Let’s thank good ol’ Benjamin Franklin, too!
I’m pretty sure you’ve noticed by now that I end each and every installment of Common Sense with the same phrase.
If you haven’t, I encourage you to check it out at the end of this week’s installment. I’ve always felt the message it conveyed was one of importance to us all: without teachers who educate us, and those to volunteer to protect our nation and our families at night, we’d be in pretty bad shape.
But honestly — and particularly this week — there’s someone else we should be thanking. Were it not for Benjamin Franklin — yes, the guy on the $100 bill — you probably wouldn’t be reading this issue of the Daily News, much less my blatherings.
Franklin, the guy who developed the first public library, who gave us the U.S. Postal Service, who invented the lightning rod and bifocal glasses, and who concocted the idea of daylight-saving time, was most proud of his profession as a printer. It was a career he began at the age of 12, when he was indentured to his older brother, James, for what was to be a nine-year apprenticeship.
Young Benjamin soon proved to be quite adept at his new trade, and was soon making quite a name for himself — and by extension, his brother — in Boston. And when James began publishing The New England Courant, Benjamin was both the typesetter and the newsboy, selling copies on the street corner.
But more than anything, Benjamin wanted to write for his brother’s newspaper.
Newspapers of the day were little more than the equivalent of the trashy tabloids you see at supermarkets today. They contained very little real news with a whole lot of downright salacious lies about prominent people throughout.
The Courant was different. It was timely. It was engaging. It even made people think about the world around them.
And, with commentaries from members of the Hell-Fire Club, of which James was a leading member, there was a lot worth reading. It was truly the first must-have newspaper in Colonial America.
That might have had something to do with Benjamin’s desire to be contributing. But James would have nothing of it, particularly from someone as young as his brother.
So, Benjamin found another way to get his thoughts printed in The Courant. He wrote letters to the editor, not as himself, but rather as the “widow of a country minister” named Silence Dogood.
Over the course of six months, he penned 14 letters under Silence’s name, which were subsequently published in The Courant. The use of noms de plum was commonplace at the time, so it was readily evident that Silence was not the “country widow” she was portrayed to be.
But James and the Hell-Fire Club never caught on that Benjamin was writing the letters. So, eventually, he told his brother what he had been doing.
It resulted in a bitter squabble over the next few months that culminated with Benjamin running away from James and The Courant. He set off for Philadelphia, the largest city in the colonies, to make a new life for himself.
He actually bounced around for a while, eventually leaving the colonies altogether to seek out a job in his trade in London. But, he eventually returned to Philadelphia, and at the ripe old age of 23, he purchased one of the city’s newspapers, Universal Instructor in all Arts and Sciences, and Pennsylvania Gazette, which he quickly shortened to The Pennsylvania Gazette.
The Gazette was much like The Courant, but boasted a number of “innovations” — when wasn’t Ben Franklin shaking things up? — such as paid advertisements and a reduced newsstand price meant to make the publication open to a wider audience. His goal was to reach as many people as possible, which was an entirely new concept for newspaper publishers of the day.
It was these innovations, as well as his desire to ensure every American was well-educated, that truly makes Benjamin Franklin the father of the American newspaper. Even if he really isn’t recognized with the distinction.
So, during this very important week — National Newspaper Week — I hope you all are able to carve out a few moments to be thankful for his contributions to yet another aspect of your daily lives.
• • •
If you’re reading this, thank a teacher. If you’re reading this in English, thank a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine.