The Moral Reform of a Scurrilous Press
“He that best understands the World, least likes it,” a cynical Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1753 under the guise of “Poor Richard.”1 Franklin had grown pessimistic during the middle decades of the eighteenth century due in part to stories about crime, greed, and immorality that he read, wrote, and published in the colonial press. His misanthropy was augmented by failed printing partnerships, particularly in the West Indies and the Pennsylvania German community.
However, he was most resentful of public attacks on his character. During Franklin's 1764 bid for re-election to the Pennsylvania Assembly, his opponents appeared “sworn to load him with all the Filth, and Virulence that the basest Heads and basest Hearts can suggest,” a Franklin supporter commented. After his defeat and subsequent appointment as colonial agent to Parliament, critics denounced him as unacceptable. He is “very unfavorably thought of by several of his Majesty's Ministers,” and his character “is so extremely disagreeable to a very great Number of the most serious and reputable Inhabitants of this Province of all Denominations and Societies,” according to a newspaper editorial signed by many prominent Pennsylvanians.2
Franklin was keenly aware of the animosities awakened by his political prominence and ability to influence public opinion. “I have many enemies (all indeed on the Public Account, for I cannot recollect that I have in a private Capacity given just cause of offence to any one whatever) yet they are Enemies and very bitter ones,” he informed his daughter a month after the 1764 election. The longer he was in public life, the more the press assailed him. Exhibiting bitterness after two decades of vilification, Franklin warned