Return with us now to colonial Boston, a half-century before the Tea Party. The Puritans were in charge the Salem witch trials were as recent a memory as the Iran hostage crisis is now and Increase Mather had still to hand the North Church keys to his son Cotton.
One of the parishioners was candlemaker Josiah Franklin. He dreamed of a better life for his sons, perhaps their entry to Boston's first estate as clergymen. But making soap and candles did not make Josiah a man of means. Harvard was not in his sons' future.
So son James went back to England to apprentice as a printer and returned by 1718 with his own shop, printing Boston's second newspaper, the Gazette. When his youngest brother was 12, James took him on as an apprentice.
The publisher was the local postmaster, which was a convenient arrangement. When the postmaster received newspapers from England he could repurpose that content. Unfortunately the next postmaster sent the work elsewhere and James was running a job shop. But James admired the essays and pamphlets circulating in London during his apprenticeship. One familiar byline from those days, Daniel Defoe, had just published a novel, "Robinson Crusoe."
James Franklin's young friends had literary and political pretensions as well. Today they'd start a blog. Instead, James Franklin launched his own newspaper, the Courant, and took on the issues of the day. Smallpox was epidemic in Boston, for instance, and Cotton Mather, who once had studied medicine, had learned from his slaves about inoculation. Mather promoted the practice, and editorially the Courant found nearly any civic benefit proposed by the clergy suspect.
The teen apprentice also had writing aspirations, despite a mere two years at Boston Latin School. He was a voracious reader and had learned much about the language as a typesetter, but James was not going to let him write. What was 15-year-old Benjamin Franklin to do?
Poor Richard might have had coined an answer years later, or maybe Ben cribbed the idea reading Plato by candlelight: Necessity was the mother of invention. He disguised his handwriting and slipped a letter to the editor under the printing-house door.
"It was found in the morning, and communicated to his writing friends when they call’d in as usual," Franklin wrote in his Autobiography. "They read it, commented on it in my hearing, and I had the exquisite pleasure of finding it met with their approbation, and that, in their different guesses at the author, none were named but men of some character among us for learning and ingenuity."
Thus it was that Ben Franklin started his career as an essayist by making things up. The teen author wrote as a preacher's widow, Silence Dogood. The pen name was ironic: Silence was a scold, who announced herself as an enemy of both vice and power who would enlighten the Courant's readers with a short epistle every two weeks.
The ruse was not only successful in fooling his brother's literary circle, but young Franklin would keep it up over the better part of a year. Silence Dogood's letters were front-page material for the Courant. For one thing, they were entertaining. One of the widow Dogood's proposals would give spinsters a cash award. They could even keep the money if they later married, as long as they did not consort with their husband for more than an hour at a time.
The publisher also might have found a plainspoken preacher's wife a convenient foil for the highfalutin Puritan establishment. In one early letter widow Dogood instructs readers how to write their own epitaph with all the appropriate cliches: "cold, cruel death, unhappy fate, weeping eyes etc." Another letter relates a dream in which Harvard scholars copy the archbishop of Canterbury's sermons, presumably for their own use on graduation from divinity school.
This was cheeky but by no means out of the ordinary for the Courant, which was risky business with the clergy so close to the courts. When the Courant that summer suggested that the government was inept in dealing with piracy, James Franklin was thrown in jail. Young Ben was left to run the paper, but couldn't resist getting in a few digs himself. Ms. Dogood submitted an essay critical of preachers turned politicians, a group that would have included the governor.
By fall Silence fell silent in the Courant's pages. By then Benjamin Franklin's name was on the masthead as publisher. This was another ruse. James had been freed from jail on orders that he stop producing the Courant, but was still running the newspaper under his brother's name.
But within another year James would be running a help-wanted ad for a new apprentice.
Ben was looking for true journeyman work, with less political heat. Poor Richard would coin a phrase years later, "He makes a foe who makes a jest." Like W.C. Fields' vaudeville epitaph, he would rather be in Philadelphia. And writers from Fields to Mike Royko to the anonymous bloggers of Daily Kos can trace a strand of their DNA to Ben Franklin and his first alter ego, the good widow Silence Dogood.