Another Influential Franklin

NECourantMasthead

Ben’s half brother James also left
his mark on American journalism

By Walter Fox

While Benjamin Franklin has been the recipient of much-deserved praise for his contributions to American journalism, his older, half-brother James also deserves recognition for his role in establishing an essential element of press freedom: the right to print.

If James Franklin has become a footnote to the life of his illustrious sibling, it is not without some fault on James’ part. When Ben at age 12 became an indentured apprentice in James’s printing shop, the terms of the indenture were not exactly brotherly. At a time when most indentures ran for seven years, Ben’s was for nine, with journeyman’s pay only in the final year. In Ben’s Autobiography, James comes across as overbearing, depreciatory of his younger brother’s skill as a writer and, at times, physically abusive. It is not surprising that when the opportunity presented itself, Ben ran away.

But, having noted all that, there is still something to be said for the older Franklin. When James completed his apprenticeship in London in 1717 and returned to Boston with a printing press, he brought with him copies of Addison and Steele’s Spectator and works by Defoe, Swift and Pope, among many others—a library that would soon feed the literary hunger of his younger brother. James would be a printer, but a printer with a great admiration for the spirit and style of the English satirists.

NECSo that when James started his own newspaper in 1721, it would not be like the two stodgy journals that preceded it in Boston—both published by postmasters and emblazoned with the phrase “Printed by Authority.” Even though licensing of printers had expired in England by 1700, these publishers felt a need to kowtow to the Mather theocracy, knowing that if they didn’t they could lose their appointments. James Franklin, an outsider with nothing to lose, simply waded in. In the very first issue, he challenged the Mathers—wrongly, as it turned out—on the issue of inoculation for smallpox, a disease that had run rampant in Boston. Since the Mathers were for it, he would be against it.

Wrongheaded as he was, he nevertheless demonstrated for the first time in American history that a newspaper could take on the civil authority and survive. In doing so, Franklin’s New England Courant, the first American newspaper published without prior restraint, laid the groundwork for press freedom and became a beacon to a new generation of Colonial printers. One of them, of course, will be his brother Ben, who, in The Pennsylvania Gazette, also confronted the establishment but with far greater sophistication.

The Courant provided a lively and stylish alternative to the sanitized fare of the competition and printed what readers who chafed under the Mathers wanted to hear. In 1722, however, when his sarcasm was directed at the Colonial government, James Franklin was hauled before the Royal Council. Unrepentant and belligerent at his hearing, Franklin was jailed for a month. Even with its editor gone, the paper was unrestrained in its commentary. When he returned to the Courant, Franklin argued strongly in its pages against the injustice of his treatment. A year later, when he added attacks on religious hypocrisy to his criticism of government, the Massachusetts General Court forbade him to print or publish any newspaper in the colony. Franklin quickly made Ben publisher, publicly terminated Ben’s indenture but, meanwhile, executed a new one in secret.

Realizing that a secret indenture would never stand up in court, Ben left Boston. Ben’s name remained on the masthead until the Courant expired in 1727, and while the paper continued to entertain readers in its final years, it had lost its earlier sting. So too, it would appear, had James Franklin. With the heady days of the Courant behind him, he accepted an offer from Rhode Island to become the colony’s official printer, setting up a press at Newport where he died in 1735.

In his Autobiography, Ben said that he had learned from his brother “an aversion to arbitrary power,” clearly referring to James’ domineering behavior. But whether he realized it or not, he had also learned how to confront that kind of power wherever it appeared.


Walter Fox is a freelance writer and the author of Writing the News: A Guide for Print Journalists. This article originally appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer of July 20, 2006. © 2006 Walter J. Fox, Jr. (for reprint permission contact wjfoxjr@verizon.net)


 

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