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Benjamin Franklin Famous Essays

Section 1: The Printer as Writer

In colonial America, printers often needed to be writers. Franklin began his career as a writer when he was apprenticed to his brother, James Franklin, for whom he wrote his first published work: “grubstreet” ballads. Having got a taste for writing, Franklin went on to submit articles to his brother’s newspaper under the pseudonym of a widow, Silence Dogood. Pseudonymity concealed his identity – in this case from his own brother -- and it also enabled him to experiment with the multiple identities that could be constructed through fictional voices.

Franklin had a lifelong fascination with the relation between printing, writing, and revision. The epitaph he wrote for himself imagines his resurrected body as a revised edition, and he sees his Autobiography as an opportunity to correct the “errata” of his youth. The Autobiography was composed with half of each page blank for revisions and corrections, and his famous act of self-revision, his “table of virtues,” was on an ivory memorandum-book so his writing could be easily wiped off with a wet sponge.

Franklin learned to be a writer by laboriously copying and recopying articles in The Spectator and other models. Against emergent notions of “genius,” Franklin stressed “ingenuity,” which included the ability to learn from others. Against notions of intellectual property, he emphasized the free circulation of knowledge, as when he refused to patent his Franklin stove.

I now took a Fancy to Poetry, and made some little Pieces. My Brother, thinking it might turn to account encourag’d me, and put me on composing two occasional Ballads… They were wretched Stuff, in the Grubstreet Ballad Style, and when they were printed he sent me about the Town to sell them.

[B]eing still a Boy, and suspecting that my Brother would object to printing any Thing of mine in his Paper if he knew it to be mine, I contriv’d to disguise my Hand, and writing an anonymous Paper I put it in at Night under the Door of the Printing-House. It was found in the Morning and communicated to his Writing Friends when they call’d in as usual. 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.

Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography

 

 

The New-England Courant 1721–1726, Published by James and Benjamin Franklin (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1924–1925). Facsimile.

Franklin’s earliest surviving writing was a series of satirical essays published while he was still an apprentice in his older brother’s newspaper, The New England Courant, under the pseudonym “Silence Dogood.” Franklin’s own file of the paper is now in the British Library; in it he wrote the authors’ initials beside anonymous articles. His own initials, “B.F.,” here mark the third “Silence Dogood” essay.

 

Benjamin Franklin, Letters from “Martha Careful” and “Caelia Shortface” to The American Weekly Mercury (Philadelphia: Andrew Bradford, January 21, 1729).

His first appearance in print in Philadelphia was this pair of letters from “Martha Careful” and “Caelia Shortface” in Andrew Bradford’s newspaper. They made fun of Franklin’s competitor and former employer Samuel Keimer, whose newspaper was publishing articles from an encyclopedia in alphabetical order, including one on “Abortion.”

 

Benjamin Franklin, “The Busy-Body,” No. 8 in The American Weekly Mercury (Philadelphia: Andrew Bradford, March 20–27, 1729).

With the help of his friend Joseph Breintnall, Franklin continued the attack on Keimer in a series of essays under the pseudonym “Busy Body.” In his file of The American Weekly Mercury, given to the Library Company by Breintnall, Franklin kept track of what he and Breintnall wrote with the initials “B.F.” and “J.B.” The essays helped drive Keimer out of business.

 

Benjamin Franklin, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Benjamin Franklin(London: Printed for Henry Colburn, British and Foreign Public Library, 1818), vol. 1.

Franklin’s famous diagram of his method for recording faults was first written in a paper notebook, but it wore out with constant erasure, so he copied the diagram in red ink on ivory tablets, from which pencil marks were easily erased. His grandson inherited both the paper and the ivory notebooks, now lost, and published the diagram in 1818.

 

Ivory memorandum book, probably nineteenth century, with the days of the week stamped on six of the leaves. Private collection.

Like most ivory notebooks, this is made like a fan. Franklin both sold such notebooks and transferred his table of virtues onto one.

