No, not that guy. That guy was the President of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society (as it is sometimes called because it’s real name, “The Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and the Relief of Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage” is a little wordy).
Franklin initially didn’t object to slavery, and as a young man even had two slaves at his printing shop. But after being invited to observe a school for African-American children, he concluded, “I was on the whole much pleased, and from what I then saw, have conceived a higher opinion of the natural capacities of the black race, than I had ever before entertained. Their apprehension seems as quick, their memory as strong, and their docility in every respect equal to that of white children.”
Rather than simply accepting the equal humanity of African-American slaves while turning a blind eye to their condition, he spent the rest of his life fighting to advance the Abolitionist cause. Once the war was over, and he returned from his diplomatic post in France, he gave the years he had always planned on devoting to “philosophical leisure” instead to freeing slaves. Though he was very advanced in years, he made sure that the public’s last memory of him was a plea to truly honor the American creed that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” In his last public act before his death, he petitioned the Congress, in 1790, to end the slave-trade, and free all those held in bondage against their will. Sadly, many would have to die before this wish would become enshrined in law.
The way that history is taught today, even and especially in America, is that the Founders were all slave-owning, landed gentry who we should feel some shame for celebrating, even if they did have the occasional good idea on political philosophy. The legacy of some on this issue is confusing, like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who both put forward bills to end slavery and abhorred the practice, while hypocritically to modern eyes, owning slaves.
But there was not a glimmer of duplicity in others, like Franklin and John Quincy Adams (known as the “hell-hound of abolition”) who were forcefully speaking out against the practice from the beginning. Madison, Jefferson, and John Rutledge, all from Virginia, said that if it weren’t for the threats of break-up by Georgia and the Carolinas over the issue, the Union would have been able to dismantle the institution in the original Constitutional Congress. As it was, in order to appease these states, they agreed to make no laws against slavery until 1808. The order of the day was staying united so the new nation would not be quickly re-conquered.
In all our head-hanging over the Founders’ real and imagined faults on this issue, we seem to ignore the fact that slavery is still a strong force in the world right now. America should actually feel proud in that it was one of the first nations to address the evil of this institution, while acknowledging, of course, that the evil lived here as well. Between bouts of shame and pride over our own history, we should look to places like the African Sahel (the middle-belt in Africa where the North African Arab cultures and Sub-Saharan Black cultures mix).
In this area, there is not one country that doesn’t have a pervasive problem with slavery. The map below shows the Sahel region, which includes Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, and the Sudan. In every one of these countries black African tribes are enslaved by the Arab and Berber tribes. In addition to the racial tensions, the fact that the Arabs in Africa mostly follow Islam, and the Sub-Saharan tribes are majority Christian separates neighbors by religion as well, especially in the Sudan.
I do not bring this up to belittle these cultures, or to try to draw attention away from our own history, but only to point out that Franklin’s fight is far from finished. I became aware of this when I was in college and a young former slave from Sudan came to speak at our campus on the fight to end the practice in his home country. I assumed he was a rare case of something that had pretty much disappeared from the earth, but as he described his story, it became clear that this happens to many others in his homeland.
The president of the Sudan (now Northern Sudan) is Omar Bashir. He has been convicted of war crimes for his role in the genocide in Darfur, and even hosted Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda for a few years before they relocated back to Afghanistan. His Arab government is unrepentantly racist against the black tribes of Darfur and what is now South Sudan. He has used many tactics, including enslaving or killing entire villages, to clear blacks out of land he wanted for his people. But both before and after the civil war, the Arabs have a long tradition of kidnapping and enslaving the blacks in this country. The Arabic phrase “Bilad Al Sudan,” which was the full name of the country, literally means “the land of the blacks,” because Arabs had used it as a source of black slaves for centuries.
These circumstances are not unique to the Sudan though. As I stated earlier, every one of the Sahel countries is still dealing with this rampant evil. If you travel across Sahel Africa from Sudan west to Chad. Slavery. If you continue to Niger, more slavery.
Mali. Slavery. And most of all, Mauritania. Slavery. Despite an official law in 2007 that made slavery illegal, many human rights groups claim that around 20% of the entire country is made up of black slaves. The Arab tribes, also known as “whites,” or “Moors,” have participated in this practice for centuries and were even some of the same West African slave-traders who sold Europeans their slaves in the 16th and 17th centuries. While much of the rest of the world was gradually freeing and trying to undue the horrible implications of this practice, these tribes have only just begun to address it themselves.
Mauritanian abolitionist groups have been becoming more and more vocal in the past few years, emboldened by the 2007 law granting them freedom. They have begun to demand loudly that these legal rights begin to trickle down to villages that are cut-off from the law, and have not seen much change yet. Tragically, they may have accidentally overstepped recently by publicly burning Shariah Law manuals that were used at times to justify their place as slaves. The religious leaders of the country have demanded that the leaders of the main abolition group be arrested and forced to apologize.
As many of these reports have said, the issue is a deeply cultural and racial one that has not been very easy to weed-out by simply passing laws. The color of ones skin in many villages will doom one to being given the lowest jobs and then only given food and a place to sleep (often among the animals), rather than wages. They are therefore often not outright owned, but are treated like slaves nonetheless.
Because slave-owners have for centuries raped their female slaves, many people from the Sahel contain genetic traits from both sides, and the difference between Arab and Black is not always very clear to outsiders. “Arab” Sudanese, Mauritanian, and Nigerien slave-owners can often have similar skin-tone to their “black” slaves because of centuries of mixing. The ancient practice continues with its racist justification long after any clear lines can be drawn between the two “races.”
Now that journalists have made a habit of doing a story on this topic every few months, and international human rights groups push for stricter enforcement of the recent anti-slavery laws, maybe these countries will begin to wonder what all the outrage is about. The governments are increasingly embarrassed over the issue, and are in a pattern of either denying the problem exists or making symbolic arrests to prove they are actively addressing it. At least now they are forced to publicly admit that slavery is wrong. Most importantly, the slaves themselves are becoming active in demanding their rights now that they know laws exist to protect them. Franklin’s dream of universal freedom came late to America, and with much bloodshed. It looks like it’s coming much later to the Sahel, but in the coming generations this practice may gradually fade from the land where America’s shame began.