The Young Revolutionary, in Drag

 The following essay by Charlotte Harrigan of Hunter College has been awarded third place in the 2007 Eighteenth-Century Reading Room Essay Contest. Congratulations to Charlotte!

The Young Revolutionary, in Drag 

Imagine the life of a young couple, Mr. and Mrs. DoGood who had just left their home in England to start over in New England. As we all know, crossing the Atlantic was a perilous task, but this story is a particularly perilous one because Mrs. DoGood was pregnant. And shortly after the boat left the harbor, Mrs. DoGood unexpectedly went into labor. Making the situation ever more unfortunate was the throes of an impending storm, which made the sea rise violently and undoubtedly struck fear in the hearts of everyone on board. The brave and steadfast Mrs. DoGood must have summoned the entirety of her strength as the waves crashed around her and she bore a beautiful daughter, Silence, into the world.  But the story takes a sharp turn when just moments later, a merciless wave rose out of the dark, dreary sea and nearly devoured the ship.  Mrs. DoGood would only naturally cling to the small, fragile body of her newborn baby as the rest of the passengers struggled to stay alive.  When the water subsided, Mrs. DoGood gazed into the face of her helpless little girl, and must have been thrilled to realize they were safe once more. But unfortunately, the wave had carried her husband off to sea. Her despair was most likely as deep as the ocean. Little Silence entered the world the very day her father was literally, tossed out.[1]

This was the early life of Silence DoGood, a smart, witty woman whose tenure on earth had begun under unfortunate circumstances.  But Silence DoGood was not a real woman. She was a fictional character, an invention of none other than Benjamin Franklin.  Franklin had used the pseudonym of Silence DoGood in order to submit his writings to his older brother, who was then editor of the New England Courant.  Since Ben was only sixteen, and in a contentious sibling relationship with his brother, he feared that Franklin would not accept his writings. So Ben invented a personality to operate under.  Silence DoGood was an immediate hit. After New England Courant readers read her first piece, they eagerly awaited more.  And so Silence DoGood wrote fourteen pieces for the newspaper, and the popularity of her column aided in the newspaper’s growth.  These DoGood papers discussed subjects ranging from freedom of speech to hoop skirts.  Yet one can see in these early writings that sixteen year old Franklin was already demonstrating the traits of a future revolutionary.  This paper will explore the similarities the young Benjamin Franklin, operating under total anonymity, had with the mature and influential Franklin.  In order to answer these questions, the paper will determine why Franklin chose to write this column, what events (if any) his column was reacting to, and finally if his opinions anticipated or paralleled those of his later life.  In short, do the Silence DoGood letters reveal that Benjamin Franklin was always destined to be a Revolutionary?

The New England Courant itself had revolutionary origins.  At the time of the Newspaper’s inception, Cotton Mather (of Salem witch trial fame) was a prominent leader in Boston. Ben Franklin’s older brother James, felt that all the newspapers in the area were too compliant with the authorities of Boston- such as Mather, “who had a very strong influence on Boston society and politics.”[2] Thus, James sought to open his own paper, one that “would be lively, opinionated, and not averse to challenging the establishment.”[3] The first issue of the Courant attacked Mather’s method of inoculation against the smallpox epidemic of the time.  Cotton Mather immediately wrote a complaint in the Courant’s rival, the Boston News-Letter, calling the Courant a purveyor of “nonsense, unmanliness… immorality… arrogance… and to debauch and corrupt the minds and manners of New England.”[4] Today we know that inoculation is a successful method of fighting diseases and viruses, however, this would make little sense to any educated individual in the early 18th century. Even though James was wrong to argue with Mather on this subject, the fact that he argued with such a prominent member of society shows the newspaper’s courage and individuality.  Circulation numbers of the New England Courant are “impossible to know,” however, we do know that they must have been high enough to warrant a response from the stubborn Cotton Mather.[5]

