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From Boyhood to Manhood|
XII. The Ruse, and What Came of It
by Thayer, William M.
|Mr. Parton says of the Courant, "It was a most extraordinary sheet.
Of all the colonial newspapers, it was the most spirited, witty, and
daring. The Bostonians, accustomed to the monotonous dullness of the
News-letter, received, some with delight, more with horror, all with
amazement, this weekly budget of impudence and fun. A knot of liberals
gathered around James Franklin, physicians most of them, able,
audacious men, who kept him well supplied with squibs, essays, and
every variety of sense and nonsense known in that age. The Courant
was, indeed, to borrow the slang of the present day, a 'sensational
paper.' Such a tempest did it stir up in Boston that the noise thereof
was heard in the remote colony of Pennsylvania."
The "knot of liberals" who wrote articles for it, met often at the
office to discuss their contributions, and the state of public
sentiment more or less affected by this venture. The News-letter
came in for a large share of the opposition, and they declared war
against many of the existing customs,--governmental, political, and
social. The scope and circulation of the paper was a frequent topic of
Benjamin's ears were always open to their conversation. He heard the
merits of different articles set forth, and learned that certain ones
were quite popular and elicited favorable remarks from readers
generally. This excited his ambition, and he strongly desired to try
his own ability in writing for the paper. He feared, however, that his
composition would not be regarded favorably, if it were known who was
the author; so he resorted to the following expedient:
"I will write an anonymous article," he said within himself, "in the
best style I can, and get it into James' hand in some way that will
not arouse his suspicions. I will disguise my handwriting, and give it
some fictitious name, so that he will not dream that it was written in
Accordingly the article was prepared, describing his ideal of
character, and that was the character he himself formed, and was
forming then; and he signed it SILENCE DOGOOD. This article he slipped
under the printing office door at night, where James found it in the
morning, and read it with evident satisfaction, as Benjamin thought,
who narrowly watched him. In a little while some of the "knot of
liberals" came in, and the article was read to them.
"It is a good article, and it was slipped under the door last night,"
said James. "It is signed 'Silence Dogood.'"
"You have no idea who wrote it, then?" inquired one.
"Not the least whatever."
"It is capital, whoever the author may be," remarked one of the
"Somebody wrote it who knows how to wield his pen," said another.
"Ordinarily I shall not publish articles without knowing who the
author is," remarked James; "but this is so good that I shall not
stop to inquire. I shall put it into the next issue."
"By all means, of course," replied one. "No doubt we shall soon learn
who the author is; it is a difficult matter to keep such things secret
for a long time."
"The author is evidently a person of ability," added another; "every
sentence in the article is charged with thought. I should judge that
he needed only practice to make him a writer of the first class."
"Publishing the article will be as likely as any thing to bring out
the author," suggested James.
"That is so; and the sooner it is published the better," remarked one
of the company approvingly.
Much more was said in praise of the article. The names of several
prominent citizens of Boston were mentioned as the possible author.
James himself named one or two, who were Boston's most intelligent and
influential citizens, as the possible author.
All approved the insertion of the article in the next issue of the
paper, much to the satisfaction of Benjamin, who was the most deeply
interested party in the office. He scarcely knew how to act in regard
to the article, whether to father it at once, or still conceal its
parentage. On the whole, however, he decided to withhold its
authorship for the present, and try his hand again in the same way.
The reader may judge of Benjamin's emotions when he came to put his
own article in type for the paper. It was almost too good to be real.
Fact was even stranger than fiction to him. In the outset he dreamed
that somehow and sometime the columns of the Courant might contain a
contribution of his own; and here he was setting up his first article
with the approval of James and the whole "knot of liberals." This was
more than he bargained for; and his heart never came so near beating
through his jacket as then. Never was a printer-boy so happy before.
