"I shall not burn my press and melt my letters"

Newspaper publishing in the days of Ben Franklin and his grandson was a filthy, grinding business. Fighting for freedom of the press was an even more wretched a task.

Published September 2, 2003 7:59PM (EDT)

Benjamin Franklin created America's free press, but it was his beloved grandson, Benjamin Franklin Bache, who fought and died to give it life. The story of these two remarkable early Americans raises questions that are still relevant today: How do you keep alive an independent press? Should the media be guided by a spirit of impartiality or partisanship? Should journalists risk aggressively crusading against a presidency if they feel it's threatening the values and well-being of the nation? Though they were both ardent democrats and critics of government by elites, Franklin and his grandson embraced different answers to these questions. And the American media today is similarly divided as it struggles to sort out these issues.

Ben Franklin's Pennsylvania Gazette, which he began publishing in Philadelphia in 1729 at the age of 23, was in many ways the first modern American newspaper. It combined news and opinion along with gossip, sex advice and sensationalistic crime coverage. A man of the Enlightenment with no patience for puritanical repressiveness, Franklin reveled in producing a popular paper that not only reflected his progressive politics but his earthy -- and occasionally bawdy -- sensibility.

But as a newspaper publisher, Franklin was no crusader. The early American press was financially fragile, dependent on a small reader and commercial base. "Printers" -- as publishers were called, since most of them combined editorial duties with the grueling, dirty and literally stinking job of working the hand press (the sheepskin balls used to ink the type were soaked in urine and wrung out by hand) -- could not afford to offend too many of their customers and advertisers. So Franklin, the apostle of sound business practices, relied on his sly wit and hid behind fictitious bylines to make his points.

Still, Franklin was often, in his words, "censured and condemned by different Persons for printing things which they say ought not to be printed." On May 27, 1731, in response to his critics, the young newspaperman published his famous Gazette editorial, "Apology for Printers," -- which, observes Walter Isaacson in his excellent biography, "remains one of the best and most forceful defenses of a free press." The press Franklin championed in his wry and incisive essay was not a passionate partisan, but one that was open to a variety of clashing viewpoints, which might or might not reflect those of the publisher. Publishing was a trade, just like shoemaking or carpentry, Franklin pointed out -- but the stuff of printing was not boots or benches, it was "mens' opinions," which "are almost as various as their Faces." And "if all Printers were determined not to print any thing till they were sure it would offend no body, there would be very little printed."

Franklin illustrated this point in typically humorous fashion with the fable of a man and his son, who were traveling to market with a donkey. Criticized by one passerby for riding the ass while his son was forced to walk, the man invited his boy to join him on top of the animal, only to be tongue-lashed by a second passerby for overburdening the poor beast. The man promptly dismounted, but the next passerby sharply scolded the son as a "graceless, rascally young Jackanapes" for letting his "aged Father ... trudge along on foot." When the lad then joined his father on the ground, both were ridiculed by yet another traveler "as a Couple senseless Blockheads" for plodding through the dirt when they could be riding. Finally, unable to bear the criticism, the father turned to his son and suggested they "throw the Ass over the next Bridge, and be no farther troubled by him."

But, vowed Franklin, he would not throw his ass -- or printing press -- off the bridge. "I shall continue my business. I shall not burn my press and melt my letters."

The duty of the printer, wrote Franklin, was not to avoid controversy, but to make sure that both sides of an issue found a home in his publication. In a famous sentence that, as Isaacson remarks, "summed up the Enlightenment position (on free speech)" and "is now framed on newsroom walls," Franklin wrote: "Printers are educated in the belief that when men differ in opinion, both sides ought equally to have the advantage of being heard by the public; and that when Truth and Error have fair play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter."

On a less lofty plane, Franklin also defended the printing of salacious dish, using the same argument still employed by tabloid publishers everywhere: Don't blame us, blame the readers -- it's what they want. "If (printers) sometimes print vicious or silly things not worth reading, it may not be because they approve of such things themselves, but because the People are so viciously and corruptly educated that good things are not encouraged." When given a choice between a trashy read and "an excellent Version" of "David's Psalms," Franklin wryly observed, it's no surprise what flies off the shelves.

In a later issue of the Gazette, Franklin would offer a more provocative defense of gossip: It cuts the rich and powerful down to size. "It is frequently the means of preventing powerful, politic, ill-designing men from growing too popular. All-examining Censure, with her hundred eyes and her thousand tongues, soon discovers and as speedily divulges in all quarters every least crime or foible that is part of their true character. This clips the wings of their ambition," Franklin wrote.

