Benjamin Franklin was the most successful printer in British America, owning or controlling most of the newspapers in the colonies by 1753. He got his first taste of the printing business in 1718 at the age of twelve while working at The New England Courant in Boston, a newspaper owned by his older brother James.
Unfortunately, the siblings did not get along and, in 1723, young Ben ran away to make his own way. He landed first in New York looking for work as a printer’s assistant, but there was only one print shop in town, and the owner, William Bradford, had plenty of help. However, Bradford suggested that Franklin journey to Philadelphia where Bradford’s son had a print shop in need of an assistant, and Franklin was off for the town where fame and fortune awaited him.
Franklin landed in Philadelphia in October 1723 almost penniless and without work, as the job with Bradford’s son did not pan out. However, soon after arriving, Franklin came to the attention of the Governor of the Pennsylvania colony, William Keith, who encouraged Franklin to go to London and improve his printing skills. Keith hoped to improve the quality of the newspapers in the city and saw great promise in Franklin. Interestingly, printing equipment had been present in British America since soon after the Pilgrims landed in New England. In fact, the first publication in colonial America, the Bay Psalm Book, was printed in 1640. As more printing presses were established in the colonies, newspapers and pamphlets became an important means of communication as they were the only way to spread the word about someone or something other than hearsay. The first continuously printed newspaper was The Boston News-Letter which began in 1704. Not surprisingly, the most popular articles were those which criticized local leaders like the governor. Unfortunately, the governors did not feel the same way and several early colonial newspapers were shut down for printing stories critical of royal officials. As a result, our Founders made certain that freedom of the press was included in our Bill of Rights. In any event, Ben sailed for England for the first time in 1724 with Keith’s offer to help set up Franklin in his own shop upon his return. When Franklin returned to Philadelphia in 1726, Keith failed to fulfill his promises, but the experience was invaluable for Franklin.
After working for several different employers in the printing business in Philadelphia, Franklin finally set up his own shop in partnership with his friend Hugh Meredith in 1728. The next year, one of Franklin’s former bosses, Samuel Keimer, who owned The Pennsylvania Gazette, fell into debt, and sold the paper to Franklin and Meredith. In 1730, Franklin bought out his partner and he was on his own at the tender age of 24.
While The Pennsylvania Gazette was primarily used for classified ads and notices of employment, over the course of the next few decades Franklin used his wit and writing skills to make the Gazette the leading newspaper in North America. Even after Franklin left the active management of the paper to others, it remained in publication until 1800, about a decade after Franklin’s death.
During Franklin’s editorship of the Gazette, it became an outlet for Franklin to state his views on many topics and steer society where he thought it should go. For instance, in 1747, Franklin published articles to help raise a militia for Pennsylvania during King George’s War (1744-48). He also used the paper to promote some of his scientific experiments. In 1754, at the start of the French and Indian War, Franklin attended the Albany Congress, the first effort to unify the colonies. To help push his Albany Plan, Franklin printed the first political cartoon in America, Join, or Die, depicting the need for the colonies to stay united.
Image: Never one to rest, Franklin created or purchased additional papers, including the first German language newspaper in America. By mid-century, eight of the fifteen English language newspapers in the American colonies were published by Franklin or his partners.
By the 1740’s, Franklin, this one-time teenage runaway, had become one of the richest men in America, but for Franklin obtaining a fortune was not an end in itself. In his opinion, the purpose of money was to give people the ability to do what they wished. Franklin yearned to be “a master of my own time, and no longer at every one’s call but my own.”
Consequently, in 1748, at the age of 42, Benjamin retired from the printing business. Despite Franklin’s love of the profession, he never worked again as a printer, although he did retain ownership in the printing firm of Franklin and Hall.
Next week, we will talk about Ben Franklin as America’s favorite author.
Until next time, may your motto be “Ducit Amor Patriae”, Love of country leads me.
Tom Hand is a Ford resident and West Point alumnus. Check out his popular website www.americanacorner. com.