Benjamin Franklin's Excellent Use of Moral Equivalency on Slavery

Benjamin Franklin.

In the March 1790 issue of Federal Gazette was an article entitled "On the Slave-Trade". The author, a Mr. Sidi Mehemet Ibrahim had a background as an Algerian prince who owned quite a number of slaves himself. He wrote this article under the pretext of weighing in on the ongoing and polarizing slave debate taking place at the time in the U.S.

Mr. Ibrahim essentially postulated the same argument that the American slave owners were advocating, that slaves who had spent years in captivity would be "social burdens" should they be left free. Whilst this was the exact same point that the American slave owners were talking about Mr. Ibrahim was actually talking about his very own American slaves in Algiers.

The United States was at that time paying tribute to the North African Barbary States to prevent United States-flagged ships from being plundered and their crew taken as slaves by the Barbary pirates. These states used pirate ships to capture merchant ships and enslave their crews, or hold them hostage for ransom. The United States at that time didn't have a substantial blue-water navy which could efficiently escort these ships or fend off and engage the pirate ships operating in their sea lanes. So the U.S. had to pay tribute in order to protect American sailors from these pirates. However the Barbary states kept increasing the amount of bribe the U.S. would have to pay in order to ensure the safety of their sailors. In 1795 the U.S. paid some $1 million to free 115 sailors who had been held for a decade. $1 million in those days represented a sixth of the entire United States federal budget!

The United States public were wary of their fellow citizens being enslaved overseas, yet on the home front many Americans were at the same time making excuses to justify their enslavement of the black Africans, be it to tend crops or do exhausting and labour intensive work that the landowners wouldn't do. In his piece Mr. Ibrahim was essentially giving the same hollow reason for not freeing his American slaves.

While American slave owners were insisting that if they released their slaves they would not be able to function and make a living independently since they had spent years subservient to their owner. Ibrahim went further and pondered about his own white Christian American slaves. He asked what would happen if Algiers ceased their "Cruises against the Christians." Aghast at the idea he continues by asking "who...are to cultivate our Lands?"

He continues to add insult to injury by stating that rather than be freed and granted self-determination those slaves were better off in their subordination role, serving their Algerian masters. He then continues by insisting that there should be no talk about the emancipation of slaves, which he dubbed a "detestable Proposition."

Exposing the sheer hypocrisy of the pro-slavery arguments this piece of writing is more interesting when one learns that Prince Sidi Mehement Ibrahim was merely a character invented by founding father Benjamin Franklin. This Algerian princes polemic which railed against the anti-slavery political spectrum of the day shows the reader the shallow nature of the typical justifications conjured up by the American slave owners and how they were reminiscent of the shallow pretenses the Barbary States would employ in order to justify their enslavement of Americans.

Also, by pretending to be an Algerian prince and an owner of American sailors, whose fates worried many across the United States, Franklin was demonstrating how Americans could inherently see the cruel nature of enslaving people when their own citizens were enslaved overseas. He obviously hoped that by weighing in on the slave debate, at a time when Congress was debating the legality of slavery in the States in general, in such a manner he would help sway undecided Americans by giving them this clear demonstration of the fallacy of the pro-slavery argument.

The manner in which he done so was very clever. However, as you know, the slave debate persisted for about another 70 years and divided the country eventually culminating in the American Civil War. Franklin would die three weeks after writing that 1790 essay. His attempt to sway the argument and get Americans sympathetic with the pro-slavery argument to look in the mirror had failed.

However the article and the implications of its main argument and outlook is in a sense imperishable and timeless. It cautions one towards being quick to judge misdeeds they see others carrying out without taking a step back and making sure one isn't carrying out similar misdeeds in ones own domains or areas where one has influence. In that sense it serves as an exemplary moral guide towards how one should conduct oneself honestly and be able to look oneself in the mirror. Even, and especially, when one doesn't like what one sees.

Sources

  • Satire by Franklin
  • Benjamin Franklin on Slavery The Washington, Jefferson & Madison Institute
  • Power Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776 to Present p.178 by Michael Oren references the Franklin article linked to above.