An Analysis of The selling of Joseph by Benjamin Franklin – American Literature Essay (200 level Course)
There is no doubt that slavery is one of humankind’s worst experiences. Humans have been practicing slavery for centuries. From the big Roman Empire to the small kingdoms of Asia and Africa, slavery was a common and acceptable practice. In all these societies slaves were traditionally kept and used as domestic
servants and it was also an indication of power and wealth, but they were not used for commercial gains.
Things changed with the discovery of the New World, the need for quick and cheap labor increased.
Benjamin Franklin’s satire on the defense of slavery makes a lot of sense. He bases his argument on religion, wealth, civility and power. His use of Divan of Algiers to further illustrate his point was a good and valid idea. The Divan uses all this points to argue that slavery in fact is good for the continuation of their civilization. The Divan feared the fall of Authority if slavery was to be abolished.
Religion has been used a lot of times to justify the continuity of slavery and the slave trade. This is also demonstrated in Franklin’s letter. Franklin writes that the divan of Algiers emphasizes that by bringing or capturing slaves they are civilizing and showing them the light of God.
“……… is their condition then made worse by their falling into our hands? No; they have only exchanged one slavery for another, and I may say better;
for they are brought into a land where the sun of Islamism gives forth its light
and shines in full splendor, and they have an opportunity of making themselves
Acquainted with the true doctrine, and
Thereby saving their immortal souls… “ (Franklin 759)
The divan of Algiers does insist that slavery is good for the so-called “infidels” and their captivity is good because it helps them become better individuals and Muslims at the same time. He also raises points that aren’t the individuals and Muslims at the same time. He also raises points that aren’t the individuals already slaves from wherever they come from? (Franklin 759). This is true since most of the people the Algerians were capturing were sailors from European ships and the Algerian assumed that they were slaves since they got treated bad by the ship owners. The Divan suggests that the captives are just changing from one slavery to another better one. Religion was used everywhere in his defense of slavery. The divan was not the only individual to use religion to his defense, the king of Bonny (now the Nigerian Delta) also used religion to legitimize slavery. The British declared all slavery being illegal and this forced the king to respond, “…we think this trade must go on. That is the verdict of our oracle and priests. They say that our country however great, can never stop the trade but god himself….” (The Story of Africa 2). The author Phillis Whetley in one of her poems also praised slavery “………twas mercy that brought me from my pagan land…” (Whitley 1104). The use of religion to argue on slavery was a common practice and Franklin exhibited it to us using the Divan. The Divan did not use religion only, he also used economics or wealth as a reason to try further his arguments.
The Divan tried to illustrate that by abolishing slavery, the government and its people will lose a lot of money and things will be worse. The land they occupy will diminish in value and there will be no one to cultivate the farms. The government will lose a lot of money and it will not be able to pay its citizens for whatever loss they have incurred (Franklin 759). The government will also lose most of its revenues from the slaves owners. This economic argument was also used by a lot by the plantation owners in the Americas. Franklin’s Divan tried to persuade the council that the country ‘s economy will be in ruins if they do go ahead and let the slaves free. His argument is valid and makes sense when you look it in an economic perspective.
The Divan states that the slave being inferior and ignorant, will not be able to establish good government and govern themselves “…but they are, I doubt, too little disposed to labor without compulsion, as well as too ignorant to establish a good government….” (Franklin 759)
The divan argues that the slaves will be treated fairly and better if they stayed. Franklin’s divan was not the only one to be concerned about the future of freed slaves, Samuel Sewall who spoke out against slavery also showed some concern on what will happen if the slaves in America were freed. In his memorial “The selling of Joseph” Seawall says about that “…. few can endure Negro being set free, and indeed they can seldom use their freedom…” (Seawall 414). Seawall’s statements goes on to show that even though he was a pre-abolitionist he was not necessarily a supporter of an integrated society and so was the Dian of Algiers.
To conclude Franklin’s use of the Divan’s argument made a lot of sense since we could compare the Algerians to the plantation owners in the Americas. Slavery is bad there is no doubt about that but I do agree with the Divan’s a4rgument when it comes to the economics of it. The whole argument takes a different turn and makes a lot of sense even though it is such a bad idea. Franklin clearly illustrates and satirizes the Divan’s argument. The points are clear and easy to understand in spite of being such a hard topic. Overall the argument makes a lot of sense and it is valid. The only thing it misses is it does not take into consideration the feelings and opinions of the slaves. Franklin clearly does a great job explaining slavery to us through the Divan.
Franklin, Benjamin from “On the slave Trade” The Heath anthology of American Literature, Vol. I. 3rd ed. Paul Lauter. Bostson: Houghton, 1998.758-760.
Seawall, Samuel from “The Selling of Joseph” The Heath anthology of American Literature, Vol. I. 3rd ed. Paul Lauter. Bostson: Houghton, 1998.413-418.
World Service, BBC from “The story of Africa” BBC World Service website (http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/africa/features/storyofafrica) London: 05-23-2001
Wheatley, Phillis from “On being brought from Africa” The Heath anthology of American Literature, Vol. I. 3rd ed. Paul Lauter. Bostson: Houghton, 1998.1104.