Temple history professor David Waldstreicher’s book joined an extensive collection of Benjamin Franklin biographies in 2004.
As Franklin’s 300th birthday approached last month, the book attracted more than average media attention. Waldstreicher’s book, Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery and the American Revolution is different than the average Franklin book because it takes a harder look at the famous Philadelphian’s career than most biographies of its kind.
The book glimpses into the culture and crises of the American Revolution. It was Franklin’s rebellious act to run away from Boston that landed him in Philadelphia. The book’s title is in reference to Franklin’s early crime that would eventually lead him to great success in the City of Brotherly Love.
Waldstreicher said that the intention was never to underscore this master printer’s accomplishments, but rather to expose the ways in which his moral complexities often dictated the course of history.
“He tried and often succeeded in changing the world through the printed word,” Waldstreicher said.
Waldstreicher said that Franklin’s works, like Poor Richard’s Almanack and his autobiography, titled Autobiography were “inspiring scripts” that provided a definition for what it meant to be American. As one of the writers of the Declaration of Independence, Franklin had a heavy hand in prescribing the way the government operates.
Waldstreicher said he believes that Americans inherently possess the desire for history to be inspirational. Furthermore, he said that Americans tend to take great stock in the favorable reputations of their founding fathers.
According to Waldstreicher, the current wave of hagiographic material honoring “pure figures” like Franklin is received as a “relief from disillusionment,” he said.
With Runaway America, Waldstreicher has constructed a book that injects subtle cynicism into the familiar Franklin fable. In exploring the nature of the man behind the lightning myth, Waldstreicher effectively challenges the way history is taught and received.
Runaway America shows that although Franklin’s agenda during the American Revolution reflected a strong desire for community building, he wasn’t willing to risk his reputation to support an emerging anti-slavery movement. Waldstreicher suggests that it wasn’t until later in Franklin’s life, when his legacy was on the line, that he finally lent his voice to a public cause that had been sidelined by private ambition.
“He [Franklin] was not so much an activist, as he was personally associated with the cause,” Waldstreicher said. He added that Franklin only became involved when there was pressure to act out of “concern for his reputation.”
Runaway America weaves excerpts of Franklin’s celebrated Autobiography with runaway slave advertisements published in colonial newspapers like the Pennsylvania Gazette.
As a printer and postmaster, Franklin allowed for slave owners to advertise in his publications a description of their slaves and offer a reward for their return. The advertisements featured in the book, placed by slave masters in many of Franklin’s publications, offer illuminating portraits of runaway slaves at a rocky time in U.S. history.
In providing vignettes about estranged slaves, Runaway America colorfully examines the paradox of Franklin as an indentured servant armed with ingenuity to set him free who failed to espouse the movement that would eradicate institutional slavery.
Later in life, and once the country had gained stability, Franklin publicly denounced slavery. Quite simply, he flip-flopped his position to suit his own interests. Through a classroom experiment during his tenure at Bennington College in Vermont, Waldstreicher taught students to see the human element of history.
He had members of his early American history class read the runaway ads printed in Blacks Who Stole Themselves concurrently with Franklin’s Autobiography. Their insight evolved into Runaway America.
Waldstreicher complemented those students for “seeing the drama in those documents and for their doubts about tales told by great men.”
Waldstreicher said that he has no intentions to ruin Franklin, however, he hopes to dispel the idea that someone, even the virtuous founding fathers, can “become rich without the exploitation of others,” he said.
Walstreicher said his chief concern is that American history is still very much segregated in the way it is taught. Runaway America succeeds in bridging that gap and is an enriching experience of American history.
Brooke Honeyford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.