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Mrs. Silence Dogood
Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) was born in Boston, the youngest son of seventeen children of Josiah Franklin, a candle maker and merchant. He studied briefly at Boston Latin School before being removed for a more practical training. By age 12, he was apprenticed to his older brother James, a printer and publisher of the first independent colonial newspaper, the New England Courant. Initially young Benjamin assisted with page composition, typesetting, leading, brushing, burnishing, and miscellaneous production tasks, receiving an intimate education in the mechanics of printing. James’s busy shop was a nexus of pamphleteering, producing pithy and pointed documents to disseminate political points of view. Further, the Courant provided the most widely distributed communication platform in Boston. As an increasingly competent writer himself, Franklin wished to add his voice to the public discourse circling around the print shop. He knew his older brother would never consent to print his writing, so he tried another tactic.
Franklin assumed an alter ego, Mrs. Silence Dogood, the dignified widow of a country parson. Writing under this pseudonym, he crafted a series of letters that were both entertaining and critical of Boston’s Puritan establishment. Given his insider knowledge of the New England Courant’s production schedule, Franklin carefully slipped the letters under the front door of the shop late at night. The writing was funny and the contents substantial. James Franklin published the first of eight Silence Dogood letters on April 2, 1722, and Mrs. Dogood quickly gained a wide readership. Franklin begins the initial letter with a sly acknowledgment of the power of the pen name, writing: ‘And since it is observed, that the Generality of People, nowadays, are unwilling either to commend or dispraise what they read, until they are in some measure informed who or what the Author of it is, whether he be poor or rich, old or young, a Scholar or a Leather Apron Man, &c. and give their Opinion of the Performance, according to the Knowledge which they have of the Author’s Circumstances, it may not be amiss to begin with a short Account of my past Life and present Condition, that the Reader may not be at a Loss to judge whether or no my Lucubrations are worth his reading.’
By the time that the eighth Silence Dogood letter was printed, Benjamin had unveiled himself as their author, much to James’s displeasure. The younger brother now commanding too much attention, their relationship fell apart, and Benjamin left Boston without completing his apprenticeship. He went first to New York, then on to Philadelphia.
Benjamin Franklin arrived in Philadelphia in 1723 at the age of 17, already an accomplished writer and print shop apprentice. He found printing work and lodging with Samuel Keimer, and soon established his own print shop. By 1728 he had befriended the city’s mayor, assimilated into polite society, and established a modest living as one of three printers in Philadelphia. As both a writer and a printer, Franklin enjoyed a privileged position from which to distribute his ideas, which were rather distributed themselves: he advocated the use of paper currency, detailed the cyclical patterns of weather systems, and dispensed sage advice, including the following, ‘To a young tradesman’, in 1748: ‘Courteous Reader, Remember that time is money.’
Being intimately acquainted with the production process from writing to editing to typesetting to page composition to printing, Franklin knew that it was important not only what was said or who said it but to whom it was said. Writing and printing would take him only so far; the real power of print production, like any mass medium, lay in its distribution. The primary network of the time was the postal system, which had grown up around several colonial roads. Unfortunately for Franklin’s ambitions, his rival Andrew Bradford both published Philadelphia’s only newspaper, the American Weekly Mercury, and served as postmaster of Pennsylvania. Bradford thus commanded first access to news from afar while also directing the network for distributing his newspaper. The result was a virtual monopoly on what was news and who read it.
Franklin contrived to reverse these circumstances. He first tried to set up his own newspaper but was too slow: his intentions leaked, and the city’s third printer, his former employer and landlord Samuel Keimer, slapdashedly assembled and launched his own journal, grandly named the ‘Universal Instructor in All Arts and Sciences and Pennsylvania Gazette’. Figuring that the small town of Philadelphia couldn’t possibly accommodate three newspapers, Franklin resolved to eliminate one. Using his supple pen and exploiting the triangulated relationship between Keimer, Bradford, and himself, Franklin wrote a series of letters to the established American Weekly Mercury under the pseudonym Busy-Body. The first letter began by suggesting the author’s intent to enliven the paper’s dull if respectable pages: ‘I design this to acquaint you, that I, who have long been one of your Courteous Readers, have lately entertain’d some Thoughts of setting up for an Author my Self; not out of the least Vanity, I assure you, or Desire of showing my Parts, but purely for the Good of my Country. I have often observ’d with Concern, that your Mercury is not always equally entertaining. The Delay of Ships expected in, and want of fresh Advices from Europe, make it frequently very Dull; and I find the Freezing of our River has the same Effect on News as on Trade.’
The Busy-Body letters took a prominent role in the Mercury, appearing on the front page with a large by-line. They served both to boost the established paper and spurn the upstart Gazette, which at the time consisted primarily of serialized encyclopaedia entries. Keimer responded to Busy-Body’s assaults in an increasingly shrill tone and desperate manner; the ensuing war of words left him and his newspaper in considerable debt. In 1729, Keimer was briefly imprisoned, then fled to Barbados, selling his newspaper to Franklin as he was leaving town.
Reinfurt, D. (2006), Post-Master, Dot Dot Dot, vol. 7, no. 12, pp.1–4
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