James Franklin, Printer by Louise Fiske
James Franklin , and Ann Smith Franklin, 1696-1763, of Newport, were journalists and Rhode Island’s first printers and newspaper publishers. In 1727 they set up Rhode Island’s first printing press. In 1732 he issued the Rhode Island Gazette, Rhode Island’s first newspaper.
James also began the printing of pamphlets and books; and became the printer of the Boston Gazette, the official paper of the province. In 1721 Franklin established the New England Courant.
The Courant began in the midst of one of the greatest smallpox epidemics Boston ever had. Doctors Increase and Cotton Mather were ardent advocates of inoculation, and strongly supported by Dr. Zabdiel Boylston. Franklin with great freedom of expression wrote of affairs which brought the wrath of the provincial officials upon him.
Franklin printed an item regarding pirate vessels in the vicinity of Block Island, and that Captain Pete Papillion had raised a company and sailed against them. It was an impolitic item to print but was a scoop on the part of an inexperienced printer. The following day he was brought before the governor on the Speakers’ warrant and spent a month in jail. His younger brother, Ben Franklin, only seventeen years old, became editor for a time, and for legal reasons his name continued as publisher for three or four years.
In the 4-11 June 1722 issue of the Courant, Benjamin Franklin, writing as Silence Dogood, the outspoken and comical widow of a New England minister who had first appeared in the Courant two months earlier, contributed an essay on “Pride” (The same issue also contained an offhand and veiled criticism of the lackadaisical response of colonial authorities to a threat from pirates who were ravaging the coast of New England: “We are advis’d from Boston, that the government of the Massachusetts are fitting out a Ship to go after the Pirates, to be commanded by Capt. Peter Papillon, and “tis thought he will sail sometime this Month, if Wind and Weather permit.” The colonial government failed to catch the pirates, but jailed James Franklin for contempt, leaving the Courant in the hands of his teenage apprentice, Benjamin.
Between April and October 1722, a series of letters appeared in the New England Courant written by a middle-aged widow who called herself Silence Dogood. In her correspondence she poked fun at various aspects of life in colonial America, such as the drunkenness of locals, religious hypocrisy, the persecution of women, the fashion for hoop petticoats, and particularly the pretensions of Harvard College.
Silence Dogood’s letters became quite popular. Some of the male readers of the Courant were so taken with her that they offered to marry her. But unfortunately for these would-be suitors, Silence Dogood did not exist. She was the invention of sixteen year-old Benjamin Franklin, who was working at the time as an apprentice to his older brother, James, a Boston printer.
Franklin initially concealed his authorship of the letters from his brother. When he finally confessed to his brother that he was the author, his brother grew quite displeased, fearing that all the compliments paid to Silence Dogood would make young Benjamin grow vain. Soon after this, Franklin decided to run away and seek his fortune in Philadelphia.
We have two great items out of Franklin’s Printer.