Meet Dr Franklin

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Franklin’s rebellion against authority and convention soon assumed a more meaningful dimension. When, in 1722, his brother James was jailed for a month for printing in his newspaper critical remarks about the authorities, the sixteen-year-old apprentice pounced on the chance to achieve something on his own. He published the paper for his brother, running his own name on the masthead to circumvent the government. Continually quarrelling with his overbearing brother, Franklin determined to part company with his job, his family, and Boston, and to establish himself by his own efforts, unaided. The youthful rebel set forth on his journey to Philadelphia, arriving in that bustling town in October, 1723, when he was little more than seventeen years of age.

To carve out a niche for himself in the printing trade Franklin had to keep a checkrein on his rebellious disposition. For weeks he bore without ill temper the badgering of his master, Samuel Keimer. When the blowup came, Franklin, rather than stay and quarrel, packed up and lit out. Once more he was on his own. “Of all things I hate altercation,” he wrote years later to one of his fellow commissioners in Paris with whom he was continually at odds. He would write sharp retorts and then not mail the letters. An operator or negotiator par excellence, Franklin revealed in his youthful rebellion against family and employers the defensive techniques he so skillfully utilized to avoid combat. Yet there was little about Franklin’s behavior that we associate with neurotics. He was a happy extrovert who enjoyed the company of women and was gregarious and self-assured—a striking contrast to Isaac Newton, a tortured introvert who remained a bachelor all his life. Suffice it to say that Franklin never suffered the kind of nervous breakdown that Newton experienced at the height of his powers, and as a result his effectiveness remained undiminished until a very advanced age.

 

If Franklin early showed an inclination to back away from a quarrel, to avoid a head-on collision; if his modesty and candor concealed a comprehension of his own importance and a notably persistent deviousness, such traits may go far to explain the curious satisfaction he took in perpetrating hoaxes on an unsuspecting and gullible public. The clandestine side of Franklin, a manifestation of his unwillingness to engage in direct confrontation, hugely benefited by his sense of humor and satirical tal ents. An inveterate literary prankster from his precocious teens until his death, Franklin perpetrated one literary hoax after another. In 1730, when he became the sole owner of a printing shop and proprietor of the Pennsylvania Gazette, which his quondam boss, Keimer, had launched a few years earlier, Franklin’s paper reported a witch trial at Mount Holly, New Jersey, for which there was no authority in fact.

Franklin’s greatest hoax was probably written in 1746 and perpetrated the following year, when the story ran in London’s General Advertiser. It was quickly reprinted throughout England, Scotland, and Ireland and in turn picked up by the Boston and New York papers. This was his report of a speech by Polly Baker before a Massachusetts court, in defense of an alleged prosecution for the fifth time for having a bastard child. “Can it be a crime (in the nature of things I mean) to add to the number of the King’s subjects, in a new country that really wants people?” she pleaded. “I own it, I should think it as praiseworthy, rather than a punishable action.” Denying that she had ever turned down a marriage proposal, but contrariwise was betrayed by the man who first made her such an offer, she compared her role with that of the great number of bachelors in the new country who had “never sincerely and honourably courtet a woman in their lives” and insisted that, far from sinning, she had obeyed the “great command of Nature, and of Nature’s God, Encrease and Multiply .” Her compassionate judges remitted her punishment, and, according to this account, one of them married her the very next day.

That so obviously concocted a morality tale as that one could have gained such wide credence seems incredible on its face. Yet the French sage, the Abbé Raynal, picked it up for his Histoire Philosophique et Politique , published in 1770. Some seven years later, while visiting Franklin at Passy, Raynal was to be disabused. ”When I was young and printed a newspaper,” Franklin confessed, “it sometimes happened, when I was short of material to fill my sheet, that I amused myself by making up stories, and that of Polly Baker is one of the number.”

When, some years later, Franklin’s severe critic John Adams listed Polly Baker’s speech as one of Franklin’s many “outrages to morality and decorum,” he was censuring not only Franklin’s liberal sexual code but his evident inability to throw off bad habits in old age. Franklin’s penchant for pseudonymous writing, abundantly displayed in the Revolutionary years, was one side of his devious nature and evidenced his desire to avoid direct confrontation. …