The Story of the New-England Courant
In the early 18th century, children did not choose what they wanted to be when they grew up. Most girls did not have professions, but rather grew up to become wives and mothers. Boys, particularly the sons of tradesmen, had their futures decided for them by their fathers.
Josiah Franklin intended for his tenth or "tithe" son, Benjamin, to devote his life to the "Service of the Church." But as Josiah could afford to send Benjamin to school for only one year, a career in the clergy was impossible. Instead, the lad began working for his father in the family soap business.
Franklin takes up the story in his Autobiography.
But my dislike to the Trade continuing, my Father was under Apprehensions that if he did not find one for me more agreeable, I should break away and get to Sea, as his Son Josiah had to his great Vexation. He therefore sometimes took me to walk with him, and see Joiners, Bricklayers, Turners, Braziers, &c. at their Work, that he might observe my Inclination, and endeavor to fix in on Some Trade or other on Land..."
As young Benjamin had always been a bookish lad, his father determined that a trade in printing would prove a suitable match. Moreover, as Ben's older brother James was already in the printing trade, it was determined that the younger brother would be indentured to the elder brother.
In 1717 my Brother James return'd from England with a Press and Letters to set up his Business in Boston. I lik'd it much better than that of my Father, but still had a Hankering for the Sea. To prevent the apprehended Effect of such an Inclination, my Father was impatient to have me bound to my Brother. I stood out some time, but at last was persuaded and signed the Indentures, when I was yet but 12 Years old. I was to serve as an Apprentice till I was 21 Years of Age, only I was to be allow'd Journeyman's Wages during the last Year. In little time I made great Proficiency in the Business, and became a useful Hand to my Brother.
A Bookish Boy
As a printing apprentice, Franklin to his delight had access to a wide range of books that were being typeset. He also borrowed books from clients. He read voraciously and even began skipping meals and using the money he saved to buy books.
Early in his apprenticeship, young Ben took a fancy to poetry and began composing "occasional ballads" — little poems or songs based on newsworthy events. His brother James encouraged his writing and printed Ben's first two attempts. The first, entitled Light House Tragedy, was an account of the drowning of a captain and his two daughters and the other was a sailor's shanty about the capture of Blackbeard the Pirate. Franklin hawked his songs on the streets of Boston where they sold well, despite being, in Franklin's own words, "wretched Stuff." But Franklin's father convinced the budding bard that "Verse-makers were generally beggars." Franklin started concentrating on his verse writing.
During this time Franklin struck up a friendship with another bookish Boston boy named John Collins. At one point Collins and Franklin had a written debate on the "Propriety of educating the Female Sex in Learning, and their Abilities for Study." Collins felt that it was improper to teach girls, while Franklin argued that females should be educated. Josiah Franklin read the debate letters and judged that his son needed to be more attentive to the his style of writing, vocabulary, elegance of expression and "method of perspicuity."
Franklin undertook teaching himself to write through reading the newspapers of the era and by an exercise in which he would take poems and translate them into stories and by turning stories into verse. In this way, Franklin felt he became a "tolerable English Writer."
In 1721, three years after Benjamin Franklin began his apprenticeship, James Franklin published the first issue of The New England Courant. This was the third newspaper in the history of Boston. After helping with the grueling and laborious process of typesetting the newspaper, Benjamin would then have to become a newsboy, and sell the paper in the streets.
After a time, Franklin was not content merely to typeset the paper — he wanted to write for it too. Many of his brother James's friends already penned pieces for the Courant but Benjamin felt that any attempt he made would meet with objection on the part of his older, at times jealous, brother. Enter Silence Dogood.
Silence Dogood was the widow of a country minister. She was "an Enemy to Vice, and a Friend to Vertue." She loved the clergy and good men but was the "mortal Enemy to arbitrary government and Unlimited Power." She was also a bit of a yenta who would "observe and reprove the Faults of others."
Silence Dogood was fictitious. She was made up by the 16-year-old Franklin who, between April and October of 1722, penned 14 letters bearing Silence's name. At night he would leave these letters, in disguised handwriting, under the printshop's door. It was the custom of the time to assume pen names.
James Franklin and his friends never caught on. They could not figure out who was writing the Dogood letters. After each arrived:
They read it, commented on it in my Hearing, and I had the exquisite Pleasure, of finding it met with their Approbation, and that in their different Guesses at the Author none were named but Men of some Character among us for Learning and Ingenuity.
