Political dissident. This may be one of the best ways to describe Benjamin Franklin. It is interesting to note our modern-day misconceptions of when our revolution began. We tend to err on the side of it beginning around 1776. When in fact, it was many years earlier that the seeds of rebellion were sown in the hearts of the colonists.
I begin many of these biographies with just the straight-line pertinent-information of the person and some little known facts of their life. If I were to do this with Franklin, it would probably print to a thousand pages. Keeping that in mind, I want to give you a cross-section of his early life and his life as a writer and publisher. (I will cover more of his life in future posts.) Franklin had little formal education up to the age of ten. However, knowing how to read was key to the successes in his life, and he loved to learn. He was drawn to books like a moth to a flame. He began at an early age to teach himself to write literature. He became an apprentice to his brother James around the age of twelve. He was a printer in Boston at his newspaper called the New England Courant.
Benjamin would often write essays and commentaries of sorts, he always tried to coax James into printing his works. He would not allow the work of a sixteen year old boy to be published in a serious newspaper. Thus, ‘Silence Dogood’ was born. Silence Dogood was the pseudonym Franklin chose to write letters to the editor of the New England Courant. He would not be foiled. The letters were written in the mannerisms and style of a widowed woman who was up in years. Silence Dogood wrote about many topics of the day and short anecdotes. The Dogood letters were written in a strange hand and font, and as was the custom of the day, all letters to the editor were to be slid under the door the night before printing was to take place. The next morning, Ben would sit and listen to James read the letters in front of him and his friends before they would go to print. He would get a sense of satisfaction from hearing the nice and encouraging words they would say about the content, style and penmanship of the letters, all the while holding a straight face knowing of course, they were his works. Franklin would ultimately write fourteen ‘Silence Dogood’ letters in total.
After the letters stopped coming in, James ran an advertisement in the paper asking for the phantom writer to step forward. Silence also had many suitors write in offering her their hand in marriage. After some time, Benjamin finally told is brother the phantom writer was him, and James was very angry. James was jealous of the fame that the letters had brought to Benjamin’s writing. The Franklin brother’s relationship was further strained when James was jailed for inflammatory statements he made (in his paper) against the prominent clergy of Boston, the Mather’s family. Benjamin kept the paper alive for several issues while James was in jail and upon his release, instead of being grateful to Ben, he was even more aggravated by his actions. They fought physically a few times until Benjamin ran away to Philadelphia.
After traveling from Boston, Franklin arrived in Philadelphia in 1726 and found work immediately as a printer’s apprentice. Two years later he began a printing business there. After being in Philadelphia just three short years, Benjamin became the owner and publisher of a colonial newspaper named the Pennsylvania Gazette. The Gazette grew into a profitable business as it became more and more popular with its readers. While publishing at the Gazette, Franklin began releasing what is now known as one of his greatest successes, a yearly publication named “Poor Richard’s Almanac“.
On May 9th, 1754, Franklin wrote an editorial chronicling the state of the colonies as “disunited”, with this editorial he printed a hand drawn political cartoon. A segmented snake, cut into eight pieces, with the bold type set words beneath it that read, JOIN, or DIE. The eight pieces represented New England (four colonies), New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Vermont, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Delaware and Georgia were omitted.
The cartoon was supposed to drive home the need for colonial unity against the enemies of the colonies. It worked, the image became popular with those advocating that the American Colonies ought to and of right be free and independent states. Many would say this is mere coincidence, and Franklin did not advocate separation from the British Crown so early. That argument is shredded when you study what Franklin proposed in Albany, New York in the same year, 1754. At a meeting of colonial representatives Benjamin Franklin was openly advocating for the colonies to be represented by a national congress, the meeting’s issue was called the “Albany Plan of Union”. His idea was turned down, however many of his ideas from this meeting became part of the Articles of Confederation in 1781, which was America’s first Constitution. Let us put that in context and ponder it for a moment. He releases the editorial with the political cartoon calling for the colonies to unite and advocates for a national congress all in the same year? That’s way more than mere happenstance. That’s border line treasonous, and certainly revolutionary thought for the times. Creating a national congress would’ve unified the colonies and would’ve put an extra layer of government between Great Britain and the colonies, which would’ve received the scorn and displeasing judgement of the King.
Another noteworthy gem of knowledge that reveals itself when Franklin is studied is the documents he signed and was an integral part of. He is the only founder to have signed the Declaration of Independence (1776), the Treaty of Alliance, Amity, and Commerce with France (1778), the Treaty of Peace between England, France and the United States (1782), and the U.S. Constitution (1789).
One of the most important stances Franklin took in his day was for the open and free dissemination of knowledge. He expressed this ideology when he invented a new stove design and refused to patent it, allowing for others to copy the design and build their own to sell. I can’t help but to marvel at how the internet and blogging (social networking) has reshaped the “landscape” of knowledge sharing in our modern-day. I am going to make a statement that will make the Liberals cringe, but I think it’s worth making. The modern-day citizen-journalist is Benjamin Franklin’s revenge from beyond the grave. Never before in the history of the world has so many people been able to write and publish their ideas and thoughts at the same time, and post them in one central area, the internet. This has also had a negative impact on elitist news gathering JINO’s (Journalists In Name Only), ratings across America for “mainstream news” are falling farther and faster than they ever have. This is the best news that America has had for a long time. This is only happening because the truth can only be chained down for so long. The truth can only be muzzled for a short time, until it breaks free from its captivity and bursts forth for all to see and hear! This Friday, hear the call of Ben Franklin once again “UNITE, or DIE”.
Benjamin Franklin would be proud of his posterity. Us freedom loving patriots. God save the Republic!