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VOL. 39 | NO. 28 | Friday, July 10, 2015

Lack of brotherly love sends Franklin to Philadelphia

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Next January will mark the 310th birthday of Benjamin Franklin. Thinker, inventor, scientist, diplomat, politician, writer. Founding parent of a great nation. A non-President with his face on a bit of paper currency.

With Independence Day still in our thoughts, it’s appropriate to revisit the life and times of this noted early patriot.

Ben was born in Boston on January 17, 1706. His father and step-mother had rhyming names: Josiah and Abiah. Josiah made soap for a living. He and Abiah strongly suggested that young Ben pursue a career in ministry.

But, being possessed of a certain impish and rebellious energy, the younger Franklin didn’t cotton to that idea.

Being short of cash, the Franklin family apprenticed Benjamin, when his age was barely in double digits, to local printer James Franklin, one of Ben’s nine brothers. In case you are wondering, these 10 male siblings had eight sisters. Being determined to be in the minority of people who were literate, Ben learned to read at a young age, and he read voraciously.

By the time he was 12, Ben was helping to write pamphlets and setting type for them. This was tough adult work in those days, as any printer would affirm. After publication of the pamphlets, Ben would also go out on the streets of Boston and hawk them.

Benjamin had reached 15 when his brother started a publication called The New England Courant, Boston’s first original newspaper. There had been two other papers before the Courant, but they had really done nothing other than reprint news items that had already run elsewhere.

This new paper featured locally-generated articles, opinion pieces, and advertisements, as well as information about ship schedules, which was of great interest to the residents.

On the sly, Ben took to writing letters under a pseudonym, Silence Dogood. From the context of the writing, it was clear that Silence was a widow. He slid them under the print shop door after hours.

They were published and became quite popular. Readers figured out that Silence was a pen name of someone with wit, style and a manner many found captivating.

After 16 installments, the youthful Franklin confessed to being the author of these letters. Brother James was not amused. Moreover, he resented the popularity that his little brother had garnered.

Before long, the Franklin brothers came to political blows with the Puritan contingent in Beantown over a hot-button issue of the day, inoculation for smallpox. Opposing inoculation (which the powerful Mather family favored), James poked fun at the opposition, which had him arrested and thrown in jail. Ben was left to run the paper solo.

When James was released from custody, his attitude toward Ben was hardly one of gratitude for keeping the paper afloat. He scolded, harassed and otherwise abused Ben, leading him to leave Boston for Philadelphia in 1723, at the age of 17.

(More in coming weeks, though not necessarily next week.)

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at vicfleming@att.net.

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