He was happy all over and all through--a lump of happiness. Not one
boy in a hundred could have managed to keep the secret as he did, in
the circumstances. Their countenances would have exposed it on the
spot. But Benjamin possessed his soul in patience, and carried out his
The issue containing Benjamin's article appeared on time, and was
greatly praised. "Who is 'Silence Dogood'?" was the most common
inquiry. "I wonder who 'Silence Dogood' can be," was a frequent
remark, showing that the article attracted much attention. Benjamin
wondered as much as any of them. "A queer signature to put to an
article," he said. "What in the world could suggest such a nom de
plume to a writer?" He enjoyed his ruse more and more: it became the
choicest fun of his life. It was so crammed with felicity that he
resolved to continue it by writing more articles as well-chosen and
He was able to prepare a better article for the second one, because he
brought to its preparation the enthusiasm and encouragement awakened
by the favorable reception of the first. Besides, the many remarks he
had heard about it gave him points for another communication, so as to
make it sharper, better adapted to the times, and hence more timely.
Within a short time, the second article was slipped under the door at
night for James to pick up in the morning.
"Another article from 'Silence Dogood,'" exclaimed James, as he opened
it and read the signature.
"I thought we should hear from that writer again," was all the remark
that Benjamin vouchsafed.
"A good subject!" added James, as he read the caption. "I will read
it," and he proceeded to read the article to Benjamin.
The latter listened with attention that was somewhat divided between
the excellent reception the article was having and the grand success
of his ruse.
"Better even than the first article," remarked James after having read
it. "We must not rest until we find out who the author is. It is
somebody of note."
The second article was submitted to the "knot of liberals," the same
as the first one, and all approved it highly.
"It is sharper than the first one, and hits the nail on the head every
time," said one of the number. "Dogood is a good name for such a
"And we shall have more of them, no doubt," suggested James; "it is
quite evident that the writer means to keep on."
"I hope he will; such articles will call attention to the paper, and
that is what we want," added another.
"In the mean time, let us find out if possible who the writer is,"
suggested still another. "It will be a help to the paper to have it
known who is the author, if it is one of the scholars."
Charles Dickens was a poorer boy than Benjamin ever was, knowing what
it was to go to bed hungry and cold; but his young heart aspired after
a nobler life, and, while yet a boy, he wrote an article for the
press, disclosing the fact not even to his mother, and then, on a dark
night, he dropped it "into a dark letter box, in a dark office, up a
dark court in Fleet street." His joy was too great for utterance when
he saw it in print. It was the beginning of a career as a writer
unparalleled in English or American history. And he told the secret of
it when he wrote, "While other boys played, I read Roderick Random,
Tom Jones, The Vicar of Wakefield, Don Quixote, Gil Bias, and other
books. They kept alive my fancy, and my hope of something beyond that
place and time."
Benjamin heard all that was said, and still kept his secret. It would
not have been strange if his vanity had been inflated by these
complimentary remarks. Ordinary humanity could scarcely be exposed to
so high praise without taking on a new sense of its importance. But
Benjamin kept down his pride, and his heart continued to abide under
his jacket though it beat mightily. Was it any wonder?
Without stopping to narrate details, it is sufficient to say that
Benjamin wrote several articles, and sent them forward to James under
the door; and they were all pronounced good by James and his friends.
He began to think that it was almost time to let out the secret. James
was fairly committed to the excellence of all the articles, and so
were the other critics. This was important to the success of
Benjamin's plan. He had feared, as he had continued industriously to
set up type, that a disclosure would knock all his plans into "pi";
but he had no fears now. But how should he disclose? That was the
question. It was not long, however, before the question was settled.
His brother made some remark about the last article slipped under the
door, and wondered that the author had not become known.
"I know who the author is," said Benjamin under such a degree of
excitement as even an older person would experience on the eve of an
"You know!" exclaimed James in great surprise. "If you know, why have
you not disclosed it before?"
"Because I thought it was not wise. It is not best to tell all we know
"But you have heard us discuss this matter over and over, and take
measures to discover the author, and yet you have never intimated that
you knew any thing about it."
"Well, the author did not wish to be known until the right time came,
and that is a good reason for keeping the matter secret, I think."
"Will you tell who the author is now?" asked James, impatient to
obtain the long-sought information.
"Perhaps I will if you are very anxious to know."
"Of course I am, and every one else who is interested in the paper."
That was the crisis to James. We can scarcely conceive of its interest
to the boy-writer. His time of triumph had come. James had not treated
him very well, and we think he enjoyed that moment of victory a little
more for that reason. That would have been human, and Benjamin was
human. His ruse had proved successful, and his talents, too. Now he
could startle his brother as much as would a thunder-bolt out of a
clear sky. So he answered his inquiry by saying,--
"Benjamin Franklin "; and he said it with emphasis and an air of
If James' countenance could have been photographed at that moment, it
would have shown a mixture of amazement, incredulity, and wonder. It
was several moments before he so far recovered from the shock as to be
able to speak.
