Last summer, the DC Facilities and Commemorative Expressions (DCFACES) Working Group submitted a list of recommendations to rename public spaces and leisure, living, and learning environments across Washington DC. It includes the name of someone who encouraged intellectual curiosity, civic action, and human dignity, but who also lived at a time saturated with white supremacist thinking: Benjamin Franklin.
The DC FACES Working Group has recommended removing Franklin’s name from the historic Franklin School, now home to the Planet Word Museum. The reason appears to be solely because Franklin was a slaveholder during much of his life before he renounced slavery and became one of the country’s leading abolitionists. It is important that we view Franklin with a critical eye, but his moral failings do not justify taking Franklin’s name down. To help inform the debate and to defend the honor and legacy of our project’s namesake, we submitted the following statement to the Working Group. We call for Franklin’s name to be removed from the list immediately.
We commend the DC FACES Working Group for insisting on the importance of names. The people we honor, and the reasons why we honor them, matter. There is surely a need to re-examine the history behind the names on buildings across the District and to insist that “only esteemed persons with a legacy that merits recognition” deserve the high honor of commemoration on District assets.
We write as members of The Franklin Project, a group of concerned citizens that seeks to promote the leadership ethos of Benjamin Franklin in order to offer a positive vision of the kind of country we aspire to be. While we applaud the intention of the Working Group, we strongly disagree with the recommendation that Benjamin Franklin’s legacy does not merit honor. We have prepared this statement to make the case why Franklin’s name does not belong on the Working Groups list of “persons of concern” and should be removed immediately.
In the Executive Summary of its report, the Working Group recommends removing Franklin’s name from the historic Franklin School, one of the earliest comprehensive public schools in Washington DC and a national and global example of cutting edge thinking in public education for its time. The School was named for Franklin for a reason. No other American of the 18th Century did more to promote and celebrate public education than Franklin. It is not a coincidence that the very first public school in the United States, Boston Latin, has a statue of Franklin on its grounds to honor him for his contributions to public education. The building of the former Franklin School in DC now houses Planet Word, a private museum dedicated to the power of words and language. It is more than fitting that Franklin’s name remain on the building in its latest incarnation. Just as no American did more to support public education, no American did more in the 18th century (or, arguably, ever) to promote literacy and a love of reading among the general public than Ben Franklin.
Franklin’s life was not perfect, as he was the first to admit. He confessed several of his own “errata,” as he called them, and spent more time working on his own moral self improvement than most people ever will. Yet despite his human failings, he is a man worthy of esteem whose many contributions to America and to the world outweigh his mistakes and moral failings. His life – his accomplishments and aspirations as well as his lapses – has much to teach and to inspire.
The difficult truth that Franklin owned slaves – at one time or another his household held at least seven enslaved people (King, Peter, Jemina, Joseph, Othello, George and Bob) – is one among a multitude of truths about Franklin. Virtually every American since the national founding has acquiesced in some measure in slavery and racism. We do not believe that all who who participated in slavery should be absolved as simply being a product of their times. Nor do we believe slaveholding alone should be sufficient to condemn a life, such was its pervasiveness. Rather than banishing from our history all who were tainted by slavery, we would do better to ask of those who would claim our regard and honor whether we in the twenty-first century can learn from them or be inspired by them to make our own lives and that of our community better.
We respectfully submit that Franklin is, preeminently among America’s Founders, a person we today can learn from. He exemplifies the very best of DC values, including all eight mentioned in the DCFACES report, as well as others not mentioned, such as the values of democratic representation, public service, and speaking truth to power.
In its page on Namesake Legacy, the Working Group Report allows a number of considerations to offset the ownership of enslaved people. The first question the Report asks in assessing each namesake’s legacy is: did the person contribute positively to African Americans and other persons of color? In Franklin’s case, despite his moral failings as an owner of enslaved people, we believe the answer is yes.
