Benjamin Franklin and the Seedtime of American Newspapers: Persisitent Issues of a Free Press

CitationVol. 72 Pg. 478
Publication year2021
Connecticut Bar Journal
Volume 72.





When people think of Benjamin Franlin these days, that protean figure is remembered for a hot of contributions: as the oldest delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 (he was 81), and before that as our invaluable first ambassador to France throughout the Revolution (1776-1785), as one of the committee helping Jefferwon write the Declaration of Independence, and before that aw the colonies' chief lobbyist from 1757-1775. We think of him as the colonies' postmaster, as the impetus behind starting a host of schools, hospitals, clubs, and institutions for public betterment in Philadelphia, many of which flourish today. He is honored for this scientific experiments (earning him the Royal Society's Copley Medal in 1753), his inventions (bifocals, the lightning rod, the Franklin stove, and so many others). We rembember that his trade was as a printer.

But printer and newpaperman though Franklin was, we never associated his name with struggle for freedom of the press. And, in fact, if one seeks for such an association in writings, speeches, movements, or other dramatic incidents, one will almost none. Until the end of this life, the closest Fanklin came to any written exposition of his views on the subject was his 1731 pamphlet entitled "An Apology for Printers"; and that, as Leionard Levy has pointed out, is at best a conventional reiteration of the printer's role to print whatever anyone seeks to have him print, more a testimonial for freedom of contract or commercial free speech than a ringing declaration of the publisher's right to publish whatever he chooses. (fn1)

And yet, Franklin in his early life was involved both as participant and as an off' stage player in several significant


events in the history of freedom of the press, and the issues were ones that resonate even as we approach the tercentenary of his birth in 2006. We get hints and leads to these events from the glancing mention by him of related matters in the Autobiography (fn2) he began writing in 1771 in England and then resumed at age 82 in 1788 in Philadelphia, two years before his death.

Franklin's first brush with freedom of the press came in his teenage years in Boston. In 1718, at the age of 12, Benjamin Franklin became indentured to his older brother James, until the age of 21. (fn3) James had returned from England the year before and set up a printer's shop. In 1721, James was persuaded to start a newspaper, called the New England Courant. (fn4) Franklin in his Autobiography 50 years later remembered its being "the second that appeared in America," the first being the Boston News-Letter. (fn5) These were, indeed, among the first three continuously published newspapers in America. Honors as the first American newspaper properly belong to Benjamin Harris's Public Occurrences Both Foreign and Domestic, which published one issue on September 25, 1690 in Boston. It had been published without prior government permission, however; and so was ordered suppressed by a decree that "Strictly" forbade "any person or persons for the future to set forth any thing in print without License first obtained. (fn6)

Not until 1704 was the Boston News-Letter founded. It was published by Boston's postmaster, John Campbell, and this time was "published by Authority." It was a weekly, printed on both sides of a single "half-sheet," and its early years (it lasted until 1776) were economically parlous. It was joined in 1719 by the Boston Gazette, also "published by Authority," which meant that the Governor or his aide usually approved the contents before publication. (fn7)


James Franklin was the first printer of the Gazette, with Benjamin as his apprentice. When a change of ownership led the new owner to use another printer, however, James was resentful, and therefore psychologically prepared to entertain the overtures of some men who were not part of the ruling establishment (which consisted of, among others, Increase Mather and his son, Cotton). The result was The New England Courant, which first published on August 7, 1721 and survived for some five and a half years. It was, as Frank Luther Mott has noted, "not 'published by authority', but rather in spite of it." It was less a paper reporting "news" than one seeking to amuse and entertain, modeling itself on London's literary essay-papers like the Spectator and Guardian. (fn8)

Its first major issue was to oppose the Mathers in their campaign to promote smallpox inoculation. This stand, which by our standards would be one against public policy, was pressed largely by backers of the Courant whose agenda probably was less anti-inoculation than it was anti-Mather; and it led the Mathers, p6re et fils, spiritedly to attack the Courant in both the News-Letter and the Gazette. Circulation rose, however, as did the jibes and raillery of the Courant at the expense of the Mathers. (fn9)

The incident that first brought Benjamin Franklin face-to-face with issues of freedom of the press arose when the Courant turned its satiric wit from the Mathers to the royal governor. One day, pirate ships - a common sight along the coast, engaging in activities some suspected were conducted in collusion with various of the colonies' governors - were spotted off Newport. This inspired the Courant to publish the following item: "We are advised from Boston, that the Government of the Massachusetts are fitting out a Ship, to go after the Pirates, to be commanded by Captain Peter Papillon, and 'tis thought he will sail some time this Month, wind and weather permitting." This appeared in the issue of June 11, 1722. The next day James was haled before the Council, presumably for casting unwarranted aspersions on the responsiveness of the government (the ship had, in fact, sailed the


day the article had appeared). So, too, was Benjamin. James was sent to prison for a month. (fn10) As Franklin describes this episode a half a century later in his Autobiography, the reason James was imprisoned seems strikingly similar to an issue that is at the forefront of the media's concern almost three hundred years later:

One of the pieces in our newspaper on some political point, which I have now forgotten, gave offense to the Assembly. He was taken up, censur'd, and imprison'd for a month, by the speaker's warrant, I suppose, because he would not discover his author. I too was taken up and examin'd before the council; but tho' I did not give them any satisfaction, they content'd themselves with admonishing me, and dismissed me, considering me, perhaps, as an apprentice, who was bound to keep his master's secrets. (fn11)

James, as Benjamin recollects it, "would not discover his author." Put in our terms, he would not disclose his source. The result, presumably, was viewed as contempt of the Council; and, as it is for reporters today, the penalty was incarceration. In James's case, it was imprisonment for a time certain, one month, a frequent form. of punishment today for criminal contempt, as contrasted to the imprisonment imposed nowadays for civil contempt to induce disclosure, which is incarceration until the reporter discloses (or the trial ends or the grand jury expires, whichever comes first). (fn12) The inevitable and eternal tension between the perceived needs of a branch of government to do its job and the needs of the press to maintain that confidentiality about the editorial process necessary to assure the free flow of data to it so that it can perform its informing function remains after three centuries unresolved.

While James was in prison, Benjamin and James's friends continued publication of the Courant. That the responsibility suddenly thrust upon the 16-year-old apprentice was a heady experience comes bubbling through Franklin's account of it:

During my brother's confinement, which I resented a good deal, notwithstanding our private differences, I had


the management of the paper; and I made bold to give our rulers some rubs in it, which my brother took very kindly, while others began to consider me in an unfavorable light, as a young genius that had a turn for libeling, and satyr. (fn13)

When James was released he took up his caustic quill again; and levelled attacks this time at both the royal Governor and the clergy, thus succeeding in uniting against him both Governor Shute and the Mathers, two forces more accustomed to battling each other. The result was an edict from the General Court in early 1723: "That James Franklin be strictly forbidden by this Court to print or publish the New England Courant or any Pamphlet or paper of the like Nature, Except it be first Supervised, by the Secretary of this Province. (fn14)

It is of more than passing interest to compare this language with the language used by the Minnesota trial court some two hundred years later in suppressing the St. Paul newspaper involved in Near v. Minnesota:

Judgment was thereupon entered adjudging that "the newspaper magazine and periodical known as The Saturday Press, as a public nuisance, be and is hereby abated." The judgment perpetually enjoined the defendants "from producing, editing, publishing...

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