Benjamin Franklin: Teenage Author

At the age of twelve, Benjamin worked as an apprentice at his brother James’s print shop. Although his brother expected Benjamin to be his gopher and do only grunt work, Benjamin had other ideas. Late at night Ben studied the writing of the British essayist Addison and dreamed of becoming a writer. Despite James’s dislike of his brother’s literary ambitions, his newspaper named the Courant sometimes needed an extra contributor. Ben first wrote a few poems related to the news, including one about pirates. Although he later pronounced these early efforts as “wretched stuff,” some of James’s companions thought young Ben had talent. Their praise aggravated James, so Ben knew if he was going to contribute to the paper in the future, he would have to write under a different name.

By age sixteen, Ben was still working on his writing skills. At the same time, James found himself in a dispute with other competing papers. As a result, James was thrilled to discover an anonymous letter left under the print shop door one day. In the letter, a widow named Silence Dogood offered to write a column for the paper. Impressed with her wit and needing content for his paper, James published the first of fifteen essays by Ms. Dogood. He had no idea that Silence Dogood was the pen name for his brother Ben.

The Dogood essays covered a variety of topics. Many showed evidence of what are now cherished American values. For example, when James was jailed because of  the Courant’s outspokenness, Ms. Dogood wrote, “Without freedom of thought there can be no such thing as wisdom, and no such thing as public liberty without freedom of speech.”  The essays also strongly recommended a separation between church and state. Ms. Dogood wrote, “The most dangerous hypocrite in a Commonwealth is one who leaves the gospel for the sake of the law. A man compounded of law and gospel is able to cheat a whole country with his religion and then destroy them under the color of law.”

Eventually, James began to suspect the true author of the essays and Ben quit writing them. Once his identity was revealed, James’s friends showered Ben with praise. Encouraged, Ben would continue to write long after he left his brother’s print shop.    

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