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From Boyhood to Manhood|
XVI. The Boy Editor
by Thayer, William M.
|For six months the Courant continued its attacks upon the
government, after the editor came out of prison. It took up also, the
inconsistencies of church members, and discussed them with great
plainness. But the number of the paper for Jan. 14, 1723, was too much
for aristocratic flesh and blood, and almost too much for blood that
was not aristocratic. The Council was incensed, and adopted the
"IN COUNCIL, Jan. 14, 1723.
The House of Representatives concurred in the measure, and it was
rushed through, as measures are likely to be when the dander of
legislators is up, and the committee reported as follows:
"WHEREAS, The paper, called The New England Courant of this day's
date, contains many passages in which the Holy Scriptures are
perverted, and the Civil Government, Ministers, and People of the
Province highly reflected on,
"Ordered, That William Tailer, Samuel Sewell, and Penn Townsend,
Esqrs., with such as the Honorable House of Representatives shall
join, be a committee to consider and report what is proper for the
Court to do thereon."
"That James Franklin, the printer and publisher thereof, be strictly
forbidden by the Court to print or publish The New England Courant,
or any other pamphlet or paper of the like nature, except that it is
first supervised by the Secretary of the Province; and the Justices of
His Majesty's Sessions of the Peace for the County of Suffolk, at
their next adjournment, be directed to take sufficient bonds of the
said Franklin for twelve months' time."
As soon as the Council took this action, the Courant club was called
together, and the whole matter canvassed.
"The next thing will be an order that no one of us shall have a pair
of breeches without permission from the Secretary of the Province,"
remarked one, sarcastically. "The Secretary has not brains enough to
pass judgment upon some of our articles, and he is too English to
judge rightly of New England necessities."
"We should appear smart, tugging our articles over to the Secretary
each week for his permission to print them," suggested James. "I shall
never do it as long as my name is James Franklin."
"Nor I," added one of the club.
"Nor I," another.
"Nor I," another still.
There was but one mind in the company; and all were disposed to fight
it out on the line of freedom of the press.
"But, do you notice," added one of the club, "that no one but James
Franklin is forbidden to publish the Courant? Some other person can
"Sure enough, that is so," responded James, "and here is our way out
of the difficulty."
"Of course you can not publish it yourself," addressing James, "in
defiance of this order of the Council."
"Of course not; but Benjamin Franklin can do it, as he is not
forbidden. How would that do?"
"That can not be done, because he is only an apprentice," suggested a
former speaker. "They can prove that he is your apprentice readily."
"Well, I can meet that difficulty without any trouble," said James,
who was intent upon evading the order of the Court.
"Pray, tell us how? By changing the name of the paper?"
"Not by any means. Now is not the time to part with a name that the
magistrates and ministers are so much in love with."
"How, then, can you meet the difficulty?"
"Well, I can return his indenture, with his discharge upon the back of
it, and he can show it in case of necessity. At the same time he can
sign a new indenture that will be kept a secret."
"Capital!" exclaimed one; "I never thought of that. The measure is a
practical one, and I move that we reduce it to practice at once."
"I support it with all my heart, not only as practical, but
ingenious," added another. "It is honorable to meet the tyranny of the
Council with an innocent subterfuge like that."
All agreed to the plan, and adopted it enthusiastically.
"Benjamin Franklin, Editor of the Courant," exclaimed a member of
the club, rising from his seat and patting Benjamin on the shoulder.
"Don't that sound well, my boy? Rather a young fellow to have in
charge such an enterprise, but a match, I guess, for the General Court
of the Province."
"The youngest editor, proprietor, and publisher of a paper in the
whole land, no doubt," suggested another. "But it is as true here as
it is in other things, 'Old men for counsel, young men for war.' We
are at war now, and we do not want an editor who will cry peace, when
there is no peace."
"A free man, too," suggested another facetiously, "an apprentice no
longer, to be knocked about and treated as an underling. At the top,
with the laurels of manhood on the brow of sixteen!"
Benjamin had not spoken, but he had listened. Affairs had taken an
unexpected turn. In the morning he had no idea of becoming
editor-in-chief of the paper that made more stir in Boston than the
other two combined. The promotion rather startled him. Not that he
shrank from the responsibility; for he had no hesitation in assuming
that; but the promotion was wholly unexpected. The honors came upon
him suddenly, in a way he never dreamed of. It is not strange that he
was somewhat dumbfounded, though not confounded. He maintained
silence, because, in the circumstances, he could say nothing better
The plan of James having been adopted, all hastened to carry out the
details. Benjamin received his indenture, with the endorsement that
constituted him a free man, and he was announced as the publisher of
the Courant, and as such his name appeared upon the paper, also as
In the next issue James inserted the following in the Courant:
"The late publisher of this paper, finding so many inconveniences
would arise, by his carrying the manuscripts and the public news to be
supervised by the Secretary, as to render his carrying it on
unprofitable, has entirely dropped the undertaking."