But the truth, as Isaacson notes, is that while Franklin "toyed in the Gazette with the argument for gossip," he actually did not wallow much in it, held back by "the other part of his personality [that] was more earnest: he continually resolved to speak ill of nobody." Still, the man destined to become a revered Founding Father was certainly not above printing juicy stories, including one that ran the week after "Apology for Printers" about a man who, finding his wife in bed with a gentleman named "Stonecutter," lunged at his competitor with a knife, eliciting some bemused wordplay from Franklin about castration.

As a shrewd businessman as well as a man of the people, Franklin knew the secret of publishing a successful newspaper -- give readers a compelling mix of the high and low. It's a knack that has been largely forgotten by progressive publishers today, who labor under the peculiar conviction that readers can be sustained by a dry diet of indignant rhetoric and moral instruction alone.

Franklin retired from the arduous printing profession in 1748 at the age of 42 (the precise midpoint of his life) to devote himself to politics, science and diplomacy. He was able to hang up his printer's apron, less because of his newspaper's success than that of his enormously profitable self-help franchise, "Poor Richard's Almanack," which sold a staggering (for the time) 10,000 copies a year. But Franklin would pass the newspapering bug on to his favorite grandson, Benny Bache, who by finally rejecting his grandfather's admonition to shun partisanship, would create the most influential -- and controversial -- publication of post-Revolutionary America, the Aurora.

Despite its brevity, the life of Benjamin Franklin Bache has cinematic sweep. Taken by his famous grandfather at the age of 7 on Franklin's historic mission to France in 1776 (during which he would save the Revolution by rallying France to America's cause and then negotiate the peace treaty with Britain), the boy would not return to his family home in Philadelphia for nine years. Educated in elite French and Swiss schools, and blessed by Voltaire himself soon before the philosophe's death (he laid his wrinkled hands on the lad's head and pronounced, "God and Liberty," in English), Bache was then entrusted by Franklin to France's master printer, François Didot, to be taught how to cast type.

Franklin, who died in 1790 at age 84 in his Philadelphia home, after calling Benny to his deathbed and holding his hand, bequeathed his printing equipment to his 21-year-old grandson. As the favored heir of an American monument, Benny Bache was embraced by Philadelphia high society and regarded as one of its most eligible young men. As a prominent gentleman, he was encouraged by his well-placed friends to use his grandfather's press to take up the respectable calling of book publishing. But Bache had newspaper ink in his blood. Soon after Franklin's death, he launched a Philadelphia newspaper that Bache at first, with high commercial hopes, called the General Advertiser and then four years later the Aurora General Advertiser -- and finally, when his dreams of business success had been supplanted by more crusading ambitions, simply the Aurora.

"At first, Bache stuck close to policies his grandfather had laid down in the 'Apology for Printers,' promising in the inaugural issue that his paper would be impartial," writes historian Jeffrey L. Pasley in "The Tyranny of Printers," a fascinating, richly detailed account of how the free press grew from the bitter battles in early America between the rising class of editor-printers and the Federalist governing elites. But soon, bored by this studiously inoffensive style of journalism and alarmed by the monarchist tendencies of George Washington's presidency -- which he viewed as a betrayal of the democratic principles that his grandfather and fellow American revolutionaries had fought for -- Bache was leading his paper to the ramparts in the struggle with Federalist power.

As Pasley writes, "Bache's partisanship was a costly act of conviction that required great courage ... The young editor had grave reservations about joining fully in the partisan battle that was emerging. It would have been much more comfortable to lead the sheltered life of an apolitical or conservative Philadelphia aristocrat, but Bache hoped to resist that temptation. 'When [the political line] comes to be struck definitely,' he wrote, 'I hope I shall be found on the right side of it.'"

Because of his own impeccable revolutionary heritage, Bache was not awed by the country's first president, whom he viewed as a military fraud and a would-be king. By the end of Washington's term in 1797, Bache was piling heaps of steaming abuse on the nation's patriarch in the Aurora, sending him off on his final day in office with a call for "rejoicing" in the land over the end to "political iniquity" and "legalize[d] corruption."

This growing scorn for America's leadership -- which only increased during the presidency of Washington's successor, John Adams -- proved too much for Bache's old friends in the Philadelphia gentry, who turned on him with a vengeance, snubbing him and his wife on the high-society circuit and boycotting the Aurora. As advertisers abandoned the paper, Bache's losses mounted -- during his eight years as publisher, the Aurora would lose almost $20,000. But Bache and his wife and publishing partner, Margaret, the daughter of a St. Croix sugar planter, persevered, exchanging their blue-blood friends for a "political underworld of journeyman printers, newspaper writers, and street- and tavern-level activists," in Pasley's words, and turning their home and newspaper office, which were housed in the same Market Street building, into a headquarters for radical republicanism.

