In 1790, on this day America's first president, Benjamin Franklin, died in the capitol at Philadelphia in the middle of his first term.
This article is part of the American Heroes thread.
Passing of President FranklinHe was a major figure in the American Enlightenment before joining the patriot cause. Matched only by George Washington amongst the Founding Fathers, he was the universal choice when the General declined the Presidency .
And yet his term of office ended in bitter acrimony. Because in February 1790 he gave his full public support to Congressional petitions submitted by Quakers and also the Pennsylvania Abolition Society . Consideration of a National Emancipation Plan was demanded, but the abolitionists were out-foxed by that master of parliamentary procedure James Madison. He ensured that the Committee Report was revised by the House, creating a legislative precedent making it unconstitutional to "attempt to manumit them [the eighteen-year moratorium on Congressional action to abolish slavery] at any time". In his diary an unhappy General Washington noted that "the slave issue has [been] put to rest but will soon awake" .
Franklin was of course fully aware that the Philadelphia Agreement had taken the power to abolish slavery out of the hands of the Northern States until at least 1808 when the slave trade itself was expected to end. Nevertheless he knew that the institution of slavery was incompatible with the principle of liberty established by the revolution, and therefore the possiblity of secession from Deep South States was an acceptable risk for the infant Republic. Private letters later revealed that he was absolutely convinced that Georgia and South Carolina were bluffing.
His death therefore opened up a whole series of debates. Obviously the need to move the ownership of legislative precedent into a much stronger Supreme Court, perhaps the need for the Churches to own the issue of slavery as a sin requiring national purging. But instead his "Farewell Address" he characteristically took the higher ground, calling for Presidential Leadership on the issue up until 1808 when the moratorium on the slave trade would expire. This was viewed in the Deep South as a warning of the possible creation of a North Atlantic Confederacy which would exclude slave-owning states at a minimum Georgia and South Carolina.