Benjamin inserted an amusing salutatory, as if the Courant was
appearing before the public for the first time. It was as follows:
"Long has the press groaned in bringing forth a hateful brood of
pamphlets, malicious scribbles, and billingsgate ribaldry. No generous
and impartial person then can blame the present undertaking, which is
designed purely for the diversion and merriment of the reader. Pieces
of pleasantry and mirth have a secret charm in them to allay the heats
and tumults of our spirits, and to make a man forget his restless
resentment. The main design of this weekly paper will be to entertain
the town with the most comical and diverting incidents of human life,
which, in so large a place as Boston, will not fail of a universal
exemplification. Nor shall we be wanting to fill up these papers with
a grateful interspersion of more serious words, which may be drawn
from the most ludicrous and odd parts of life."
Pretty good for a boy of sixteen! Good sense, tact, humor, and
rhetoric combined in one brief paragraph! Not only the youngest editor
in 1723, but the youngest editor of a city paper from that day to
this, so far as we know. On the fact hangs a tale of the wonderful
powers of a boy who can occupy such a place, and fill it.
We have said that the Courant of Jan. 14, 1723, was filled with
matter that exasperated officials of the Province. The reader will
want to know what some of those utterances were. We will copy a few:
"Religion is indeed the principal thing, but too much of it is worse
than none at all. The world abounds with knaves and villains; but, of
all knaves, the religious knave is the worst, and villainies acted
under the cloak of religion the most execrable. Moral honesty, though
it will not itself carry a man to heaven, yet I am sure there is no
going thither without it."
It is not questioned that Benjamin wrote these paragraphs, among
others; and for keen satire they are very remarkable as the
composition of a boy of sixteen. At the present day they would be
regarded as quaint, able and truthful, without awakening opposition.
But, in 1723, no doubt there were tender consciences among the
official sycophants of the English Government, that made a just
application of these cutting words, so as to become exasperated and
bitter. Hence, their tyrannical and unjustifiable legislation.
"But are there such men as these in thee, O New England? Heaven forbid
there should be any; but, alas, it is to be feared the number is not
small. 'Give me an honest man,' say some, 'for all a religious
man'; a distinction which I confess I never heard of before. The
whole country suffers for the villainies of a few such wolves in
sheep's clothing, and we are all represented as a pack of knaves and
hypocrites for their sakes."
"In old Time it was no disrespect for Men and Women to be called by
their own Names. Adam was never called Master Adam; we never heard
of Noah, Esquire, Lot, Knight and Baronet, nor the Right
Honorable Abraham, Viscount Mesopotamia, Baron of Canaan. No, no;
they were plain Men, honest Country Graziers, that took care of their
Families and their Flocks. Moses was a great Prophet, and Aaron a
priest of the Lord; but we never read of the Reverend Moses, nor the
Right Reverend Father in God, Aaron, by Divine Providence, Lord
Arch-Bishop of Israel. Thou never sawest Madam Rebecca in the
Bible, My Lady Rachel, nor Mary, tho' a Princess of the Blood
after the death of Joseph, called the Princess Dowager of
Nazareth. No; plain Rebecca, Rachel, Mary, or the Widow Mary, or
the like. It was no Incivility then to mention their naked Names as
they were expressed.
"Yet, one of our Club will undertake to prove, that tho' Abraham was
not styled Right Honorable, yet he had the Title of Lord given him
by his Wife Sarah, which he thinks entitles her to the Honour of My
Lady Sarah; and Rachel, being married into the same Family, he
concludes that she may deserve the Title of My Lady Rachel. But this
is but the Opinion of one Man; it was never put to vote in the
"On the whole, Friend James, we may conclude, that the
Anti-Couranteers [opponents of the Courant] are a sort of
Precisians, who, mistaking Religion for the peculiar Whims of their
own distemp'rd Brain, are for cutting or stretching all Men to their
own Standard of Thinking. I wish Mr. Symmes' Character may secure him
from the Woes and Curses they are so free of dispensing among their
dissenting neighbours, who are so unfortunate as to discover a
Cheerfulness becoming Christianity."