After Adams' election, Federalist animosity toward Bache grew into persecution. In the spring of 1797, he was physically attacked and badly injured by a young Federalist while touring a ship at the Philadelphia waterfront. The Adams administration awarded Bache's assailant with a diplomatic appointment to France. The following year, while Bache was away, a drunken Federalist mob surrounded his home and terrorized his wife and children before being driven off by neighbors. The attacks prompted the publisher to wonder whether it "might, indeed, be a gratification to some that I should have my throat cut."

Murder might not have been on the minds of Bache's enemies, but certainly imprisonment was. The following year, the Federalists in Congress pushed through the notorious Sedition Act -- a bill, commented Thomas Jefferson, that was aimed directly at his republican ally, Benjamin Franklin Bache. On June 26, 1798, Bache was arrested by a federal marshal and charged with "libeling the President & the Executive Government." Slapped with a crushing bail of $4,000, Bache was forced to appeal to his friends for help and the Aurora and his family teetered on the brink of ruin.

Adding insult to his financial and legal woes, Bache was then subjected to a relentless barrage of personal attacks by an anti-republican smear artist named William Cobbett. Combining Matt Drudge's contempt for the truth with the defamatory glee of Rush Limbaugh, Cobbett riddled Bache with poison arrows in his aptly named paper, Porcupine's Gazette, calling him a printer "notoriously in the pay of France" and "the prostitute son of oil and lamp-black" who should be dealt with like "a TURK, A JEW, A JACOBIN, OR A DOG" and demanding the suppression of the Aurora.

At the lowest depths of his life -- even his parents had disowned him because of his journalistic crusades -- Bache turned to freedom-loving Americans and urged them to save the Aurora by subscribing to it. They did. Alarmed by the Sedition Act, hundreds of new readers signed up for Aurora subscriptions (at the relatively hefty annual price of $8). As Pasley notes, Bache was even more surprised to find many of the paper's deadbeat subscribers -- a widespread problem in the early newspaper industry -- suddenly paying their overdue bills, with a few actually sending in advance payments for the next year. The beleaguered Bache was practically reduced to tears by the outpouring of support. He wrote with gratitude that "the calumnies of the enemies of liberty in this country have not deprived the editor of the good opinion of a great portion of his fellow citizens." Bache vowed that he would not let down his supporters and that he would carry on his fight, undeterred by "the malice of little men dazzled by the glare of power."

On Friday, Sept. 7, 1798, just days after writing this, Bache fell ill, a victim of the yellow fever epidemic sweeping through Philadelphia. The Baches' former high-society friends had fled to the countryside, but the newspaperman and his wife could no longer afford this means of escape. "At any rate," observes Pasley, "the editor was determined to remain zealously at his post." By Monday, Bache was dead. He was 29.

The Aurora did not die with its founder. A grieving Margaret Bache vowed to keep it alive and she did, with the help of its new editor, William Duane, an Irish-American firebrand whom Bache had named his successor on his deathbed. Duane, who later married Margaret, would make the Aurora shine even brighter, taking it to a new level of national prominence and using its power to help found the Democratic Party. In 1800, Jefferson would credit the Aurora and like-minded papers with winning him the presidency, praising them for sparking a "revolution ... on the public mind, which arrested the rapid march of our government toward monarchy."

Ben Franklin would likely not have wished such a turbulent life on the grandson he so adored. Franklin himself had a way of navigating through the political storms in his life with humor and finesse, and he never risked his prosperity on journalistic crusades. Franklin was ingenious at crafting an editorial mix that relied heavily on entertainment, not just political and moral ruminations, and at launching profitable spinoff businesses like "Poor Richard's." But times change, and sometimes civic-minded journalists find themselves in more fiery circumstances, as did Benjamin Bache, who decided he could not follow his grandfather's advice and remain impartial as the new governing elite that emerged from the Revolution prepared to install themselves as an American monarchy.

And perhaps in this regard, he followed his grandfather's path after all. For Franklin, as Isaacson points out, was the most democratic of the Founding Fathers, more egalitarian than even Jefferson. The son of a soap- and candle-maker, a man who began his own career as an ink-stained wretch, Franklin truly believed in the rights and virtues of the common man. It was these common men and women, these lovers of freedom, who befriended Benjamin and Margaret Bache when they were driven out of Philadelphia's aristocracy. And it was they -- these believers in the sanctity of the constitutional principle of free speech, a liberty paid for with American blood -- who rallied around Bache and his paper in their darkest hour and kept the Aurora shining.

"Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press": defiant words scratched on parchment by men making a bold break from their past. But they were just words until courageous journalists like Benjamin Franklin Bache hammered them into bright, unbending metal in the fires of political battle.

By David Talbot

David Talbot, the founder of Salon, is the author of New York Times bestsellers like "Brothers," "The Devil's Chessboard," and "Season of the Witch." His most recent book is "Between Heaven and Hell: The Story of My Stroke."

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