Acton Commentary

When Freedom, Creativity, and Opportunity Meet


Thomas L. Jennings (1791–1856) was the first African-American to be granted a patent, for his discovery of a process called “dry-scouring” -- what we now know as “dry cleaning.” Jennings’ life is a model of what happens when people of virtue have the freedom to use their skill to meet needs in the market place and contribute to the common good. What the United States and the rest of the world need are social, political, and economic contexts where people can flourish in the same way that Jennings did.

Jennings was born a free man soon after the state of New York banned the slave trade in 1788. In the ensuing years New York slowly began to expand the sphere of freedom for blacks, creating more opportunities for their participation in all levels of society. As a young man, Jennings dug trenches on Long Island during the War of 1812. After bouncing around from job to job, he  finally landed an apprenticeship with a clothier, which set the stage for him to become an expert tailor. In fact, Jennings was so remarkably skilled that people from all over the New York City area would come to him for alterations or custom-tailored items. The demand for his services was so great that, in his early 20s, he was able to open his own store on Church Street, which soon grew into one of the largest clothing stores in New York City during that era.

In the course of operating his business, Jennings became increasingly aware that many of his customers had few options for cleaning their clothes without damaging them. Conventional cleaning methods of the time would normally ruin the fabric, leaving owners with the unattractive options of wearing dirty clothes or disposing of the clothes after a few washes. After experimenting with different solutions and cleaning agents, Jennings found the right combination to effectively treat and clean clothes without destroying the fabric. Jennings called this new method "dry-scouring."

In 1820, Jennings applied for a patent. His application created substantial controversy, because a 1793 U.S. patent law prohibited slaves from receiving patents for their own inventions and thus no patent had ever been awarded to a black person. Since Jennings was born as a free man, however, the patent courts had no legal reason to prevent Jennings from receiving his patent,  making him the first black to acquire one (March 3, 1821, U.S. patent 3306x).

Jennings’ contributions to society, however, do not end there. He used his earnings not only to improve his business but also to promote good social causes. For example, he spent much of his profit to purchase his family from slavery and to support the abolitionist movement. In 1831, Jennings became assistant secretary to the First Annual Convention of the People of Color in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and he spent many years fighting for the liberation of blacks. Jennings was neither coerced nor pressured by the rhetoric of “corporate social responsibility” nor “paying his fair share”; he simply did what was good for his customers and right for society because he was free to do so.

Do we not want new stories like this in the United States and around the world? Do we not want people to be free to use their creativity to meet marketplace needs in their communities and freely use their wealth creation to contribute to civil society as they see fit? Ironically, if Jennings were alive today he would have had a much more difficult time succeeding because of the obstacles to innovation and philanthropy erected by ever-increasing federal regulations and ever-expanding government bureaucracy. As such, many burgeoning entrepreneurs are currently barred from capitalizing on opportunities to address market needs and to solve real problems in society because politicians believe they know how to meet the needs of society better than the rest of us.

Jennings is a wonderful example of what happens when political and economic liberty meet in virtue. Now if we could only get our politicians and regulators to get out of the way of the yet-to- be-discovered innovators like Jennings, we could all enjoy the benefits.