Benjamin Franklin is best known as a prolific writer and scientist, inventor, political theorist, and one of the “Founding Fathers” of the United States.
While many are aware of Franklin’s love of free speech and democracy, most people don’t know that his civic and political activism started when he was 15 years old. Franklin was born in Boston and lived there until he was 17. In 1718, when he was 12, he became an apprentice to his older brother James who taught him the craft of printing. Franklin was an avid reader of classic literature and a highly fast learner; by the age of 15 he learned many tricks of the trade and developed a political way of thinking.
At that time, his brother James founded “The New England Courant,” the first newspaper in the colonies which was independent of any party. Readers were encouraged to send letters to the editors of the newspaper, and many letters were published. They usually commented on political issues and defended the freedom of speech.
Franklin was amazed by his brother’s newspaper and wished to publish his commentary. However, his brother chose not to publish his text because he considered Benjamin too young to meddle in political disputes.
Franklin was disappointed but quickly managed to trick his brother and other editors of the newspaper. He sent his letters under the pseudonym “Mrs. Silence Dogood, a middle-aged widow.” Mrs. Dogood’s letters were immediately published and became extremely popular among readers; they advocated free speech and equal justice for both rich and the poor.
Franklin eventually revealed the cunning ruse to his older brother who became was furious and intended on punishing him. However, in 1722, James ended up in prison for publishing unfavorable criticism of the governor of Massachusetts, and Benjamin was allowed to replace his brother at the position of the chief editor of The New England Courant.
Benjamin used this opportunity to publish a long and controversial commentary which defended his brother’s freedom of speech and attacked the governor’s strict and unjust policies. At the end of the commentary, he quoted “Cato’s Letters” by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon: “Without freedom and thought there could be no such thing as wisdom and no such thing as public liberty without freedom of speech.”
He feared that he would be a force to face severe repercussions, so he decided to flee Massachusetts. He left his brother’s newspaper and chose to end his apprenticeship against his brother’s wishes.
He settled in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he eventually started his famous and prolific career which led him to be one of the most influential men in American history.