Benjamin Franklin is perhaps one of the most celebrated and interesting figures in all of American history. From his part in the writing of the Declaration of Independence, to his work in the field of oceanography; Benjamin Franklin was a true American renaissance man. However, what is often forgotten by the laymen history buff is Franklin’s role in printing and media. Benjamin Franklin from a young age was involved in the world of printing presses and typesets. Originally, he began his studies as a printer apprenticing for his older brother in Boston, but eventually he set out on his own and opened his own printing shop in Philadelphia.
Franklin’s printing preferences primarily revolved around his newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette. However, like most printers in the 18th century he also dabbled in a plethora of other printing jobs. According to Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, the budding entrepreneur also had a hand in printing money for the Pennsylvania government. This interesting episode in Benjamin Franklin’s early life is not only quite intriguing for Franklinites, but it also reveals a great deal about media and communications in the late colonial period. Within the autobiography Franklin explains that soon after he opened his printing business, the people of Pennsylvania petitioned the provincial government for more paper money. Franklin, after some deliberation with his friends, decided that he was not only of like mind with the petitioners, but that he wanted to play an active role in convincing the provincial government to satiate the populace. Therefore, Franklin utilized his printing press to print and distribute a pamphlet he had written (anonymously) entitled, “The Nature and Necessity of a Paper Currency”, that argued in favor of printing more currency. Despite this pamphlet causing some annoyance and frustration with the richer individuals of the state (they believed printing more money would cause it to depreciate), Franklin’s piece was very popular amongst the populace and helped lead to victory in the Pennsylvania legislative body. (1)
This short anecdote of Franklin’s early life is very thought-provoking in regards to the history of media and communications for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it is of interest because the power that Franklin’s pamphlet had over the public is very telling of the importance that the printed word had in early American history. It is mentioned within the autobiography that the rich who were against printing more paper money were distinctly frustrated with Franklin’s pamphlet, but to their dismay were powerless to counter him as they had no printers to do their bidding. This showcases how valuable printers could be within politics as mouth pieces for involved parties. If the rich had a printer at their disposal to combat Franklin’s publications, the entire affair could have become a long drawn out printing war that may very well have ended in Franklin’s defeat. However, as Franklin explains in his writings, Philadelphia at the time only had two printing shops (Franklin’s and Bradford’s) and thus a considerable amount of agency was bestowed upon the printers as they alone were able to wield the power of the printing press for whatever agenda they saw fit. Overall this passage within Franklin’s autobiography is intriguing as it exemplifies how important and influential printers could be in early colonial society.
This episode of Benjamin Franklin’s life is also fascinating as it showcases the “minor” role that printers had in the economics of the early American world. Franklin explains towards the end of the short passage that due to his pro-currency pamphlet the provincial government ultimately decided to have his print shop create the paper currency. This assignment proved financially lucrative for Franklin and it also reflects the function that printers had in regional economics. Since the Pennsylvanian government contracted out the printing of the currency to Franklin’s private business, it linked the world of printing (media and communication) with the world of economics and provincial finance. This showcases that printers didn’t just have significant power in the political realm, but also in economics as they were often the individuals printing the official colonial currency.
By and large, after reading Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography and analyzing the aforementioned passage, I am left with some larger questions about not only the Renaissance man himself, but also about media and communications during the period in general. Firstly, I think it would be interesting to ascertain what other jobs Franklin was “contracted” to do for other people and whether or not this was a common practice among printers in British North America. I think it would also be intriguing to discern whether or not Benjamin Franklin was connected with other printing shops and printers in other major cities in the colonies, particularly Boston. After reading about the profit Franklin had made on “winning” the right to print the Pennsylvanian currency, I would also like to know exactly how much money Franklin was able to make as a printer and if this was the norm for all colonial printers. Finally, I would be curious to find out how politically involved Franklin was during his early life and how it helped in the popularity and evolution of his own newspaper.
(1): All of the information mentioned in this paragraph was obtained via Benjamin Franklin’s digitized autobiography, specifically part 7.