Franklin’s positive contributions to African Americans and people of color, many made at great risk to his business and political fortunes, are singular among the Founders. They start with his publishing in the 1730s the first great anti-slavery tracts in America, by authors such as Benjamin Lay and Ralph Sandiford. Lay was one of the most hated people in Philadelphia for his outspoken abolitionist views, and Franklin published his call to action against slavery against the wishes of the leading Quakers of the day. The only known portrait of Benjamin Lay, which today hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, was commissioned by Franklin’s wife Deborah and hung prominently as a powerful statement in Franklin’s home. He maintained friendships and collaborations with John Woolman and Anthony Benezet, the greatest American critics of slavery of the eighteenth century. Benezet called Franklin his “real friend and fellow traveler on a dangerous and heavy road.” As inspiring as these and other early abolitionists were, Franklin’s career of anti-slavery activism, courage and creativity far surpassed theirs in length, variety, and influence. As Georgetown History Professor and Benezet biographer Maurice Jackson has said, “it would take hundreds of [those Quaker pioneers] to touch Franklin.”
Franklin’s commitment to individual dignity and rejection of race-based solidarity led him to write protests of the 1763 Paxton Boys massacre of 20 unarmed Conestoga People that were so fierce that they led directly to the only election Franklin ever lost in sixty years in politics. When a group of settlers tried to take the land of the Cherokee Nation to create a new State of Franklin, he sided with the Cherokee. He worked for decades with Granville Sharp and other leading British anti-slavery advocates, who considered him the American leader of the anti-slavery cause. In London, he went out of his way to visit the African American poet Phillis Wheatley to offer her “any services [he] could do for her,” despite the disapproval of her American master (and in contrast to another prominent Founding Father who dismissed her writing as “below the dignity of criticism”). In an era fully saturated by racist and patriarchal thinking, Franklin saw Wheatley first and foremost as a human being.
His last act in life was to fight against slavery. In 1787 at the age of 81, and in constant physical pain, he became President of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, and lent his name and prestige to the first and most powerful anti-slavery petition ever put before the United States Congress. His final essay before he died mocked the hypocrisy of slaveholders who called themselves Christian. There is arguably no Founding Father who hated slavery more or who did more to bring his personal prestige and legacy to bear in the fight to eradicate it. Franklin eventually came to see slavery as a “debasement of human nature” and asked his readers to consider whether a little extra sugar for their tea was worth the price of “so much misery produced among our fellow creatures, and such a constant butchery of the human species by this pestilential, detestable traffic in the bodies and souls of men.”
The DCFACES Report asks: did the individual have personal growth in his legacy with enslaved persons or other forms of discriminations? In Franklin’s case, the answer is clearly yes. One of Franklin’s most distinctive character traits was his ability to change and evolve his thinking, including his beliefs of right and wrong. This explains how he could have gone from being an owner of enslaved people to a passionate fighter for their freedom. He was a man of lifelong learning and self-examination, which led to continual evolution in his understanding of morality and the nature of freedom.
When Franklin returned to Philadelphia in 1762 (age 56), and before he returned to London in 1764, he visited a school for black children that he had helped create and for which he later secured a substantial endowment. The visit was transformative. He did not simply come to hold “a higher opinion of the natural capacities of the black race than [he] had ever before entertained;” he conceived “their apprehension … as quick, their memory as strong, and their docility in every respect equal to white children.” As against what he himself acknowledged as the “prejudices” with which he’d grown up, he came at that visit to a conviction of the parity of black and white aptitudes that was far ahead of its time. Knowing full well the power of a person’s upbringing and of peer pressure, Franklin strove all his life to learn and self-improve past that power. In that struggle, with regard to race, he succeeded as very few white men of his day did.
Franklin’s anti-slavery advocacy at the end of his life was not a late conversion. By then he’d spent fully half a century in sustained and consistent anti-slavery and anti-discrimination activity, writing and publishing and acting in defense of African Americans, indigenous peoples, German immigrants, and women. It is hard to think of what else he could have done to repent, admit mistakes, and take action to mitigate his complicity in the slave economy that he didn’t do. His last years of life were focused, to the very end, on abolishing slavery and devoting all of his political capital to that cause. For those efforts, Franklin is justifiably remembered as the founding father whose brand of freedom applied to everyone, not just the white, male, elite. His vision of freedom was universal, not nativist or elitist. It is a vision of freedom that is more important than ever today and that the Franklin Project seeks to promote.
