A Life in Laughter
They used to say that George Washington was first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen, and Franklin was first in everything else. But at the nation’s bicentennial, the mass-circulating Reader’s Digest replaced Washington in the hearts of his countrymen with Ben Franklin because Franklin represented what Americans liked best about themselves.1 If Washington was the father of his countrymen, Franklin was their foxy grandpa, the designated humorist they could always rely on for a sharp saying or merry tale with the “Magical power” to cool the heat and dispel “melancholy fumes.”2
Franklin could have called himself a doctor, diplomat, electrician, frontier general, insurance man, inventor, legislator, librarian, magistrate, newsman, postmaster, promoter, or publisher, but in his will, he called himself merely “printer.” In an age when printers were also writers, he wrote humorous pieces for his brother’s newspaper in Boston, later for his own Pennsylvania Gazette and Poor Richard’s Almanac, for newspapers in London and Paris, and for pamphlets for fun or propaganda at home and abroad. In journalism, humor gave him a competitive edge and in propaganda, a shield for both attack and defense.
At fifteen, impersonating a feisty widow, Silence Dogood, Franklin wrote a series of comical essays for his brother James’s New-England Courant. Her pieces helped in James’s continuing competition with other printers. Most impressive was the lively way that Mrs. Dogood monitored Bostonians’ manners and morals. Her sharp eye for precise detail and keen ear for dialogue and dialect on the streets of cosmopolitan Boston created dramatic immediacy for the new voice of America laughing.