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Benjamin Franklin's Printing Network: Disseminating Virtue in Early America
University of Missouri, 2006
312 pp., $55.00
Allen C. Guelzo
At the outbreak of the Revolution, no American name was better known than Benjamin Franklin's. The remarkable thing is that, three hundred years after Franklin's birth, this is still very close to being true. Although George Washington and Thomas Jefferson have, since 1776, nudged Franklin to the side of America's 18th-century pedestal, they have not pushed him off. Not by any means. Washington is still respected, but respected only in the studied way one acknowledges the noblest of the noble Romans; Jefferson is still the wizard of revolutionary words, but his gangly nerdiness and gigantic moral lapses have also reduced our affection for him to politeness. Franklin, however, is loved in the bubbly and uninhibited manner one loves a rascally and doting favorite uncle. In my own city of Philadelphia, Franklin easily eclipses the city's earnest and pious founder, William Penn (to the point where the statue of Penn atop City Hall is frequently mis-identified as Franklin), even though Franklin was born in Boston, had precious little in the way of piety, and actually spent most of his life after 1764 in London and Paris rather than Philadelphia.
Not that this is undeserved. Franklin arrived in Philadelphia in 1723 as a penniless printer's apprentice—or, more accurately, as a fugitive from an apprenticeship agreement with his older brother—and rose to an unprecedented level of wealth and celebrity when rising beyond one's class was still considered an abnormality in nature. He established what became the best-read newspaper in British North America (the Pennsylvania Gazette), dominated the almanac market (which was no small market in an overwhelmingly agricultural society) with his hilariously irreverent Poor Richard's Almanac, and by 1748 was able to retire from active management of his printing business and turn his attention to the two subjects which most interested him: establishing his social credentials as an English gentleman, and gaining a foothold in the ...