FRANKLIN AND DC VALUES
The stated purpose of the DCFACES Report is to ensure that only figures who “represent DC values” are celebrated and honored in public spaces. We have tried to show there is substantial evidence of Franklin’s offsetting contributions to black Americans and evidence of personal growth: namely, when he died he did not share the same views as when he was an owner of enslaved people. These mitigating factors alone do not tell the whole story. The Working Group also outlines eight DC values that it seeks to promote through it’s monument naming. As the Report describes them, every single one of these values is one that Franklin held and lived by. Many of them are values that he, quite literally, taught America.
ACCESSIBILITY – It is hard to name any other American who did more to create access to opportunity for regular people. Given the times, these included mostly white men, to be sure. From his very first venture into publication, Franklin wrote about accessibility. He satirized a Harvard that was closed to all but the children of the affluent who could afford the classical training the college required for admission. When he designed a college for Philadelphia, he designed it on radically different principles: as one that would teach in English, not Latin; that would be open to all, not just the few who could pay; and that would train its students for usefulness in the common walks of life, not for elite privilege. He opened his newspaper to all voices and all parties, literally inventing the American idea of the free press in the process. All previous papers had been partisan organs.
With his practical and accessible almanac and development of the post office he advanced literacy and learning. Indeed, there was no greater reader in Colonial America, no one who did more to create and celebrate the power of libraries to create learning communities that could advance human knowledge and agency. Franklin created the country’s first not-for-profit organization, the Library Company of Philadelphia, which still exists today as an exemplar American institution, and which served as the prototype and inspiration for the Library of Congress.
DIVERSITY – It is hard to think of any other American of his time who valued diversity as much as Franklin did. Arguably the least ethnocentric American of the eighteenth century, he never put much stock in his culture’s conventional wisdom or its shibboleths. He always sought to see the point of view of others. His ability to do so was central to his success in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, the most heterogeneous of all cities and colonies of 18th-century America.
Franklin’s Philadelphia was a complicated religious, racial, national, and ethnic mix: Anglicans, Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Mennonites, Moravians, and Quakers; English, Irish, German, Scotch-Irish, and French Huguenots; whites and blacks. Enslaved people came from nations and kingdoms in West Africa, including Benin, Senegal, Goree, Guinea, and Gambia. They had been kidnapped from the Kingdom of Fida and from Dutch forts at Delmina. They were Mandigos and Fuli, Akan, and other ethnicities. There were enslaved Africans and “free people of color” who worked next to indentured servants and to the masters of both black and white.
Franklin’s success as a civic leader in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania turned on his unique ability to maneuver in that extraordinary jumble of religions, races, and nationalities. He left Boston and New England because he found its homogeneity stifling and its conformist orthodoxy oppressive. In the heady human brew of early Philadelphia, he thrived.
Franklin was a veritable virtuoso of diversity. He was almost the only one in the city’s social crazy-quilt who could speak to all its disparate factions, and he could speak to them all because he took the trouble to try to understand them all. He worshipped in and contributed to every church, and the synagogue besides. At his funeral, representatives of every religion in the city walked behind his casket – something that had never been witnessed in America before. More than any of the other Founding Fathers, he had deep friendships across religions, classes, and countries. More than all the rest of them taken together, he had close and lasting friendships with women.
EQUITY – Franklin believed not just in equity but in literal equality in many regards. He never doubted that the humble-born could be as talented as the well-born, that women were as capable of education and science as men, that there were many ways of being civilized. From his youth, he chafed at elite privilege. His first writings at sixteen waged a subversive war on the prerogatives of the political, clerical, and educational establishments of his home town. As an adult, Franklin did more than any other founder to support public education – both by supporting schools and through his own publications. Take just one example: Franklin College, which he co-founded in 1787, was the first bilingual college in America (German and English), the first co-ed institution in the country and the first college to admit a Jewish woman.
Politically, he was the most radical of the Founders in his desire to ensure that regular people had a say in their democracy. More than any of the Founders, he trusted the people. His notion of who “the people” referred to – who was capable and deserving of freedom and dignity – grew to extend to all people. His universalist vision of freedom inspired the world, even if many of the Founding generation held a more restricted view of who was worthy of freedom and dignity. It was not for nothing that Turgot said “he snatched the lightning from the sky and the scepter from tyrants.”
