Object of the Month

“These Words deserve to be written in Letters of Gold . . . .” Boston printer James Franklin argues for the right to a trial by his peers, but apparently not for the protection of intellectual property.

Sir, I Have often reflected in Wonder...

"Sir, I Have often reflected in Wonder..."

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  • In the 23-30 July 1722 issue of the New-England Courant, James Franklin cited Chapter XXIX of Magna Carta (often spelled "Charta" in early documents) to demonstrate that he should not have been imprisoned by the magistrates of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, "but by lawful Judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land . . . ."

    These Words [he continued] deserve to be written in Letters of Gold, and I have often wondred that they are not inscribed in Capitals on all our Courts of Judicature, Town-halls, and most publick Edifices; they being so Essential to our English Freedom and Liberties . . .

    In fact, these eloquent lines were not by James Franklin, but by Henry Care, a seventeenth—century advocate of personal liberty.

    James Franklin's New-England Courant

    James Franklin was born in 1697, a son of Josiah Franklin, an English silk dyer who immigrated to Boston in 1683, where he became a tallow chandler and soap maker. Both James and his famous younger brother Benjamin (b. 1706) were children of their father's second marriage to Abiah Folger, the mother of nine of the sixteen Franklin children. As a teenager, James Franklin went to London where he became a printer and returned to Boston in 1717, where he printed the town’s second newspaper, the Boston Gazette, and took on his twelve-year-old brother, Benjamin, as an apprentice. In the summer of 1721, James started his own newspaper (Boston’s third) the New-England Courant. The Courant was something new in America, a lively, humorous journal that published satirical attacks on Boston’s political and religious establishment. In old age, Benjamin Franklin would look back with considerable fondness, and humor on his teenage years in Boston, but in the early 1720s, his brother James and the contributors to his newspaper —the "Couranteers"—were locked in a bitter struggle with the Boston establishment over religion, politics, free speech, and smallpox inoculation.

    The Franklin brothers and the pirates

    In the 4-11 June 1722 issue of the Courant, Benjamin Franklin, writing as Silence Dogood, the outspoken and comical widow of a New England minister who had first appeared in the Courant two months earlier, contributed an essay on "Pride" (read all the "Silence Dogood" essays). The same issue also contained an offhand and veiled criticism of the lackadaisical response of colonial authorities to a threat from pirates who were ravaging the coast of New England: "We are advis'd from Boston, that the government of the Massachusetts are fitting out a Ship to go after the Pirates, to be commanded by Capt. Peter Papillon, and "tis thought he will sail some time this Month, if Wind and Weather permit." The colonial government failed to catch the pirates, but jailed James Franklin for contempt, leaving the Courant in the hands of his teenage apprentice, Benjamin.

    An able apprentice argues for freedom of speech

    In the 2-9 July 1722 issue of the Courant, only two days after James Franklin had been released from a month in jail, "Silence Dogood," quoting at length from Cato's Letters, made a ringing defense of freedom of speech: "Without Freedom of Thought, there can be no such Thing as Wisdom; and no such Thing as publick Liberty, without Freedom of Speech; which is the Right of every Man . . . ." While James Franklin apologized for his actions in the following issue, his younger brother (at least as he later described his actions in his Autobiography) "made bold to give our Rulers some Rubs in it."

    Plagiarism—in a good cause

    In the 23-30 July 1722 issue of the Courant James Franklin made his own powerful argument against what he saw as his unjust imprisonment and his right to a trial by a jury, essentially devoting the entire issue of the weekly paper (a single sheet, printed on both sides) to his cause:

    I HAVE often reflected with Wonder on the Stupidity of many of my Countrymen, who know little or nothing of the happy Constitution of an English Government, and who are as unconcern'd to know the Liberties they enjoy thereby, as if it were a thing indifferent with them, whether they were protected by it, or other-wise___________.

    He went on to quote Chapter XXIX of Magna Carta in its entirety (this is the text of the 1297 reissue of Magna Carta rather than the articles agreed upon in 1215), describing the chapter as words that "deserve to written in Letters of Gold."