"What! Do you mean to say that you wrote those articles?" Benjamin
might have discovered some doubt in James' tone and appearance when he
"Certainly I do."
"But it is not your handwriting."
"It is my handwriting disguised. I wa' n't fool enough to let you have
the articles in my own handwriting without disguise, when I wished to
conceal the authorship."
"What could possibly be your object in doing so?"
"That the articles might be fairly examined. If I had proposed to
write an article for your paper, you would have said that I, a
printer-boy, could write nothing worthy of print."
"But if I had seen and read the articles, knowing them to be yours, I
should have judged them fairly," James insisted, evidently feeling
somewhat hurt by his brother's last remark. Nevertheless, Benjamin was
right. It is probable that his articles would have been rejected, had
he offered them in his own name to the critics.
"Well, that was my plan, and the articles have had a fair show, and I
am satisfied, whether you are or not," was Benjamin's reply in an
Here the conversation dropped. James bestowed no words of commendation
upon his brother's ability. Perhaps he thought that he had praised the
articles enough when he did not know who the author was. But he
appeared to be abstracted in thought until some of the "knot of
liberals" came in.
"I have discovered who 'Silence Dogood' is," he said.
"You have? Who can it be?" and the speaker was very much surprised.
"No one that you have dreamed of."
"Is that so? I am all the more anxious to learn who it is," he
"There he is," replied James, pointing to Benjamin, who was setting
type a little more briskly than usual, as if he was oblivious to what
was going on.
"What! Benjamin? You are joking, surely," replied one.
"Your brother out there!" exclaimed another, pointing to Benjamin;
"you do not mean it!"
"Yes, I do mean it. He is the author, and he has satisfied me that he
is. You can see for yourselves."
The "knot of liberals" was never so amazed, and now they all turned to
Benjamin, and he had to speak for himself. They were not entirely
satisfied that there was not some mistake or deception about the
matter. But he found little difficulty in convincing them that he was
the real author of the communications, whereupon they lavished their
commendations upon him to such an extent as to make it perilous to one
having much vanity in his heart.
From that time Benjamin was a favorite with the literary visitors at
the office. They showed him much more attention than they did James,
and said so much in his praise, as a youth of unusual promise, that
James became jealous and irritable. He was naturally passionate and
tyrannical, and this sudden and unexpected exaltation of Benjamin
developed his overbearing spirit. He found more fault with him, and
became very unreasonable in his treatment. Probably he had never
dreamed that Benjamin possessed more talents than other boys of his
age. Nor did he care, so long as his brother was an apprentice, and he
could rule over him as a master. He did not appear to regard the
blood-relationship between them, but only that of master and
apprentice. In other words, he was a poor specimen of a brother, and
we shall learn more about him in the sequel.
In his "Autobiography," Franklin tells the story of his ruse as
"James had some ingenious men among his friends, who amused themselves
by writing little pieces for this paper, which gained it credit, and
made it more in demand, and these gentlemen often visited us. Hearing
their conversations, and their accounts of the approbation their
papers were received with, I was excited to try my hand among them.
But, being 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
contrived to disguise my hand, and, writing an anonymous paper, I put
it at night under the door of the printing house. It was found in the
morning, and communicated to his writing friends, when they called 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. I suppose that I
was rather lucky in my judges, and that they were not really so very
good as I then believed them to be. Encouraged, however, by this
attempt, I wrote and sent in the same way to the press several other
pieces, that were equally approved; and I kept my secret till all my
fund of sense for such performances was exhausted, and then discovered
it, when I began to be considered a little more by my brother's
The foregoing was one of the incidents of Benjamin's boyhood that
decided his future eminent career. It was a good thing to bring out
his talents as a writer thus early, and it introduced him to an
exercise that was of the first importance in the improvement of his
mind. From the time he wrote the first article for the Courant, he
did not cease to write for the public. Probably no other American boy
began his public career so early--sixteen. He had written much before,
but it was not for the press. It was done for self-improvement, and
not for the public eye. The newspaper opened a new and unexpected
channel of communication with the public that was well suited to
awaken his deepest interest and inspire his noblest efforts.
