Franklin and Slavery: The Philadelphia Household 1735-1790
As far as we know, Franklin first purchased a slave in 1735. Throughout his lifetime there were up to 7 named slaves in the Franklin household. By the late 1780s, Franklin had become a staunch abolitionist and as part of his will, all remaining slaves were freed upon his death in 1790.
On this page, we aim to document all of the information that is available about these individuals that lived in either the home of Benjamin and Deborah Franklin or the home of Sally Franklin and Richard Bache.
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.
Joseph was a boy who belonged to the Franklin household as early as 1735. He is known to be possibly the first slave that Franklin purchased. The sale was made during a large increase in slave importations from Africa to America. Joseph’s existence is only known through the survival of financial documents from the sale. Unfortunately, no mention of Joseph appears again in surviving documents and so the date of his departure from the household or death is lost to history.
One possible mention of Joseph does occur in 1742 when a local hat maker bills Franklin for a hat for “your man Joseph.” Another is also purchased in 1745 from the same hat maker, this time a racoon skin hat, and billed “for your negro.” It is possible that both hats were gifts for Joseph the enslaved member of Franklin’s household. However, it is also worth noting that a white man named Joseph Rose was employed in Franklin’s print shop and that “you man Joseph” could refer to him whilst the racoon skin hat could have been for another slave of the house.
Jemima was a female slave of unknown age that joined Franklin’s household by 1750. She was married to another slave, Peter, who first lived in the Philadelphia home of Franklin before accompanying him on his travels to London in 1757. We know that they were married as they are mentioned as a couple in a letter that Franklin wrote to his mother in 1750.
Peter lived at 36 Craven Street whilst Jemima remained in Philadelphia with Deborah and Sally Franklin. There is some speculation that Peter and Jemima had a son together sometime between 1750 and 1757 but his existence is uncertain with some historians questioning the exact details of his identity.
To find out more about Peter, read our separate page on him HERE.
Peter and Jemima are also mentioned in a 1757 amendment that Franklin made to his will before his transatlantic journey to London. Franklin wrote; “I will that my Negro Man Peter, and his Wife Jemima, be free after my decease.” We cannot be sure that either were alive 33 years later, but if they were still a part of the Franklin household at this time, this would have resulted in their freedom in 1790. 
Othello, a young boy, was purchased to replace King and Peter soon after they left for London in 1757. A June 1757 entry records that Deborah paid forty pounds and ten shillings sterling for a young negro boy, possibly Othello. Franklin had left for New York in April and set sail for London in late-June that year.
Left in the hands of Deborah, Othello was tasked with helping around the house. It is speculated that Othello may have been Jemima’s son and was perhaps inoculated against smallpox. Othello died in 1760, an event believed to have caused Deborah much sorrow. In a now-lost letter to Franklin, Deborah advised Franklin of the boy’s death to which Franklin replied “sorry for the death of your black Boy, as you seem to have had a regard for him.”
George was acquired shortly after Franklin’s brief return to Philadelphia in 1762. It is possible that George was received by Franklin as part of a payment owed by his old friend and business partner James Parker in 1763.
While serving the Franklins, George maintained his marriage to an enslaved woman in another household. He ran errands for the house, took care of family business and made social calls for Deborah. It appears that George was later given to Franklin’s daughter Sally and her husband, Richard Bache, at the time of their marriage in 1767.
By December 1780, George was suffering from an illness as described by Sally Franklin in a letter to her nephew, William Temple Franklin, who wrote that he had “gout in his stomach.” George would then die in 1781, possible as a result of this illness.
Bob was acquired during Franklin’s tenure in England and was in the household by 1770. Shortly after Franklin’s return in 1775, Bob was given to Sally and Richard Bache.
In his 1788 will, Franklin would make a provision that required his daughter and son-in-law to free Bob in order to receive their inheritance. He requested that Richard “immediately after my decease manumit and set free his negro man Bob.” Thus, when Franklin died shortly after in 1790, Bob would have received his freedom.
 Gary Nash, “Franklin and Slavery,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 150, no. 4 (2006): 620.
Benjamin Franklin Historical Society. “Slavery and the Abolition Society.” Benjamin Franklin Historical Society. Accessed 15 February 2023 http://www.benjamin-franklin-history.org/slavery-abolition-society/
Gladney, VanJessica. “Benjamin Franklin and Slave Ownership.” Penn and Slavery Project. Accessed 15 February 2023, https://pennandslaveryproject.org/exhibits/show/slaveownership/earlytrustees/benfrank
Hayes, Kevin. “New Light on Peter and King, the Two Slaves Benjamin Franklin Brought to England.” The Author. Oxford University Press, 2013.
Historic England. “Black Lives in England.” Historic England. Accessed 15 February 2023, https://historicengland.org.uk/research/inclusive-heritage/the-slave-trade-and-abolition/sites-of-memory/black-lives-in-england/
Nash, Gary B. “Franklin and Slavery.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 150, no. 4 (2006): 618–35, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4599029.
National Archives. “Benjamin Franklin’s Anti-Slavery Petitions to Congress.” National Archives and Records Administration, accessed 15 February 2023, https://www.archives.gov/legislative/features/franklin
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Fisher, Sydney. The True Benjamin Franklin: An Illuminating Look into the Life of One of Our Greatest Founding Fathers.
Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.
Goodwin, George. Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of America’s Founding Father. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016.
Isaacson, Walter. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.
Waldstreicher, David. Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution. New York: Hill and Wang, 2004.
Wood, Gordon. The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.