LIVABILITY – Franklin was the greatest force for livability of his age. He pioneered in providing street lighting and firefighting in Philadelphia when cities twice Philadelphia’s size had none. He brought a hospital to Philadelphia decades before New York or Boston had one. His inventions were practical and designed to improve lives, not make money. His stove was the most efficient in the eighteenth century, and he made its specs freely available to spread its adoption, while others privatized his innovations for personal profit. His lightning rod secured homes from fire as nothing ever had before and his sharing of this invention saved lives across the whole world. His bifocals brought full sight back to those who were losing it. His fire insurance company protected homeowners from the ravages of fire as his fire company protected them from fire itself. His lending library allowed ordinary people unprecedented access to books and knowledge. His almanac and his glass armonica provided home amusement. He was personally at the forefront of all the great improvements in heating and lighting that redefined comfort and safety in the eighteenth century. The list goes on.
Franklin was the very first scientist to fulfill Francis Bacon’s dream, in founding the Royal Society more than a century before, of connecting scientific theory to scientific applications that would improve the human lot. Virtually every foreign visitor observed that his Philadelphia was easily the most livable city in America in his time. His ability to envision a positive future based on collective action and to build new institutions to advance the common good reveals a mindset we believe should be actively nurtured in every DC resident and in every American.
OPPORTUNITY – Most rich men in early America were born to privilege. Those who achieved wealth by their own endeavors tried to wrap themselves in the trappings of elite origins. By contrast, Franklin celebrated his lowly birth and his early career as a manual laborer, in what remains to this day the best-selling autobiography in American history, as an emblem of the New World and the possibilities it afforded ordinary men and women. Even after he’d become well off, he remained faithful to his manual laboring roots: he continued to operate a printing press and taught his beloved grandson how to do so too. And as he approached death he devised one of the most famous wills of the eighteenth century, leaving a large portion of his estate to the support of aspiring young artisans (entrepreneurs, we would call them today) in Boston and Philadelphia through low interest loans so that they could rise as he had risen.
Were Franklin alive today he would likely be advocating for increased investment in marginalized communities and small businesses. His most famous and most widely sold writing, The Way to Wealth, is the prototype for all subsequent how-to-succeed manuals as his autobiography is the prototype for rags-to-riches narratives. No other Founder was as focused as Franklin on democratizing opportunity, on giving regular people access to ideas and wisdom that would help them improve their lot and live happy, fulfilling lives. No one held the elites who would deny opportunity to others in more contempt.
PROSPERITY – When Franklin arrived in Philadelphia as an immigrant from Massachusett Bay Colony at age 17, it was a thriving little town of 5,000 inhabitants, less than half the size of Boston or New York. By the time he died, Philadelphia had far eclipsed them both, in wealth, in culture, and in civic leadership. And the city’s rise was in considerable measure due to Franklin. Inspirations like the hospital, the fire company, and the lending library were his. Their implementation was due to his greatest invention of all – the greatest engine, indeed, of American prosperity – the civic or voluntary association. Just as he disdained to patent his technological inventions and make the private fortune he might have made from his “intellectual property,” so he freely promoted his supreme civic invention and encouraged others to copy it, which they did.
Franklin sought prosperity for all, not just for a favored or lucky few. And he deliberately sought prosperity as an essential goal. He did not shy from materialistic ambitions as his peers who sought gentility did. He sought the good life, for himself and for others, and he understood that good life in terms of having the leisure time to engage in acts that would advance the common good. His view of success was not more money, but more impact, more usefulness. Disdaining selfishness as the way to such prosperity, he predicated his city’s advance on the advancement of all, confident that a rising tide would lift all boats.
RESILIENCE – Franklin’s life story is a master class in resilience in the teeth of adversity. The most famous tales of his autobiography are tales of hardship, setback, and betrayal. His father wouldn’t pay for his enrollment at Harvard or let him go to sea. His brother beat him and humiliated him during his apprenticeship at the print shop. He suffered the death of his brother as a boy. He arrived in Philadelphia penniless and embarrassed to be seen as a yokel by the woman who later became his wife. His employers exploited him and broke their promises to him. His friends never repaid the money he lent them. The Governor sent him to London as an 18 year old and then left him stranded there without the letters of introduction he needed in a great metropolis where he knew not a soul. As an old man, he attended the Constitutional Convention every day while in immense pain with gout in order to ensure the Constitution would be ratified. The stories multiply. And through them all, Franklin improvises, counterpunches, and escapes. He never recriminates, rarely carries grudges, always finds the humor or the lesson, and carries on.
