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This is the only surviving copy of the issue of The New England Courant that contains Benjamin Franklin's earliest known writing. Franklin (1706-1790) was born on Milk Street in Boston, the youngest son of a tallow chandler and soap boiler. He worked for five years as a printer's apprentice and putative publisher in the shop of his brother, James Franklin. The Courant, Boston's third newspaper, was founded by Benjamin's brother James Franklin (1697-1735) in 1721. From its beginning it was a controversial publication. "The paper's lively, combative essays and verses," the editors of Benjamin Franklin's papers have observed, "were soon directed also against the clergy, the magistrates, the postmaster, Harvard College, men of wealth and property—in short, against the whole Massachusetts Establishment."1
Although Benjamin Franklin had less than two years of formal education when he was apprenticed to his brother's printing shop in 1718, according to the Autobiography, he "was anxious to try his hand" as an author. In order to avoid the laughter of the "Couranteers"—as his brother and the other contributors styled themselves — Franklin submitted his first essays by sliding them under the door, using the pseudonym "Silence Dogood." There was more than a little of Benjamin Franklin's life in the description that "Mrs. Dogood" gave of herself. Like much of the writing in the Courant, the fourteen Dogood letters owed their ironic style to Joseph Addison's Spectator.
At the same time that he embarked on his literary career, young Benjamin Franklin and his brother's anti-establishment newspaper became enmeshed in an early freedom-of-the-press controversy that elevated the teenaged apprentice's rank. When James Franklin was fined, jailed, and forbidden to publish for libeling the Massachusetts colonial government, he named his sixteen-year-old brother Benjamin as publisher and continued the paper as before.2
The satirical columns in the Courant antagonized the Mathers, Increase and Cotton, the preeminent clergymen and scientists of colonial Boston, by attacking smallpox inoculation. Cotton Mather and his son Samuel, a recent Harvard graduate the same age as Benjamin Franklin, replied by describing the "Couranteers" as "the Hellfire Club." Judge Samuel Sewall, a political ally of the Mather party, was reminded of his unhappy role in the witchcraft hysteria of the 1690s (see no. 26), in a slashing literary attack that has been credited to Benjamin Franklin. To avoid censorship, the Courant appeared under Benjamin Franklin's name even after he abandoned his brother for Philadelphia and so continued until the paper failed and James Franklin left Boston for Newport in 1727.3
1. Leonard Labaree and William B. Willcox, eds. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin. 27 vols. New Haven. 1959, 1:8.
2.The New England Courant: A Selection of Certain Issues Containing Writings of Benjamin Franklin. Boston, 1956, pp. 6-7.
3. Worthington C. Ford. "Franklin's New England Courant." Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 57. 1923-1924, pp. 336-353.