"However, that did not quite please him, as he thought it tended to
make me too vain. This might be one occasion of the differences we
began to have about this time. Though a brother he considered himself
as my master, and me as his apprentice, and accordingly expected the
same services from me as he would from another, while I thought he
degraded me too much in some he required of me, who from a brother
expected more indulgence."
The incident reminds us of Canning's Microcosm. He, the great
English statesman, was scarcely as old as Benjamin when he established
a boy's periodical in the school at Eton, whither he was sent. It was
christened Microcosm, which means, literally, "the little world." It
was a weekly publication issued from Windsor. It was conducted "after
the plan of the Spectator"--a work that was of immense value to
Benjamin, as we shall see,--"the design being to treat the
characteristics of the boys at Eton as Addison and his friends had
done those of general society." In this paper several members of the
school figured with credit to themselves, though no one was more
prominent and capable than Canning.
It became one of the prominent influences that decided his future
course, as he always affirmed, developing his talents, and stimulating
his mind to labor in this honorable way. It also exerted a decided
influence upon the character of another boy, named Frere, who
afterwards shone as a writer on the pages of the Anti-Jacobin.
Examples of industry, enterprise, despatch, promptness, punctuality,
and circumspection are inspiring to both old and young; and nowhere do
these noble qualities appear to better advantage than they do where
busy brains and hands make the newspaper in the printing office. It is
a remarkably useful school. It was so when Benjamin was a boy. It was
a far better school for him than that of Williams or Brownwell. Here
he laid the foundation of his learning and fame. The same was true of
Horace Greeley, who founded the New York Tribune, and of Henry J.
Raymond, who made the Times what it is. The late Vice-President
Schuyler Colfax was schooled in a printing office for his honorable
public career; and the same was true of other distinguished statesmen.
But none of these examples are so remarkable as the following, that
was made possible by Benjamin Franklin's example.
A waif two years of age was taken from a benevolent institution in
Boston, and given to a childless sailor, on his way from a voyage to
his home in Maine on the Penobscot River. The sailor knew not from
what institution the child was taken, nor whence he came. He carried
it home, without a name, or the least clue to his ancestry. The
sailor's wife was a Christian woman, and had prayed for just such a
gift as that. She resolved to train him for the Lord. At twelve years
of age he became a Christian, and, from that time, longed to be a
minister. But poverty stood in his way, and there was little prospect
of his hopes being realized.
At length, however, he read the life of Benjamin Franklin; and he
learned how the printing office introduced him into a noble life-work.
"I will go through the printing office into the ministry," he said to
his adopted mother. So, at fifteen, he became a printer in Boston.
After a while, his health broke down, and the way to regain it seemed
to be through service to a wealthy man on his farm in the country.
There his health was restored, and his benevolent employer got him
into Andover Academy, where he led the whole class. Near the close of
his preparatory course, on a Saturday night, the author met him under
the following circumstances:
He was then nineteen years of age. On that day he had learned from
what institution he was taken, and, going thither, he ascertained that
he had a sister three years older than himself, living thirty miles
north of Boston. It was the first knowledge he had received about any
of his relatives. He was ten years old when his adopted parents
informed him that he was taken, a waif, from an institution in Boston.
From that time he was curious to find the institution and learn
something of his ancestry. He was too young, when he was taken away,
to remember that he had a sister. But on that day he learned the fact;
and he took the first train to meet her. The author took the train,
also, to spend the Sabbath with the minister who reared the sister. We
met in the same family. What a meeting of brother and sister! The
latter had mourned, through all these years, that she knew not what
had become of her baby-brother, whom she well remembered and loved;
but here he was, nineteen years of age, a manly, noble, Christian
young man! Could she believe her eyes? Could we, who were lookers on,
think it real? We received the story of his life from his own lips.
He was the best scholar in his class through academy, college, and
theological seminary, and is now an able and useful minister of the
Gospel, indebted TO THE EXAMPLE AND EXPERIENCE OF BENJAMIN FRANKLIN IN
THE PRINTING OFFICE FOR WHAT HE IS!