tax and financial records. With the limited information available, we can only speculate on the details surrounding each individual’s time in the Franklin household.
To learn more about the lives of the slaves that we know were a part of Franklin’s Philadelphia household, CLICK HERE.
The stories of Peter and King, the two slaves that came to London in 1757, are somewhat better preserved as Franklin includes mentions of them in several of the letters that he wrote to his wife Deborah whilst away. To learn more about them, CLICK HERE.
Franklin in London (1757-1775)
When Benjamin Franklin went to London on behalf of the Pennsylvania assembly in 1757, his son William accompanied him. In addition, they brought along two slaves, named Peter and King. Peter acted as a personal servant to Franklin, and King served William in the same capacity. Both lived on Craven Street and were known to have earned a small salary.
It is believed that Peter and King, despite being enslaved by Franklin, still engaged in London society and European customs, explored the city, and accompanied the father and son pair on their various travels around the country. Peter remained with Franklin from their arrival until their departure in 1762. King, on the other hand, ran away sometime in 1758. He was then found living in Suffolk two years later, having been taken in by a Christian woman that taught him to read and write.
In the latter half of the 18th century, England had a population of around 15,000 black people. They lived mostly in major port cities, like London, Liverpool, and Bristol, but also in market towns across the country. The majority worked in domestic service, both paid and unpaid.
Slavery had no legal basis in England, but the law was often misinterpreted. Black people previously enslaved in the overseas colonies were often still treated as slaves when taken to England. Some slaves used the opportunity of being on English soil to escape and notices for ‘runaway slaves’ were often featured in newspapers during this period. The campaign in Britain to abolish slavery would not begin until the 1760s and was supported by both black and white abolitionists. The movement was characterized by a landmark judicial case in 1772, where Lord Mansfield ruled, in the case of the enslaved James Somerset, that there could be no such thing as an enslaved human living on English soil.
This pivotal decision and the abolitionist influences of John Woolman and Anthony Benezet are credited with shifting Franklin’s relationship with and sentiments towards slavery. From London, Franklin supported the cause of black education in colonial American cities and attacked slavery anonymously in the print for the first time. The fictionalized ‘Conversations between an Englishman, a Scotchman, and an American,’ published in 1770, critiqued the institution and global slave trade.
Franklin in Paris (1776-1785)
During this period, whilst acting as the United States Ambassador to France, Franklin remained publicly silent on the issue of slavery and was believed to have been unwilling to take a firm stance while in Paris. There, however, Franklin was particularly influenced by Enlightenment figure Condorcet’s Reflections on Negro Slavery, which was published in 1781 during the height of Franklin’s salon popularity.
Franklin took a semi-public stance on slavery when circulating ‘A Thought Concerning the Sugar Islands’ in 1782. In the article, Franklin denounced the numerous armed conflicts in Africa, the number of lives lost during these conflicts, the harsh conditions of transatlantic transportation, and the “numbers that die under the severities of slavery”  itself. Given such brutality and violence, Franklin contended that even a morsel of sugar was tainted with blood. Almost 8 years spent with antislavery French thinkers, dedicated abolitionist friends, and other philosophes are credited with encouraging Franklin’s eventual open censure of slavery and the continual shift of Franklin’s personal views.
Franklin and Abolitionism (1785-1790)
Following his time in Paris, Franklin returned to Philadelphia until his death in 1790. It was during this final period of his life that Franklin publicly condemned slavery.
At eighty-one years old in 1787, he became the President of the Philadelphia Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, which was also often referred to as the Abolition Society. The Abolition Society, which was formed by a group of abolitionist Quakers and Anthony Benezet in 1774, concentrated not only on abolishing slavery but also on helping enslaved people transition to a life of liberty. The organization was the first in America and encouraged the formation of abolitionist societies in other colonies.
In 1787, weeks before the start of the Constitutional Convention, Franklin signed a public antislavery appeal, which stated that “the Creator of the world” had made “of one flesh, all the children of men” . It was believed that Franklin, like many revolutionary leaders, supported the idea that a nation built on the promise of inalienable rights acquired at birth could not remain true while enabling slavery.
In 1789 he wrote and published several essays supporting the abolition of slavery, including an Address to the public, dated November 9th of that same year. In the address, the former slave owner wrote that the institution was an “atrocious debasement of human nature”  and called for adequate resources to support emancipated people in society, such as education and employment. Furthermore, Franklin’s last public act was to petition Congress on behalf of the society, requesting that they “cut the cancer of slavery out of the American body politic,” and grant liberty “to those unhappy men who alone in this land of freedom are degraded into perpetual bondage.” The first Congress was also asked to “devise means for removing the Inconsistency from the Character of the American People,” and to “promote mercy and justice toward this distressed Race” . This petition calling for the abolition of slavery and an end to the slave trade was signed on February 3, 1790, just over two months before Franklin’s death.
The petition was then introduced to the House and Senate on February 12th and 15th, 1790, respectively. It was immediately denounced by pro-slavery congressmen and ignited a heated debate in both branches of Congress. The House referred the petition to a select committee for further consideration, while the Senate took no action. On March 5th, 1790, the committee decided that the Constitution restrains Congress from prohibiting the importation or emancipation of slaves until 1808 and then tabled the petition. Despite such results, Franklin’s final efforts still cement his transformation from master of slaves to outspoken abolitionist .
A special thank you to our team of volunteer researchers whose diligent work in researching Franklin and slavery allowed us to create this page.
- Emma O’Kane
- Grace Sorenson
- David Walter
 Gary Nash, “Franklin and Slavery,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 150, no. 4 (2006): 620.
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