We often hear about how the Constitution was written by a bunch of bigoted slave owning white guys, as a way for people to discredit the founding fathers. We are told that slavery was all about white men owning black slaves. Too bad that those statements are misleading.
Ben Franklin was born in 1706 as one of seventeen children of Josiah Franklin and Abiah Folger. His father could not afford to pay for his education, so at 12 years old, his father signed an apprenticeship contract on Ben’s behalf, making Ben an apprentice to his older brother James.
Under the law at the time, an apprentice worked for the master craftsman and in exchange was taught the skill of that craft. In essence, his father had signed him into indentured servitude. Ben did not want to work for his brother, and as a result his brother frequently whipped him.
Benjamin wanted to write for the paper too, but he knew that James would
never let him. After all, Benjamin was just a lowly apprentice. So Ben began writing letters at night and signing them with the name of a fictional widow, Silence Dogood. Dogood was filled with advice and very
critical of the world around her, particularly concerning the issue of
how women were treated. Ben would sneak the letters under the print shop
door at night so no one knew who was writing the pieces. In all, he wrote sixteen of the letters, and they were wildly popular. So popular in fact, that when Ben finally admitted to writing them, his brother was angry with him.
The paper that James owned was frequently critical of the government, and he was ultimately jailed for expressing those views, leaving Ben to run the paper. Upon release from jail, James was not grateful to Ben for keeping the
paper going. Instead he kept harassing his younger brother and
administering beatings from time to time. Ben could not take it and
decided to run away in 1723, at the age of 17. Under the law at the time, this made Ben a fugitive, and he fled. He eventually wound up in Philadelphia.
Later in life, Ben Franklin owned slaves. It seems odd to think that a man who was in favor of liberty and who had been a slave himself would do so, but I think that judging the behavior of people from the past through the lens of our current attitudes and morals is not a fair comparison, especially considering that he became president of the Philadelphia Abolitionist society, and in 1790 petitioned congress to abolish slavery.
The petition, signed on February 3, 1790, asked the first Congress,
then meeting in New York City, to “devise means for removing the
Inconsistency from the Character of the American People,” and to
“promote mercy and justice toward this distressed Race.”
Our founding fathers were not perfect men, but at least had to foresight to establish a government that protected freedom more than any other government on the planet.