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

By McCutcheon, Camille | South Carolina Historical Magazine, April 2007 | Go to article overview

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


McCutcheon, Camille, South Carolina Historical Magazine


Benjamin Franklin's Printing Network: Disseminating Virtue in Early America. By Ralph Frasca. (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2006. Pp. ix, 295; $44.95, cloth.)

A 2002 act of Congress created the Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary Commission to commemorate the three-hundredth anniversary of Franklin's birth (1706-2006). Ralph Frasca's Benjamin Franklin's Printing Network: Disseminating Virtue in Early America is one of the many books on Franklin published around the time of the anniversary. What sets this book apart is Frasca's exploration of Franklin's partnerships and business relationships with printers. Frasca argues that this network "represented one of Franklin's major contributions to American journalism, because through it he financed and assisted some of the most important printers of the era and helped lay the foundation for an increasingly free press" (p. 2). He also contends that Franklin's network "served as a mechanism of press growth and-most importantly to Franklin-a means by which he could disseminate his conceptions of virtue and morality to a mass audience" (ibid.).

Frasca states that Franklin's primary reason for establishing the network was to educate the colonists to be virtuous and insists that "this was the purpose behind Franklin's newspaper [Pennsylvania Gazette], almanac, partnerships, and many of his public writings" (p. 206). The author provides numerous instances in which Franklin expressed his belief in the importance of educating the masses to moral rectitude. Franklin once remarked to a minister that God "prefer'd the Doers of the Word to the meer Hearers" and told Ezra Stiles, the president of Yale College, that God "ought to be worshipped" and that "the most acceptable Service we can render him is doing good to his other Children" (ibid.). In addition to promoting virtue, Frasca asserts that "Franklin had numerous reasons for creating the network: nepotism, political persuasion, creation of his fame, augmentation of his wealth, an aspiration to assist the spread of domestic journalism throughout North America, and the reason he offered to the public: 'to promote several of my Workmen who had behaved well' " (pp. 205-206).

Franklin's network was comprised of more than two dozen printers, which included business partners, trade associates, and family members, and extended from New England to South Carolina to the West Indies. Frasca outlines the general guidelines Franklin used to form partnerships in his printing network. Before establishing a partnership, Franklin would locate an area that did not have a printer or one in which he could compete with existing printing houses. Then, he would offer a "partnership to a printer, often one who worked for him as an apprentice or journeyman and whose character, skill, and work ethic impressed him" (p. 19). Franklin's contracts with his partners ran for six years, in which he shared the cost of materials, used his partners as distributors of Poor Richard's Almanack, and collected one-third of the profits. Frasca notes that Franklin prohibited his partners from expanding their businesses by stipulating that they must use only the types and presses he provided them. At the end of the contracts, his partners could purchase Franklin's types and presses or continue the agreements outlined in their contracts. Franklin wrote that most of his business partners were "enabled at the End of our Term, Six Years, to purchase the Types of me" (p. …

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