Because of these feuds, Boston’s readers were subject to humorless quarreling and personal diatribes from their papers, making them an eager audience to the jovial and witty observances of Silence DoGood.  Before he posed as DoGood, Franklin had always been fond of reading and writing.  Yet his desire to communicate clearly and effectively did not always come easy.  Franklin had the advantage of the friendship and mentorship of  town intellectual and free thinker, John Collins.  Mr. Collins thought Franklin was a talented boy, but his writing style needed improvement.  In his autobiography, Franklin recalled that he “felt the justice of his remarks, became more attentive to language, and resolved to make every effort to improve my style.”[6] That very year Franklin saw an opportunity to practice his style when he observed that many of the Courant’s staff were writing editorials under pseudonyms.  Franklin wrote in his autobiography that he was “tempted to aspire to the same kind of reputation; but as I was still a boy, I naturally enough concluded that my brother would not insert any thing of which he knew me to be the author.”[7] Therefore, Benjamin Franklin submitted his editorial under the name of Silence DoGood.  James Franklin, completely unaware of its real author, immediately liked the piece.  After all, Silence DoGood poked fun at James’ archrival, Cotton Mather, who had recently published two books, “Silentarious,” and “Essays to Do Good.”[8]

Franklin used his natural wit to captivate readers.  His humorous essays were enhanced by his strong opinions and his meticulous observations of New England Society.  The first DoGood piece told the aforementioned story of DoGood’s origins because “the Generality of People” as Franklin (or Silence DoGood) observed “give their Opinion of the Performance, according to the knowledge which they have of the Author’s Circumstances.”[9] Franklin was criticizing the general public for judging an author’s work against his or her status, so he teased his readers with an inventive and humorous story, yet hooked them “into the realm of her sympathy.”[10]

Franklin also used his DoGood letters to criticize issues stretching beyond the literary world.  One issue he felt strongly about was education.  As discussed before, Franklin was an avid reader and would have done well at a university, however his father could not afford it, so he instead became an apprentice.  Benjamin Franklin did not have a high esteem for the university system.  He thought it more a status symbol and money-vacuum than a learning institution.  He believed that one could learn more from reading and from one’s own life lessons than from a college education.

 In her fourth letter, Mrs. DoGood describes a dream she had after discussing with her friend whether or not she should send her son to college. In the dream, she saw many people traveling to the “temple of learning,” most of them “dunces,” and “blockheads.” DoGood did not understand where they were going, but she was curious, so she decided to follow the crowd and find out.  When DoGood arrived at the temple, “the passage was kept by two sturdy Porters named Riches and Poverty, and the latter obstinately refused to give Entrance to any who had not first gain’d the Favour of the former.”[11] Thus, those without the proper funds were sent back, and only those who gave up enough money were allowed entrance.  In her dream, DoGood wondered about where those students would end up later in life.  Their parents sent them to school “because they think their Purses can afford it,” and their children “learn little more than how to carry themselves handsomely, and enter a Room genteely, (which might as well be acquir’d at a Dancing- School,) and from when they return, after Abundance of Trouble and Charge, as great Blockheads as ever, only more proud and self-conceited.”[12] When she awoke from her dream, she related all of its events to her friend, who after some thought, told her that her dream was a representation of Harvard College. Benjamin Franklin might have decided to attack the school in his DoGood letters because of the many negative encounters he had with students who attended this college, which was located in his home town.  Another reason might have been that Franklin, by age sixteen, was already a highly intelligent, well-read, and (as we now know) talented writer.  Franklin was brighter than many Harvard graduates, and he was self-taught.  Furthermore, New England was a society where people got by on their credentials, and it stands to reason that Franklin, who “never respected people for their credentials,” would therefore take it upon himself to “lampoon Harvard.”[13]

It is unclear why Benjamin Franklin chose to write under the disguise of a woman, but perhaps it is because he felt very strongly about the unfortunate nature of women’s circumstances.  Benjamin Franklin felt that the subjugation of women was wrong and unnecessary.  These views were eloquently expressed by Mrs. DoGood.  An anonymous “Ephraim Censorious,” wrote to DoGood that he wished her to direct her resentments “against Female Vice; let Female Idleness, Ignorance and Folly, (which are Vices more peculiar to your Sex than our’s,).”  He then asks her to reform her sex, and once she has, he assures her it will be much easier to reform men, as women “are the prime causes of a great many Male Enormities.”[14] Silence DoGood, always one to step up to the challenge, voiced her whole-hearted objection to Censorious’ insults.  In response to his accusation of idleness, DoGood argues that women “always have more work upon their hands than they are able to do.”  She then goes on to argue that, even if there are grounds for Censorious’ accusations, one must ask “whose fault is it?”  DoGood asserts that men are to blame for socially and professionally limiting a woman’s role in life.  DoGood also blames Censorious’ accusation of ignorance on “the fault wholly of men, for not allowing women the advantages of Education.”[15]

