Benjamin Franklin's Printing Network: Disseminating Virtue in Early America

Benjamin Franklin's Printing Network: Disseminating Virtue in Early America

Benjamin Franklin's Printing Network: Disseminating Virtue in Early America

Benjamin Franklin's Printing Network: Disseminating Virtue in Early America

Synopsis

In Benjamin Franklin's Printing Network, Ralph Frasca explores Franklin's partnerships and business relationships with printers and their impact on the early American press. Besides analyzing the structure of the network, Frasca addresses two equally important questions: How did Franklin establish this informal group? What were his motivations for doing so? This network grew to be the most prominent and geographically extensive of the early American printing organizations, lasting from the 1720s until the 1790s. Stretching from New England to the West Indies, it comprised more than two dozen members, including such memorable characters as the Job-like James Parker, the cunning Francis Childs, the malcontent Benjamin Mecom, the vengeful Benjamin Franklin Bache, the steadfast David Hall, and the deranged Anthony Armbruster. Franklin's network altered practices in both the European and the American colonial printing trades by providing capital and political influence to set up workers as partners and associates. As an economic entity and source of mutual support, the network was integral to the success of many eighteenth-century printers, as well as to the development of American journalism. Frasca argues that one of Franklin's principal motivations in establishing the network was his altruistic desire to assist Americans in their efforts to be virtuous. Using a variety of sources, Frasca shows that Franklin viewed virtue as a path to personal happiness and social utility. Franklin intended for his network of printers to teach virtue and encourage its adoption. The network would disseminate his moral truths to a mass audience, and this would in turn further his own political, economic, and moral ambitions. By exploring Franklin's printing network and addressing these questions, this work fills a substantial void in the historical treatment of Franklin's life. Amateur historians and professional scholars alike will welcome Frasca's clear and capable treatment of this subject.

Excerpt

“Historians relate, not so much what is done, as what they would have believed,” Benjamin Franklin suggested to readers of his Poor Richard's Almanack in 1739. Franklin's view, although characteristically cynical, underscores the historian's important role of “interpreter.” When there is disagreement on the “truth” of what happened in the past, historians propound their theories, which compete for acceptance and validation in the Miltonian free marketplace of ideas. Even more subject to interpretation is the question of why something happened. Seldom can absolute truth be located in this search, which is why “why” is the historian's most challenging question.

This book addresses both the “why” and the “what” of Franklin's printing network, as in “What form did it take?” and “Why did he create it?” Franklin himself offers only a few vague allusions to his printing network, which has contributed to the minimal acknowledgement of its existence in the voluminous literature about Franklin. Thus, my task here has been to reconstruct an organization from inference, by piecing shards of information together to suggest the structure and functions of a printing network that served variously as an economic investment, political force, mechanism of press growth, and means for Franklin to attain his ideological ambitions.

The abundance of Franklin scholarship and primary-source materials presents the omnipresent temptation to say everything about Franklin, or at least everything about his printing career. I make no attempt at comprehensiveness here, for such an effort would be redundant in light of the numerous lengthy treatments of the subject. Consequently, the interesting stories of Franklin's apprenticeship in Boston, his service as a journeyman in London . . .

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