Gudmestad on Waldstreicher, 'Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution'

Author: 
David Waldstreicher
Reviewer: 
Robert H. Gudmestad

David Waldstreicher. Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution. New York: Hill & Wang, 2004. xv + 315 pp. $25.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8090-8314-5.

Reviewed by Robert H. Gudmestad (Department of History, University of Memphis) Published on H-South (June, 2005)

The Artful Dodger

Benjamin Franklin has become a stock character of American history. His likeness graces our currency and his bemused gaze from behind bifocals is familiar to most Americans. He is sometimes portrayed as an avuncular printer who dispensed wisdom in bon mots, a consummate tinkerer who invented practical gadgets, or a righteous "founding father" who tried to rid the new nation of the evil of slavery. The truth is not that simple, as David Waldstreicher demonstrates in his graceful new book, Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution. Franklin was a complex man who cannot be easily understood, mainly because Franklin himself carefully sculpted a public persona much divorced from the private man. Waldstreicher, though, has patiently sifted through the self-conscious musings of Franklin and written something of an intellectual biography of a man who is important for an understanding of America's relationship to slavery. Along the way, Waldstreicher gives insight into the Atlantic world of the eighteenth century and America's transition to capitalism.

Franklin was the only one of this nation's founders to be owned by another person: he had been an indentured servant. The story of Franklin learning the printing trade from his brother is a familiar one, but less well understood is how Franklin's experiences during his indenture endowed him with a different perspective of slavery and freedom. Franklin endured beatings from his brother, but yet continued to produce stellar essays as "Silence Dogood." He disliked the limitations placed upon him yet refused to harm his brother in court testimony. But Franklin's forbearance had its limits, and, rather than face his brother directly, he ran away. This act, according to Waldstreicher, needs a fresh interpretation because Franklin both validated and rejected his past. He continued in the printing trade and became a self-made man, but rejected the terms life had dictated to him. Franklin learned that he could fashion part of his life and present it as a public persona while carefully concealing other portions that were more troublesome. He became an expert in role playing and deception, making it difficult to understand the true man. It is with good reason that one of Franklin's detractors mockingly called him "Dr. Doubleface" (p. 204).

What Waldstreicher does with Franklin's life to this point is not surprising. His departure--and the true importance of the book--is how we come to understand that Franklin intuitively reconciled slavery and freedom. It becomes clear that Franklin was not the paragon of antislavery that many believe him to be. Instead, Franklin mediated "slavery, freedom and revolution" by explaining "the paradox of American slavery and American freedom to a skeptical world--and to America itself" (p. xiii). He could explain it because he lived it to a degree. Franklin, the epitome of the self-made man, depended on the labor of others in his rise to wealth and fame. Waldstreicher shows the shifting nature of free and unfree labor and how Franklin became a master at manipulating the work of others. Franklin regarded labor as the true source of capital, so a person who could command the work of another had the best opportunity for material success. One of the book's special gifts is how Waldstreicher subtly weaves the story of the transition to a capitalist economy with the travails of indentured servants and slaves. He implies, probably correctly, that unfree labor was crucial to the formation of capitalism. Franklin seemed to think so. Poor Richard's Almanac describes the promises and perils of the marketplace even as it was a "studied reflection on the commodification of human relations experienced--and promoted--by Franklin" (p. 104).

Although Franklin came to terms with slavery and freedom, the underlying contradiction still nagged colonial society. Slavery came to the fore in 1764 with the Revenue Act, which taxed sugar, "the great slave-driven engine of colonial profits" (p. 177). Colonists argued in 1764 that they were treated as lesser subjects, perhaps as slaves. But if colonists wanted equal treatment and recognition of their rights, then slaves might be elevated to a rough equality with colonists. If colonists responded by insisting that slaves had few or no rights, then colonial rights might be legally limited as well. As Waldstreicher aptly writes, "it was not only that discussing liberty raised the issue of slavery; discussing slavery played a role in the struggle over liberties" (p. 178). The American Revolution, then, did not introduce slavery into the political realm and lead to an antislavery reaction.

It took a person of Franklin's sophisticated imagination to frame the issue to colonial advantage. He and others had a vested interest in keeping the discussion of slavery off the table and replacing it with a focus on colonial rights. They insisted that slaves and their labor were unimportant to mainland America. While this argument contradicted reality, it carried the most ideological power. Thus, the underrating of slavery's importance to America was crucial in fashioning an interpretation of the American Revolution. For Waldstreicher, then, the American Revolution did not reveal the contradiction between slavery and freedom, it obscured it. This insight is perhaps the most original in the book. Slavery was an everyday reality but a political issue that needed to be finessed and cajoled to look proper. Franklin and others like him were masters of "spin" or damage control.

All this is not to say that Franklin was a cynical manipulator who argued both sides of an issue for personal gain. Waldstreicher does not want a "good founder-bad founder morality play" (p. xii). Both he and Franklin are more subtle than that. Franklin, for instance, was not comfortable with the absolute beliefs of Christianity but understood and championed the public utility of religion. In the same light, he owned slaves but was theoretically against slavery. His thoughts were soft shades of grey that could evolve, depending on time and circumstance.

