Abolition of Slavery

Pennsylvania Society for Promoting

the Abolition of Slavery

In his later years, Benjamin Franklin became vocal as an abolitionist and in 1787 began to serve as President of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. This Constitution was enacted by Franklin just one month before he would join the Constitutional Convention of 1787 held in Philadelphia.

The Society was originally formed April 14, 1775, in Philadelphia, as The Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage; it was reorganized in 1784, and, in 1787, it enacted this constitution which appeared in print for the first time in this Philadelphia Magazine while the delegates were all assembled at the Constitutional Convention. The Society not only advocated the abolition of slavery, but made efforts to integrate freed slaves into American society.

The April 1787 Meeting
At the meeting held 4th mo. there were present 45 members. The Society proceeded to ballot for the candidates proposed, and the whole number of 36 were elected. Amongst them were some of the most distinguished members of the Society of Friends, who, though careful to maintain the doctrines and practices peculiar to their own religious persuasion, were not afraid of contamination, by uniting with benevolent minded individuals, let their belief as to religion be what it might, provided they were willing to assist them in promoting the abolition of slavery.
As proof of this liberality of sentiment and of practice, we find on the list of candidates now elected, the names of a num ber who were not of the Society of Friends, but rather opposed to them—some of other religious professions, and some of no particular religion—as for instance, Benjamin and Temple Franklin, the Rev. John Andrews, Richard Peters, and Thomas Paine.* These individuals are not mentioned with any invidious design, but to show how decidedly catholic the genuine spirit of liberty makes men: intolerance of opinion vanishes before it. The bigot, like the priest and the Levite in the parable of our blessed Lord, may pass by on the other side; but the real philanthropist, the good Samaritan, knows no distinction of nation, sect or colour. The suffering, the dumb, and oppressed, of whatever class, are his brethren; to apply relief is his joy, and to assist others in doing good-, a constant source of happiness.
The new Constitution was again read over, and explanations given as to the objects and purposes of the Society, which now assumed the name and title of "The Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, the Relief of Free Negroes unlawfully held in Bondage, and for Improving the Condition of the African Race;" it was adopted, and the following officers were elected, to wit:  
  • President: Benjamin Franklin
  • Vice Presidents: James Pemberton, Jonathan Penrose 
  • Secretaries: Benjamin Rush and Tench Cox
  • Treasurer: James Starr
  • Counsellors: William Lewis, John D. Cox, Miers Fisher, William Rawle.
The Preamble to the Constitution of the Society, which was now adopted, contains such a clear exposition of its fundamental principles, as to be deemed worthy of a place in any historical notice of this character. It is as follows; to wit:
"It having pleased the Creator of the world, to make of one flesh all the children of men, it becomes them to consult and promote each other's happiness, as members of the same family, however diversified they may be, by colour, situation, religion, or different states of society. It is more especially the duty of those persons, who profess to maintain for themselves the rights of human nature, and who acknowledge the obligations of Christianity, to use such means as are in their power, to extend the blessings of freedom to every part of the human race; and in a more particular manner, to such of their fellow creatures as are entitled to freedom by the laws and constitutions of any of the United States, and who, notwithstanding, are detained in bondage, by fraud or violence.— From a full conviction of the truth and obligation of these principles, — from a desire to diffuse them, wherever the miseries and vices of slavery exist, and in humble confidence of the favour and support of the Father of Mankind, the subscribers have associated themselves, under the title of the 'Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, and the Relief of free Negroes unlawfully held in Bondage, and for improving the condition of the African race.'"

The Constitution of the Pennsylvania Society, for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery - Exhibited is the May 1787 American Museum Magazine full printing of The Constitution of the Pennsylvania Society, for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, and the Relief of Free Negroes, Unlawfully Held in Bondage: begun in the year 1774, and enlarged on the twenty-third of April, 1787. The Constitution is signed in type Benjamin Franklin, as the Society's President. - Images from the Historic.us Collection
The Secretaries were directed to have one thousand copies of the Constitution printed, together with the names of the officers of the Society, and the acts of the Legislature of Pennsylvania for the gradual abolition of slavery. They were also to prepare letters to be sent to each of the Governors of the United States, with a copy of the Constitution and Laws, and a copy of Clarkson's Essay on the Commerce and Slavery of the Africans. The Secretaries were also directed to write letters to the Society in New York for the relief of free negroes, &c—to Thomas Clarkson and Dr. Price, of London, and to the Abbe Raynall, in France.

Benjamin Franklin, as a young man, , owned slaves, and his newspapers carried slave sale and auction advertisements. At the same time, however, he published numerous Quaker pamphlets against slavery and condemned the hideous practice in his private correspondence. It was not until after the ratification of the United States Constitution that he became an avid outspoken opponent of slavery.

In 1789 he wrote and published several essays supporting the abolition of slavery and his last public act was to send to Congress a petition on behalf of the Pennsylvania Society asking for the abolition of slavery and an end to the slave trade. The petition, was signed on February 3, 1790, and it asked the first US Bicameral Congress to "devise means for removing the Inconsistency from the Character of the American People," and to "promote mercy and justice toward this distressed Race."

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The petition was introduced to the House of Representatives on February 12 and to the Senate on February 15, 1790 while they were assembled in New York City. It was immediately denounced by pro-slavery congressmen and sparked a heated debate in both the House and the Senate. 

Benjamin Franklin - Front and back sides of Petition from the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery, signed by Benjamin Franklin, President on February 3, 1790.  These images are from the Records of the United States Senate, Center for Legislative Archives.
The US Senate took no action on the petition, and the House referred it to a select committee for further consideration. The committee reported on March 5, 1790, claiming that the Constitution restrained Congress from prohibiting the importation or emancipation of slaves until 1808, and then tabled the petition. 

On April 17, 1790, just two months later, Franklin died in Philadelphia at the age of 84.

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