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Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution

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1 review about Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery,...

Franklin revised--again

  • Jan 7, 2012
Rating:
+1
Recently I read and reviewed the pre-publication Poor Richard's Lament, a fantasy-fiction account of Founding Father Ben's eternal accounting for his misdeeds in heavenly court; I rated the book +1 on lunch.com's -5 to +5 scale, for its interesting but uneven revisionist take on Franklin's redemption, and need for it.  As fictionalized biography, I was disappointed that Poor Richard's author Fitzgerald didn't include any notes or bibliography.  

If he had, I suspect that David Waldstreicher's Runaway America would have made the list, as this book deals with Franklin's tortured nuancing of the language and events of his life justified his actions while doding the difficult contradictions it represented, none more so than Big Ben's position on slavery.  While not condemnatory, Walstreicher is certainly frank about Franklin's chicanory, while providing the economic, racial, and political background of why such nuancing of meaning (if not outright duplicity) was necessary for Franklin to thrive in his self-appointed pre-Revolutionary roles of loyal colonial servant, independence-minded unionizer, Enlightenment scientist, and ambitious entrepreneur.  In dealing with Franklin's position on slavery, unlike many historians who focus primarily on Franklin's later anti-slavery positions in his writings and political roles, Walstreicher spends the greater part of the book looking through Franklin's entire adult life and placing his position on slavery in the context of his role as a runaway apprentice and struggling young businessman gathering his capital in the form of his own apprentices, indentured servants, and yes, slaves.  Here, Waldstreicher conflates the later roles as "unfree" labor, and argues that both were equivalent for Franklin's purposes as a capitalist (as both Franklin and Waldstreicher set aside the moral aspects of race-based slavery as long as they could).  

But as the American colonies grew stronger economically and started to unite politically against the common enemies of the inland French first and then the imperial English, Franklin had to deal with the obvious contradictions between liberty for white colonists and slavery for their black property (as British press, politicians, and population made great rhetorical hay on the issue).  In Waldstreicher's view, Franklin had to choose between three ways of thinking about "American" colonists:
  1. Fellow citizens in common identity with British citizens
  2. Foreigners who were still part of the British empire
  3. Outlanders like the Irish and Scots who were neither citizens nor enemies, but semi-conquered people with carefully-balanced political rights.  

And there were three ways of dealing with race slavery:
  1. Embracing racial justifications for slavery (Waldstreicher makes the claim without argument or attribution that "race was not the absolute or biological category it became later in the nineteenth century." )
  2. Retaining British national identity for white colonists, but excluding blacks--a position of such obvious contradictory nature that it provided an easy place for the British to drive a wedge of separation.
  3. Holding that slaves and slave labor was unimportant in mainland America and in any case declining.
Runaway America is interesting history, and certainly after reading Fitzgerald's fiction I can see how both authors rightly balance the simplified and sanitized view of Franklin as Poor Richard and unblemished Founding Father.  WaldStreicher's writing is often dense and difficult to follow along the logical trail.  While the book is mercifully short, it might have been better served if the author had taken a step back and added more pages and chapters at a higher level of abstraction explaining the arguments that are to follow and setting them into contexts that are easier for the nonprofessional historian to follow.   But either way, if you have an interest in understanding the full Franklin, this would make a good pairing with Poor Richard's Lament

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January 10, 2012
When this country decided to deal with slavery forthrightly ( 1863), we were in the throes of a Civil War. Note that the Emancipation Proclamation was in 1863.
 
January 09, 2012
Great review!
 
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