Frasca, Ralph. Benjamin Franklin's Printing Network: Disseminating Virtue in Early America. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2006. 295 pp. $44.95.
Check any library's catalogue and you will find scores of books about Benjamin Franklin. A recent search turned up books on him as an economic statesman, a scientist who "dared lightning," a classic writer, and one of the original formulators of what it means to be an American. Given such multi-faceted portraits of Franklin, one might assume that all angles of Franklin's well-known personality have been examined.
Not so. Ralph Frasca, a media historian who has spent many years studying Franklin's newspaper network, has looked at him in a fresh light, this time as a spreader of moral virtue. Although this new angle is intriguing, Frasca has linked Franklin's virtue-spreading identity to his work as a printer in colonial, Revolutionary, and post-Revolutionary America. Even more specifically, he ties Franklin's role as a planter of morality to the printing network that he established.
Thus, Frasca's book examines Franklin in three ways that do not usually pop up when a researcher types the keywords "Benjamin Franklin" into a library catalogue. In his day, Franklin was hailed as a diplomat and scientist, but he identified himself most fundamentally as a printer. Therefore, his work as a printer has always cried out for more study, and Frasca's book helps supply that need. Also, Frasca looks at Franklin's printing as a business venture that encompassed a network of printers, most of whom were not related to their mentor but who were truly business partners. This book, then, looks at Franklin from the angle of business history, an angle that is often overlooked. Primarily, though, he examines Franklin's drive to spread virtue throughout America via his printing network, making the book highly unusual. Not only do Franklin scholars tend to focus on other matters besides printing and virtue (except for, perhaps, a treatment of clever virtuous advice given by Franklin in Poor Richard's Almanacfy, but they also fail to link Franklin's business sense to a deliberate attempt to spread his model of Christian behavior. Obviously, then, Frasca's book is valuable for students of Franklin as well as students of media history, business history, and the history of morality.
Frasca offers ample proof of Franklin's goal to spread virtue by hiring and then guiding virtuous men and women as partners in the printing business. …