Ultimately, Benjamin revealed that he was the author of the Silence Dogood letters. This led to fractious confrontations between the Franklin brothers, as James felt that the compliments paid to Benjamin made him "too vain."
As brothers are wont to do, they went to their father to settle disputes and papa Josiah generally sided with Ben.
But Benjamin grew tired with his apprenticeship and did not take kindly to regular beatings meted out by his big brother. Franklin felt that the "harsh and tyrannical Treatment" at the hands of James led to a lifelong "Aversion to arbitrary Power."
James, the Bullying brother of Benjamin, was the fourth son of Josiah Franklin and his first wife Abiah Folger. He was born in 1697, and as a teenager went to London to apprentice as a printer. He returned to Boston in 1717 with a font of type, hoping to find work in the print trade. One year later, Boston postmaster, William Booker, established a paper called the Boston Gazette. He gave the printing responsibility to 21-year-old James Franklin who hired his 12-year old brother Benjamin as an apprentice.
Shortly after being awarded the Gazette gig, a different postmaster gained control of the paper and took the printing responsibility away from James. A precarious period of on job-printing followed until the summer of 1721, when James took the bold step of establishing Boston's third newspaper, The New-England Courant.
The New-England Courant
Though all of James's friends advised him against starting a paper, which was economically dubious, they promised to help him in any way they could. The first issue is dated August 7, 1721. The paper's launch coincided with a smallpox epidemic which was ravaging Boston. The epidemic also ravaged the city intellectually. Boston's clergy, including the forceful Cotton Mather, supported inoculation. Established medical tradition and a majority of Bostonians felt inoculation was an evil plot actually intended to spread smallpox. Dr. William Douglass, an anti-inoculationist and friend of James Franklin, suggested that the paper be used as a bully pulpit to decrease the influence of the preachers Increase and Cotton Mather.
Though James desired that his paper be witty, elegant, and satirical, like the papers he worked on and read in London, instead he found himself a booster in the inoculation controversy. Much space in many of the early issues was devoted to the smallpox debate. And while the public sided with Franklin on the smallpox issue, many felt uneasy about Franklin's practice of publicly humiliating preachers.
All the while Franklin also pressed on and published jaunty literary pieces in imitation of London's more famous papers such as the Spectator. Personas using the names of Timothy Turnstone, Ichabod Henroost, Betty Frugal, Tabitha Talkative, Dorothy Love and eventually Silence Dogood contributed columns of the topics of the day.
In the June 11, 1722 issue of the Courant ran this seemingly innocuous piece: "We are advised from Boston that the government of Massachusetts are fitting out a ship, to go after the pirates, to be commanded by Captain Peter Papillon, and 'tis thought he will sail some time this month, wind and weather permitting." The governmental Council was insulted by the overtones which suggested cowardice and laziness, and gave James a two-week time out in jail to think about his tart tongue. While James was imprisoned his 16-year-old brother Benjamin ran the paper.
But this was just the start of James's woes. In the January 14, 1723 issue an "Essay against Hyprocites" was published. Though not named directly, most reader recognized the target of the Courant's jolting to be Cotton Mather. So did the committee of the House who barred James Franklin from publishing. The House charged that "the Tendency of the said Paper is to mock Religion, and bring it into Contempt, that the Holy Scriptures are therefore profanely abused, that the Reverend and faithful Ministers of the Gospel are injuriously Reflected on, His Majesty's Government affronted, and the Peace and good Order of his Majesty's Subjects of this Province disturbed, by the said Courant."
In the January 28 issue, Franklin published a faux retraction and made use of a flimsy scheme in the words of his younger brother Ben. The Courant was now advertised as being printed by Benjamin Franklin. By this time the younger brother was running out of patience with James. Finally, on September 30, an ad in the Courant read "James Franklin, printer, in Queen's Street, wants a likely lad for an apprentice."
Benjamin had run away. Boston's loss would be the City of Brotherly Love's gain, all thanks to an unloving older brother.
James Franklin tried to keep the Courant going. But constant battling with the Mathers and Puritanical Boston wore him down. After the 255th issue of the Courant dated June 25, 1726, James Franklin folded the paper. He moved to Rhode Island seeking a more liberal environment, and died there in 1735.