    Except for the first paragraph of the long essay that fills almost the entire issue of the Courant, the text, whether or not another author is cited, is by someone other than Franklin. Most of the essay is credited to Edward Coke's "excellent Observations on this Chapter" from his Institutes of the Lawes of England, but Franklin had copied Coke's notes, and even the introduction to them--"No Freeman shall be taken, etc."--not from Coke, but from a book by Henry Care that Franklin had republished the year before, English Liberties, Or The Free-born Subject's Inheritance; Containing Magna Charta . . . . The Fifth Edition. Care's English Liberties, first published in 1682, was an influential compilation of documents and laws concerning liberty and the rights of the individual. Franklin closed his essay with another long quotation, not from Henry Care but from the 1692 Massachusetts Bay Charter, granting the General Court (the colonial legislature) the power and authority to establish a system of courts where all manner of cases would be tried, and an excerpt from a letter written by a member of the legislature whether there were precedents for the actions taken against Franklin and--if so--whether they should be followed in Massachusetts.

    Ironically, in an issue of the Courant almost entirely devoted to personal liberty, there is a brief advertisement at the foot of the second page—in type that may have been set by Benjamin Franklin, a future president of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery--for "A likely Negro Woman to be Sold."

    The end of an apprenticeship and of the New-England Courant

    The struggle between James Franklin and the Massachusetts establishment played out over the following four years. Benjamin Franklin stood by James until the summer of 1723, and then ran away to New York and then Philadelphia. He later claimed that the parting was over his brother’s abusive behavior, but that he might have been too "saucy and provoking." At seventeen, Benjamin probably had learned all that twenty-six-year-old James could teach him.

    James Franklin received one last service from his apprentice. When, early in 1723, the "Oppressors and Bigots" of the Massachusetts General Court forbade him to print or publish without "supervision" (prior censorship), James went into hiding and transferred the title of publisher of the Courant to Benjamin. Even when the younger Franklin absconded, the newspaper continued to appear under his name until, after 255 issues, still "Printed and sold by Benjamin Franklin," it finally ceased publication in the spring of 1726. James Franklin moved his printing business to Newport, Rhode Island, where he opened the first press in that colony and founded yet another newspaper, the Rhode-Island Gazette. After his death, his wife, daughters, and son continued the family business until 1763.

    Magna Carta: Cornerstone of Liberty: an exhibition

    The Lincoln Cathedral exemplar of Magna Carta, one of only four surviving copies of the "Great Charter" sealed by King John on 15 June 1215, is on display at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston until 1 September 2014. To celebrate the occasion, the Massachusetts Historical Society has loaned the Museum of Fine Arts some of the greatest treasures from its collection, documents that show the influence of Magna Carta on the writing of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. and Massachusetts constitutions. To complement this exhibition, the Historical Society has on display in its own building materials that show the role of Magna Carta in the Liberty affair. In 1768, when customs agents in Boston accused John Hancock of smuggling and seized his sloop, the Liberty, John Adams defended him in admiralty court. Adams argued that Hancock had the right to a trial by a jury of his peers (Chapter XXIX of Magna Carta, just as James Franklin had argued 46 years before), a right that could be traced back to 1215.

    The exhibition of the Lincoln Cathedral copy of Magna Carta continues at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, from 6 September until 2 November 2014; the accompanying Massachusetts Historical Society exhibition continues through 6 October 2014. The display at the MHS is open to the public without charge, Monday-Saturday from 10:00 AM-4:00 PM.

    Further reading

    Annotated Newspapers of Harbottle Dorr, Jr.

    As an appendix to Volume 2 of his newspaper collection, Dorr transcribed sections of the Magna Charta directly from Henry Care's 1721 edition of English Liberties, or the Free-born Subject's Inheritance; Containing Magna Charta, Charta de Foresta, the Statute De Tallagio non Concedendo, The Habeas Corpus Act, and Several other Statutes; with Comments on each of them . . . . The Fifth Edition.

    Care, Henry. English Liberties, or the Free-born Subject's Inheritance; Containing Magna Charta, Charta de Foresta, the Statute De Tallagio non Concedendo, The Habeas Corpus Act, and Several other Statutes; with Comments on each of them . . . . The Fifth Edition. Boston: Printed by J. Franklin for N. Buttolph, B. Eliot, and D. Henchman, and sold at their shops, 1721.

    Clark, Charles E. "James Franklin." In Boston Printers, Publishers, and Booksellers, 1640-1800. Ed. by Benjamin Franklin V. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981, 193-195.

    Ford, Worthington. "Franklin's New England Courant." Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Vol. 57 (April 1924). Boston: Printed for the Society, 1924, 336-353.

    Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964.

    Lemay, J. A. Leo. The Life of Benjamin Franklin. Vol. 1. Journalist, 1706-1730. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.

    Levy, Leonard W. Emergence of a Free Press. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

    New-England Courant. Boston: J. Franklin, 23-30 July 1722.


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