Evolve they did. In Franklin's old age he, and his state of Pennsylvania, became less dependent on the peculiar institution of slavery. Franklin's slaves ran away or died, even as the old man had enough of a fortune, sufficient patronage, and an unimpeachable reputation where he could pose as an antislavery champion. He became a symbolic opponent of slavery when it became politically safe to do so. Even then, Waldstreicher argues, Franklin's efforts to end slavery were halting and carefully considered. By this time, Franklin was able to reconstruct his past, in effect to run away from it, and present the most appealing portions of his life. His antislavery, and that of the American Revolution, Waldstreicher concludes, was "a runaway's antislavery: compromised, and compromising" (p. 244).

Benjamin Franklin is typically not associated with the South, but Waldstreicher demonstrates Franklin's importance in understanding slavery, at least for those who had reservations about the institution. Indeed, Waldstreicher compares Franklin to Thomas Jefferson, for instance, and notes that Franklin probably influenced the passages in the Declaration of Independence that cast African slavery as proof of British villainy. The two men, moreover, prepared works for foreign consumption that minimized the importance of slavery to the North American colonies. In another context, Waldstreicher notes that it is arguable that Jefferson did more than Franklin to undermine slavery in the era of the American Revolution.[1] Waldstreicher, then, implies that Franklin's story is also the South's story since human bondage remained a fixture of life for more than sixty years after Franklin's death.

Waldstreicher's intellectual portrait of Franklin invites comparisons to how other historians have portrayed slavery. It is clear that Franklin understood the fungibility of slave labor and how to convert it into his own gain. This focus on how unfree labor fulfilled the desires of whites is also a central theme of Walter Johnson's Soul by Soul: Life inside the Antebellum Slave Market.[2] Control of slave labor was an important dimension in harnessing resources for wealth creation. Franklin, like the southern masters, shrewdly calculated the profit, loss, and potential of each possible purchase. Waldstreicher abundantly shows how Franklin deftly manipulated the labor of others for his pecuniary gain.

The control of unfree laborers, moreover, invoked a kind of duality between freedom and enslavement, whether contractual or racial. This tension between individual rights and property rights, which was embedded in America's foundation, presented Franklin with the opportunity to "blacken" an opponent and dishonor him in the process. Franklin became an expert at portraying others as slaves--being controlled despite their best efforts--and therefore being unworthy of being regarded as equals. A type of honor system could be said to exist, where politicians or public figures vied for control and used words to ridicule or dishonor opponents. There are important differences between Franklin's America and the South, of course. A white person like Franklin could run away from his past because the color of his skin did not serve as a badge of inferiority and the jocularity of public discourse would not tend towards violent confrontation.[3]

The book also reveals the interrelated nature of capitalism and slavery. Whether slavery was pre-capitalist or not is beside the point and will not be addressed in this review. The important truth is that direction and control of labor led to the creation of wealth; those who could not grasp this essential point or who made unwise or unlucky decisions could never rise in society. Waldstreicher powerfully shows the power of contingency in the life of Franklin and his rivals. Samuel Keimer, for whom Franklin worked, could not consistently master his servants or his debts and was forced to Barbados by way of debtors' prison. The more important issue for historians of the South is the fundamental nature of unfree labor to the smooth operation of the American economy.

Finally, Waldstreicher is sensitive to the ability of slaves and indentured servants to negotiate, to a degree, the terms of their enslavement or indenture. Franklin, of course, ran away, but he also experienced resistance from the other perspective. In 1750, one of Franklin's slaves may have injured Franklin's leg or caused damage to property in the store. The slave in question seems to have paid a heavy price for his actions--either hiring out or sale--but Franklin's life and wealth were disrupted by the altercation. Franklin's experience as invoking and then resisting slave resistance gives depth to the book's epilogue which compares the runaway slave Venture Smith to Franklin. Just like Franklin, Smith became a self-made man who appropriated his own labor and turned it to his advantage. Unlike Franklin, Smith had definite limits placed on his ability to direct his future.

Waldstreicher, who is professor of history at Temple University, has produced an uncommonly good book that rewards the reader at every turn. While it is amply grounded in primary research in Franklin's papers, what sets the book apart is Waldstreicher's ability to wring an extra layer of meaning from previously ignored passages. The book is much the same mixture of political, social, and cultural analysis that undergirded his celebrated In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776-1820.[4] Runaway America might be seen as something of a prequel to that volume and to deal on some level both with the self-definition of a people and a nation. It stands well on its own, and historians seeking greater understanding of the relationship between slavery, freedom, and the founding of the nation will do well to read Waldstreicher's fine new book.

Notes

[1]. "Ask the Author," Common-Place, vol. 4, no. 4, July 2004, http://www.common-place.org/vol-04/no-04/author/

[2]. Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999).

[3]. See for example James Oakes, Slavery and Freedom: An Interpretation of the Old South (New York: Vintage, 1990), and Kenneth S. Greenberg, Honor and Slavery: Lies, Duels, Noses, Masks, Dressing as a Woman, Gifts, Strangers, Humanitarianism, Death, Slave Rebellions, the Proslavery Argument, Baseball, Hunting, and Gambling in the Old South (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).

[4]. David Waldstreicher, In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776-1820 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997).

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Citation: Robert H. Gudmestad. Review of Waldstreicher, David, Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution. H-South, H-Net Reviews. June, 2005. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=10622

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