Mr. Parton mentions a fact that should be noted here: "Until the
Revolution, the business of publishing newspapers in America was
carried on almost exclusively by postmasters. Newspapers went free of
postage in the colonies as late as 1758. Until that time, the
postmasters had not only the privilege of sending papers through the
mail free, but the still more valuable right of excluding from the
mail papers published by others. Accordingly, we find that nearly all
the pioneers of the press, in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, were
postmasters. When a postmaster lost his office he generally sold out
his newspaper, and a new postmaster soon bought or established one.
John Campbell, however, feeling himself aggrieved by his removal, did
not dispose of the News-letter [first paper in this country]; which
induced his successor, William Brocker, to set up a paper of his own,
the Boston Gazette, which appeared in December, 1719. Mr. Brocker
expressly says, in his prospectus, that he started the new paper at
the request of several merchants, and others, who 'have been
prevented from having their newspaper sent them by the post, ever
since Mr. Campbell was removed from being postmaster.'" [*]
[* Vol. i, p. 78.]
It is a significant fact that, in 1758, newspapers ceased to be
carried free in the mails, and a charge of ninepence a year for each
fifty miles of carriage was assessed; and our Benjamin brought about
the change. He was then known as Deputy Postmaster General, and made
the change in the interest of the public welfare. We think that, at
the time, he must have recalled his tussle with the General Court,
when, at sixteen, he edited the Courant.
Benjamin continued in his brother's printing office eight months after
the occurrence just narrated, editor and publisher of the Courant.
His brother never run the paper again in his own name, and,
subsequently, he removed to Newport, R.I., where he established the
Rhode Island Gazette in 1732.
Benjamin kept up his running fire against the truckling
representatives of the British government, including ministers who
were not outspoken against oppression and the censorship of the press.
The blade of his satire became brighter and keener, and the
circulation of the paper increased largely, showing that the portion
of the population having the true American spirit, were in sympathy
with the purpose of the paper. Mr. Sparks says of it:
"It touched with great freedom the vices and follies of the time. The
weapon of satire was used with an unsparing hand. Neither the
government nor the clergy escaped. Much caution was practised,
however, in regard to individuals, and names were seldom introduced.
There are some severe and humorous criticisms on the poets of the day,
which may be classed with the best specimens of this kind of
composition in the modern reviews. The humor sometimes degenerates
into coarseness, and the phraseology is often harsh; but, bating these
faults, the paper contains nothing, which in later times would have
been deemed reprehensible."
This is a fair and just estimate of the affair. Probably officials saw
their mistake, and concluded not to repeat it; for Benjamin was not
molested in his business, though he continued to be as saucy and
sarcastic as ever. From that day freedom of the press was assured in
Of the action of the General Court, imprisoning James Franklin, Mr.
Sparks says: "He was sentenced by a vote of the Assembly, without any
specification of offensive passages, or any trial before a court of
justice. This was probably the first transaction, in the American
Colonies, relating to the freedom of the press; and it is not less
remarkable for the assumption of power on the part of the legislature,
than for their disregard of the first principles and established forms
This narrative of Benjamin's connection with the printing office, at
the time a new paper was to be established, shows that the
circumstances called out a certain kind of talent he possessed, and
thus helped to make him what he became. Success depends in a great
measure on early directing the young in the path to which their
natural endowments point. Square men should be put into square holes,
and round men into round holes. Many careers are spoiled by reversing
this law of nature, getting square men into round holes, and round men
into square holes. A good mechanic has often been spoiled to make an
indifferent clergyman or merchant, and a good minister has been
spoiled to make a commonplace artisan. Overlooking the "natural bent,"
the youth has selected an occupation (or his father for him) for which
he has no special aptitude, and he brings little to pass.
Benjamin was a square youth, and he got into a square hole, which he
just fitted. He was not there by his own election; he was there by the
lead of Providence, and he cheerfully acquiesced. Becoming the right
boy in the right place, he grew into stalwart manhood and a useful
life, as naturally as the sapling on congenial soil grows into the
thrifty, fruit-bearing tree.
In the second chapter we spoke of Boston, in the infancy of Benjamin,
as a place where bears were plenty, and other wild animals roamed. The
Courant contained the following paragraph, about the time of its
contest with the Court, and we copy it as a fitting close to this
"It is thought that not less than twenty Bears have been killed in
about a week's time within two miles of Boston. Two have been killed
below the Castle, as they were swimming from one island to another,
and one attempted to board a boat out in the bay, but the men defended
themselves so well with the boat-hook and oars, that they put out her
eyes, and then killed her. On Tuesday last two were killed at
Dorchester, one of which weighed sixty pounds a quarter. We hear from
Providence that the bears appear to be very thick in those parts."