SAFETY – Aside from his many contributions to safety already mentioned, one of Franklin’s most important civic improvements in Philadelphia was the city police, which he organized and in which he himself served (just as he himself served in the fire company). But Franklin did not confine himself to city safety. With the approach of the French and Indian War, the Quaker assembly that governed Pennsylvania refused to defend the frontier. At immense risk to his own future, Franklin bypassed the official government, organizing and raising money for an extralegal militia that provided troops to protect the west that the government would not. Other than Washington, no American did more to ensure the safety of Americans in the Revolutionary War than Franklin.
RECKONING WITH FRANKLIN TODAY
No American did more to support his community, city, country, and the world in the 18th century than “Citizen Ben.” The character and leadership lessons of Franklin helped build the foundations for the pluralist and liberal society that is the United States. They are lessons that should be celebrated by the DC government and made more widely known to the general public because they encourage a civic mindset that can channel productive energy towards works of public improvement and that can build bridges among differing viewpoints and life experiences. In contemporary debates, citizens of the District recognize the need to support social entrepreneurship, inclusive capitalism, cross sector collaboration, and impact investing in communities that have been excluded from access to finance and business networks. In each of these areas, Franklin’s life has strong, positive lessons. His life demonstrates how a commitment to public service and to the Enlightenment principles of collaboration, curiosity, self-examination, and civic innovation can inspire people to take action to improve their society.
Franklin’s participation in slavery is a stain on his legacy, and one that he himself acknowledged and actively repudiated. This ability to admit to and grow beyond one’s own mistakes is among the most important lessons Franklin has to teach us today. In his life story we can see America’s faults and original sins, but we can also find redemption, moral growth, and humility. We can also see one of the most important Founding Fathers lending his entire prestige at the end of his life to the notion that slavery is “Inconsistent with the American Character.” At this moment of racial reckoning, growing distrust and heated rhetoric, our national conversation is improved by learning more, not less, about Franklin’s legacy.
The message the DCFACES Working Group sends is critically important to the DC community and the whole country. The recommendations reflect a public statement of what we value and what behavior we want to encourage and celebrate. We hope you will see Franklin as we do: as an ally rather than an indictment, as an example of American excellence and virtue, and as a man whose transformation and moral growth shows a path forward to help us to, in the words of James Baldwin, “achieve our country and change the history of the world.”
Franklin’s relationship to slavery is complex and his ownership of slaves is certainly troubling. Nevertheless, in the nature of his slaveholding, in his offsetting contributions to African Americans, in his own growth and in his representation of DC values, we do not believe he is in the same company as others on the “Persons of Concern” list. His inclusion on the list based only on the worst things he ever did distorts his place in American history and does damage in particular to DC young people who may be discouraged to want to learn anything about him because of how he has now been associated. This would be a tragedy at a time when the problem-solving, collaborative, democratic mindset of Franklin is more needed in this country than ever.
In his conclusion to his biography of Franklin, the historian Edmund Morgan wrote:
We may discover a man with a wisdom about himself that comes only to the great of heart. Franklin knew how to value himself and what he did without mistaking himself for something more than one man among many. His special brand of self-respect required him to honor his fellow men and women no less than himself. His way of serving a superior God was to serve them. He did it with a recognition of their human strengths and weaknesses as well as his own, in a spirit that another wise man in another century has called “the spirit which is not too sure it is right.” It is a spirit that weakens the weak but strengthens the strong. It gave Franklin the strength to do what he incredibly did, as a scientist, a statesman, and a man.
We ask that the DCFACES Working Group tap into this same spirit – what Judge Learned Hand called the “spirit of liberty” – and re-examine its decision to include Benjamin Franklin’s name on the list of “Persons of Concern.” The Franklin Project looks forward to hearing from the Working Group and stands ready to support it with any additional questions, concerns or historical research to help remedy this situation as quickly as possible.