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Slavery stained some unlikely founders, too

Ben Franklin and William Penn were among them.

By Ron Avery

After much agitation and debate, the National Park Service finally opened the President's House last week as a memorial to the slaves George Washington kept in Philadelphia, then the nation's capital.

It should not come as a surprise that Washington, the master of a large Virginia plantation, kept slaves. It may be more surprising that our beloved Quaker founder, William Penn - a man who championed nonviolence and religious tolerance - was also a slave owner. And the most famous Philadelphian, Benjamin Franklin - that wise, witty man of science - not only owned slaves, but advertised their sale in his newspaper and often acted as a middleman in slave transactions.

Penn, like Washington, owned a plantation. Pennsbury Manor in Bucks County was a much smaller spread than Mount Vernon, but most of its labor was provided by slaves. "Penn determined in early 1687 that he would staff his Pennsbury plantation exclusively with black labor under a white overseer," Penn biographer Harry Emerson Wildes wrote. In a letter from England to his agent in Philadelphia, Penn himself wrote: "It was better they were black for then a man has them while they live."

Exactly how many slaves worked at Pennsbury is not clear, but two, Yaffe and Chevalier, were mentioned as Penn's favorite servants. (In the City of Brotherly Love, slaves were mostly referred to as "servants.") A slave called Tish was the personal servant of Penn's daughter, Letitia. Penn sold at least one slave described as "an expert fisherman," noting that he "exacted a full price because the man would expect it of me."

To some degree, Penn recognized the injustice of slavery. At one point, he proposed that slaves in Pennsylvania be freed after a certain period of bondage. He suggested the creation of a township, called Freetown, where they could live, but the Pennsylvania Assembly rejected the idea. In an early will, Penn freed his slaves upon his death, though a later will doesn't even mention them.

Ben Franklin and his wife, Deborah, owned household slaves for 30 years. His son William and daughter, Sarah, were also slaveholders. As a young man in 1731, Ben Franklin wrote of slaves as a mere commodity like woolens or lumber: "The Small-pox has quite left this City. The Number of those who died here of that Distemper, is exactly 288. .... 64 of the Number were Negroes; if these be valued one with another at 30 pounds per Head, the Loss to the City in that Article is near 2000 pounds."

Later, Franklin expressed opposition to slavery, though not initially on moral grounds. Rather, he said slave labor made white people lazy.

Meanwhile, Franklin's newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, contained countless paid advertisements for the sale of slaves, as well as notices about runaway slaves. Very often, an advertisement of a hardworking black "servant" ended with the words "Enquire of the printer hereof" - in other words, Franklin himself would handle the sale and take a commission.

Example: "To Be Sold. A likely young Negro woman, can wash or iron or do any kind of household work, as is fit for either town or country; with two children. Inquire of George Harding Skinner, or the Printer hereof." Another ad said a female slave would be sold with her 2-year-old son, but "another boy aged about six years who is the son of the abovesaid woman will be sold with his mother or by himself, as the buyer pleases."

While most colonial newspapers carried such notices, not all did. Philadelphia's German-language paper, published by Christopher Sauer, refused to run ads for slaves.

It was only late in Franklin's life, after he had passionately asserted the rights of American colonists, that he recognized the hypocrisy of slaveholding and became a staunch abolitionist. He lashed out at Britain for its involvement in the slave trade, as well as its slave-based economy in the Caribbean: "Can the sweetening of our tea with sugar be a circumstance of such absolute necessity? Can the petty pleasure thence arising to the taste compensate for so much misery produced among our fellow creatures, and such a constant butchery of the human species by this pestilential, detestable traffic in the body and souls of men?"

The man was eloquent. After the ratification of the Constitution, Franklin joined Quakers and other liberals in petitioning Congress to abolish slavery. Their petition went nowhere.

At the age of 80, Franklin was named president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, an organization that still meets once a year.