The Pseudonyms of Ben Franklin
The Puritans assured the Massachusetts Bay Colony of homogeneity by insisting everyone received a public education to learn to read the Bible. Ben did not adapt well to the rigors of the nation's first public school, The Boston Latin School. He was obviously smart enough to pass the entrance exam, but his lack of discipline may well have been his downfall. Ben’s rigid Puritan father covered up this failure by claiming the family needed to invest the tuition elsewhere. Because of another false start at schooling, Ben was self-taught.
The New England Courant was the Colonies first independent newspaper that also published almanacs. In 1722, in need of Puritan principles, Ben was indentured by his father, to his brother, James. James was given specific orders by his father to introduce discipline to Ben’s work ethic. James would not let Ben write for the paper. So Ben chose a female pen name and slipped fourteen different satirical letters under the printing press door, in the middle of the night, every other week.
Ben chose the name Silence DoGood as a direct assault on Cotton Mather, a Puritan minister that preached the principle that silence is golden and “doing Good” is a ticket to heaven.[i] Cotton Mather wrote 450 books. Reading just one of Mather’s preachings was probably all Ben needed to pun the name Silence DoGood. Each letter covered a different topic including the church in general, drinking to excess, idle chatter, religious hypocrisy, the lack of poetry in America, free speech, education, guilt, pride, courtship and a dissertation on “night walkers,” that I best not interpret. Ben was sixteen years of age at the time.
Some Bostonians understood that the author was not actually the spinster portrayed in the journals. Unfortunately for James, the Godly (as the Puritans called themselves) held him responsible. James was already scandalizing Boston with “yellow journalism” accusing the town fathers of collusion with pirates. A real issue in New England prior to the American Revolution. The anonymous writings of Silence DoGood was the “straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Town officials reacted meekly since the people of Boston supported the Courant, especially while it accused officials of influence peddling. The Legislature, however, was more decisive. They pronounced that “The Tendency of the said Paper is to
“Mock Religion, and bring it into Contempt,
“That the Holy Scriptures are therein profanely abused,
“That the Reverend and Faithful Ministers of the Gospel are injuriously reflected,
“On, His Majesty’s Government affronted, and the Peace and good Order of his Majesty’s Subjects of this Province disturbed.”
A week later James published his paper including an article by Silence DoGood. He was imprisoned for four weeks.
It may be clear that Ben used a pseudonym for practical reasons. It was also a common practice of the times, perhaps for self-preservation. In the end, Ben’s content highlighted the changing mores of Boston and the Puritan’s diminishing sphere of influence.
Ben and James never reconciled after James returned from jail. Both, eventually found it necessary to leave Boston in their prime. Ben, soon after, fled south not certain of his destination. Five years later James fled Boston to Rhode Island, following in the footsteps of Puritan reformer, Roger Williams. James wrote under the pen name of Poor Robin. He published almanacs that were distributed in Boston. Poor James, if we might use a second pun, died at the age of thirty-eight. His son, James Jr, became an apprentice for Ben, in Philadelphia. James’ wife, Ann Smith Franklin, continued to publish doing business as “The Widow Franklin.”
Our posting on James Franklin may be of interest. He died at the age of thirty-eight. Ben Franklin lived for eighty-four years at a time that male life expectancy was fifty-seven years. Please visit our entertaining blog on Ben Franklin, the maven swimmer.
Post Script: Other Ben Franklin pseudonyms;
[i] Mather, Cotton, Essays to Do Good, Andrew Thomson, D. D. Minister of George’s Edingburgh, Glasgow: William White & Co., 1825, 67 references to Do Good, 69 references to good conscience, Google Scholar, https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=F10AAAAAMAAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA49&dq=cotton+mather+%26+Do+Good&ots=B1jNFlYmTv&sig=jVRF0FGmoYSHxyQOYNjSIAz-r7k#v=onepage&q=cotton%20mather%20%26%20Do%20Good&f=false
8. Attributes for the picture of the first letter;
http://www.librarycompany.org/bfwriter/writer.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12440621
Visit our blog on thehistory of the long S as you read early American articles.