Ben Franklin, printer

Benjamin Franklin could have legitimately called himself many things – scientist, entrepreneur, philosopher, diplomat, inventor, businessman, etc.

He chose to call himself a printer.

There was, no doubt, an affectation to choosing this humble title, but there was also a sincerity to it. Franklin practiced printing; he was innovative and made money at it. But he also believed in it.

With the help of several excellent biographies, the nation has been re-educating itself about Benjamin Franklin over the past couple of years. Along with those biographies, we now have an excellent three-part series produced by the Public Broadcasting System. And, as usual with just about every PBS program, there is an excellent web site with an enormous amount of information and resources that make getting to know Ben Franklin a fun experience.

It is difficult to comprehend just how remarkable Franklin was. As with William Shakespeare’s influence on the English language, Franklin’s influence on civic life and civic culture is amazing. Here are just a few of the ideas he originated: the lending library, street lamps, street cleaning, volunteer fire brigades, an efficiently run post office, daylight savings time, public hospitals, lightning rods, mutual insurance companies. The list goes on.

And this does not take into account the reasons we are most likely to know of Benjamin Franklin: his work to secure American independence. Nor does it recognize much of his work as a scientist and inventor.

And it does not account for his celebrity. By the 1780s he was probably the most famous man in the western world.

Yet, with all of these accomplishments, Franklin called himself, first and foremost, a printer.

One of his most eloquent pieces of writing is his Apology for Printers, which he wrote in 1731. Franklin was defending himself against criticism that printers had a duty to prevent ideas with which they disagreed from making it into print. Franklin’s vigorous defense of himself in a particular instance of his early business career turned into an eloquent statement of the value of the free exchange of ideas. It includes this often-quoted passage (included here with original spellings):

Printers are educated in the Belief, that when Men differ in Opinion, both Sides ought equally to have the Advantage of being heard by the Publick; and that when Truth and Error have fair Play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter: Hence they chearfully serve all contending Writers that pay them well, without regarding on which side they are of the Question in Dispute.

The entire apology is worth your students time and would make for a good class discussion in this age of super-partisanship.
Jim Stovall (Posted Aug. 30, 2005)

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About Jim Stovall

Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.

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