American Portraits

An Atrocious Debasement of Human Nature: Benjamin Franklin, the First Abolitionist Petitions, and Justice

In this lesson, students will evaluate Benjamin Franklin’s actions to abolish slavery in the early republic. They will also use Franklin’s example to think about how they can promote justice for themselves and others.

Founding Principles

Equality image


Every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law.

Inalienable / Natural Rights image

Inalienable / Natural Rights

Freedoms which belong to us by nature and can only be justly taken away through due process.

Liberty image


Except where authorized by citizens through the Constitution, the government does not have the authority to limit freedom.


On February 11, 1790, two Quakers entered the House of Representatives, which was then meeting in New York. They respectfully submitted a petition to the government for a redress of rights. This was a traditional practice reaching far back into English constitutional history. The content of the petition, however, sparked a fierce debate on the floor of the First Congress. The people who signed the petition were calling on the federal government to ban the African slave trade….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

Why is it important to promote justice for others?

Virtue Defined

Justice is the capacity to determine and preserve our common rights.

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will evaluate Benjamin Franklin’s actions to abolish slavery in the early republic. They will also use Franklin’s example to think about how they can promote justice for themselves and others.


  • Students will evaluate Benjamin Franklin’s efforts to petition Congress to abolish slavery.
  • Students will evaluate why Franklin’s actions to promote justice for slaves was important.
  • Students will apply their knowledge of justice to their own experiences.
  • Students will promote justice for themselves and others.


In many ways, the American Revolution introduced natural rights principles of liberty and equality that eroded the institution of slavery in the new republic. After 1776, several northern states, some of which had a considerable percentage of slaves, either freed their slaves outright or started gradual emancipation schemes. In 1782, Virginia allowed slave-owners to manumit (voluntarily emancipate) their slaves, and thousands were freed. In 1787, Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance, which banned slavery in the new states north of the Ohio River that were created out of the Northwest Territory.

Benjamin Franklin was in his eighties when the new constitutional government first met. He was a renowned scientist and statesman who had achieved fame throughout the Western World as a man of the Enlightenment. He had fought for the liberties, independence, and nationhood of Americans for decades, and supported universal principles in an age of reason. Although he had held a few African servants over the years, he was an advocate of human liberty and came to see slavery as a great moral evil. He dedicated the end of his life to eradicating the institution in the United States. He was joined by a few Quakers, who were compelled by their religious principles, in the cause of justice and humanity for the over 690,000 African slaves living in the new nation who were denied their equal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.


  • Manumit
  • Northwest Ordinance
  • Slave trade
  • Statesman
  • Enlightenment
  • Universal
  • Eradicating
  • Institution
  • Quakers
  • Harangue
  • Denounce
  • Articulated
  • Evince
  • Disposition
  • Octogenarian
  • Satirical
  • Atrocious
  • Debasement
  • Reiterated
  • Senile
  • Emancipated
  • Prejudiced
  • Galling
  • Hitherto
  • Commodities
  • Manumission

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

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Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • How was Franklin’s identity tied to his fight for abolition?
  • What was Franklin’s purpose in writing his petition?
  • What made Franklin write his petition and later his satirical piece about slavery?
  • What did the purpose of Franklin’s petition say about his identity?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

  • Brands, H.W. The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin.  New York: Anchor, 2000.
  • Ellis, Joseph J. Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation.  New York: Knopf, 2000.
  • Isaacson, Walter. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003.

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