 

John Goldsmith, An Almanack for the Year of Our Lord God M.DCC.LXIX (London: Richard Hett, for the Company of Stationers, [1768]). Private collection.

Erasable tablets were widely used in Franklin’s time. Here specially treated erasable paper was bound with an almanac. The silver stylus, which acts as a closing device, has been used for the silverpoint writing.

 

Nathaniel Ames, An Astronomical Diary; Or, Almanack, for … 1771 (Boston: Printed and sold by the Printers and Booksellers, [1770]).

Franklin’s epitaph for himself, which he wrote when he was 28, circulated widely in his lifetime. The heading here emphasizes the connection between Franklin as writer and printer.

 

Thomas Jefferson’s Ivory memorandum book in which he took notes that he could later transfer into more permanent notebooks. Reproduced by permission of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

 

 

Advertisements for Ivory memorandum books in Titan Leeds, The American Almanack for. . . 1735 (Philadelphia: Andrew Bradford, [1734]) [left image]; Pennsylvania Gazette (Philadelphia: B. Franklin, May 20, 1742). [right image]

Ivory memorandum books were widely sold in Philadelphia, including by Franklin and his main competitor, Andrew Bradford.

Benjamin Franklin’s epitaph, Manuscript, before 1790. Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

This manuscript copy of Franklin’s famous epitaph incorrectly gives Franklin’s birthday as June 6 instead of January 6 (January 17 after the calendar reform of 1752).

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In the many writings of Benjamin Franklin a legacy of wit, sensibility and virtue survives. Franklin was a master of many topics including science, politics, diplomacy and business. He began his work as an apprentice in his brother's print shop in Boston at the age of 12 and within only a few years Franklin began his foray into writing. Sending in anonymous letters, the writings of Ben Franklin soon appeared in his brother's newspaper, The New England Courant, under the nom de plume Mrs. Silence Dogood. Although his brother was infuriated when Benjamin admitted to being the author, the Dogood letters had brought substantial attention to the Courant. During the early years of Franklin's ownership of a print shop in Philadelphia, he began to publish what would become his most famous periodical, "Poor Richard's Almanack". In this annual publication, Benjamin Franklin, writing under the nom de plume Richard Saunders, included meteorology, astronomy, and astrology as well as poetry, essays and satire. Franklin's pragmatic and humorous style made his writing famous throughout the European and colonial world.

The scientific papers of Benjamin Franklin include numerous ideas for the design of experiments on everything from electricity to temperature control. In 1750, Franklin published his thoughts on an experiment to prove the electrical nature of lightning. Although a French scientist named Thomas-Francois Dalibard beat him to the punch in May 1752 by using a tall metal rod to draw sparks from stormy clouds, Franklin would pull off the same trick with a copper key attached to a kite one month later and steal the imagination of people worldwide. Some of the most important Benjamin Franklin papers are simply the letters he shared with the leading doctors, diplomats and physicists of the time. Franklin was acutely aware of the lack of technology in his age and expressed outright jealousy of the future he foresaw with the commonplace use of electricity and medical innovation. His shared contemplation with experienced seamen also helped to establish recognition for the Gulf Stream of the Atlantic which had previously troubled and slowed ships sailing westward across the ocean.

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is perhaps the greatest source of intimate information of the life of early America's elder statesman. Writing at first to his own son, William Franklin, and later to all future Americans, Franklin laid out the virtues by which he felt a man could become better and more in tune with the world as well as explaining his experience through decades of fame and fortune as a businessman, inventor, diplomat and Founding Father. Many essays on Benjamin Franklin depend on this autobiography as well as the contemporary reflections of his admirers and acquaintances. By the time the First Continental Congress had met, Franklin was already a world renowned thinker and experienced diplomat who made for an obvious choice to represent America in France. The alliance Franklin established with the French turned the tide of war in the rebels' favor and his leadership in diplomacy shone again when the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783, ending the Revolutionary War. The wisdom he used to conquer the games of diplomacy was shared only in the writing of Benjamin Franklin.

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