Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, WRITING BY HAND: Manuscript, Print, and Political Imagination

Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, WRITING BY HAND: Manuscript, Print, and Political Imagination

Article excerpt

Several images of Benjamin Franklin holding a quill pen found ready markets during his lifetime.1 More recently, however, it has become difficult to imagine the Philadelphia printer using such an archaic object, rather than his bifocals, his electrical apparatus, or his printed newspaper. It is worth calling up an image of the printer writing with a quill, however, because it can help us see an important distinction in his work, a distinction between his uses of media to distribute his writing and his uses of media as metaphors within his writing. In executing his lifelong project of representing the future of print, Franklin often used a quill.

Scholars of print culture have fruitfully examined Franklin's visionary experiments with print's capacities for representing the abstract nature of a republican polity. Michael Warner and Mitchell Breitwieser both see Franklin's work as a project of constructing a representative personality. They point to his use of print and republican theory to explain his writing as a concerted project of presenting his readers with an image of "representational legitimacy" (Warner 73; Breitwieser 173). On Franklin's desk, however, drafts of pieces destined for anonymous newspaper publication sat next to personal letters and diplomatic dispatches destined to remain in manuscript and to circulate only among small groups of family, friends, and political allies. This scribal work has provided much of the evidence for a group of recent books on Franklin by historians: A Little Revenge, The Devious Dr. Franklin, and Benjamin Franklin and his Enemies. These books, whose titles promise to show us a darker side of the affable Franklin, document his quests for patronage, his angry break with his son William, and his careerist self-promotion. The gap between this historical Franklin and the representative personality described by Warner and Breitwieser has been produced in part because Franklin's scribal writing has generally been read by historians, while literary critics have focused on his printed writing. It is worth reading the two groups of texts together, with an eye to the generic conventions and metaphorical resonances of each. Doing so reveals Franklin's detailed awareness of the political and social relations imaginable through work with differing media: oral, scribal, and printed. In all media, Franklin consistently presents the relation between narrator and audience as a rhetorical construction that signifies a political possibility. The conventions of scribal writing provided language for negotiating alliances, promising and collecting favors, and testing and displaying loyalty. The conventions of print, as Franklin practiced them, provided language for critique, analysis, and the questioning of claims to legitimacy.

The political relationships implied by these languages were the subject of Franklin's work in the 1750s and 60s. Franklin spent these years in London, employed as the agent of the Assembly of Pennsylvania and those of several other colonies to lobby for pro-American policies with the British government and people. He did so through addresses to powerful individuals in the government, addresses he made both orally and in writing, and through a flood of newspaper pieces concerning questions important to Americans.

In his work as agent, Franklin found himself working between two different systems of conceptualizing colonial administration. His allies in the colonies were arguing for a strictly republican theory of representation, and practicing something close to it in their colonial assemblies. The administration of the colonial government in London, however, treated the colonies as sources of patronage jobs for ministers and governors, and thus as part of the court administration that republican theorists found most suspicious.

These two different understandings of colonial administration were related to two sets of conventions for writing about politics: those of scribal writing, which emphasized relationships, alliances, the influence and importance of the great; and those of printed writing, which emphasized the general good, rational analysis, and the universal grounds of value. …

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