Franklin’s opinions on the treatment of women were  progressive for the era and society in which he lived.  English and New England society limited women’s roles to the home and maybe, in certain circumstances, to the lower levels of the church.  There was no need to educate women at the time because their traditional role was “providing food, clothing, shelter, and the rudiments of hygiene.”[16] This work, before the advent of technology, was very hard.  A woman had no time to educate herself but, more importantly, a woman’s education was thought of as useless because she could not serve in any position that required an education. Although women in new England society were encouraged to read so that they could understand the scriptures, they were not encouraged to engage in politics or any other mode of education, as most were too busy with household work.  But it wasn’t just the limitations of women’s education and professionalism that bothered Franklin.  Later in his life, he posed as another woman to voice a social injustice, albeit a fictional case (but certainly a realistic one, given the laws at that time) to the literary community.

Polly Baker, another invention of Benjamin Franklin, was a story that gained international attention in England and France when it was published in 1747.  In it, Franklin posed as a woman who was brought to court on the charges of producing illegitimate offspring.  Polly Baker lived in Connecticut, had five children and never a husband.  During her fifth child’s infancy, she was called to court for her ungodly lifestyle, during which she vehemently, yet respectfully renounced the charges brought against her.  The piece was called  “Speech of Polly Baker,” and in it, Franklin criticized the existing penal system.  Particularly, Franklin protested the Puritan-based law that “prohibited sexual intercourse outside wedlock and condemned the mother of an illegitimate child to the payment of a fine and to a public whipping.”[17] Polly Baker protested her impending punishment by arguing that her actions of bringing “five fine children into the world,” should be celebrated and not punished.[18] Since she had not burdened the town with financial help, she assumed the charges brought up against her were strictly from a religious objection.  This she argued by announcing that she had done the work that God set out for her: “increase and multiply.”  Furthermore, she added, “if mine is a religious offence, leave it to the religious punishments.”[19] Franklin decides to end Baker’s story with a happy ending. Baker’s defiant plea persuaded the court to drop her charges, and even led to one of the judges deciding to marry her and raise her children.

One can deduce Franklin’s political views from the humor in the Speech of Polly Baker.  This piece discussed the unjust nature of the punishment at hand.  In most of these cases, the “father of the child usually went entirely free,” so Franklin asks the question: Why should just the woman be punished? [20]Shouldn’t the man who promised marriage be punished for abandoning his responsibilities?  The men in the court were acting hypocritically against Baker’s sex, because men had just as important a part in producing illegitimate children as the female had.

Franklin also presents another important issue: separation of church and state (or at least for the consideration of Polly Baker’s trial).  He argues that if the grievances presented against Polly Baker are from a religious view, why should it be punished on Earth?  Let God decide her eternal fate, and the courts limit their dealings to secular matters.  Silence DoGood had earlier weighed in on this issue in her ninth letter, when she stated that, “A Man compounded of Law and Gospel, is able to cheat a whole Country with his religion, and then destroy them under Colour of Law.”[21]

Silence DoGood’s letters expressed many radical views, such as her statements about law and gospel.  But it wasn’t the publication of DoGood’s editorials that got the New England Courant in trouble; instead it was a statement the editor, James Franklin, had made suggesting that the local authorities were not trying to capture the pirates that had been attacking the coast that season.  James was jailed for his sarcastic and disrespectful statement that the Captain “will sail sometime this month, if wind and weather permit.”[22] Benjamin took over as editor while James was in prison, and Silence DoGood felt compelled to give her two cents on the matter.  DoGood submitted a letter to the Courant quoting a passage from the London Journal which delved into the importance of freedom of speech.  It read, “without Freedom of Speech, there can be no such Thing as Wisdom; and no such Thing as publick Liberty.”[23] This was a lesson Benjamin certainly learned from his brother’s imprisonment.

After his brother was released from prison, Ben continued to serve under him for a while longer.  But because of sibling rivalry and Ben’s adventurous nature, his “apprenticeship became insufferable,” and he managed to finesse his way out of it and moved to Pennsylvania, embarking on his now legendary life.[24] Franklin is famous for a number of reasons, a few being his Revolutionary spirit and intelligent contributions to our nation’s constitution.  It is certain that our nation would not be the same today without his originality.  But a very important aspect of the DoGood letters that must be reemphasized, is its stand-out humor.  For example, one DoGood letter is dedicated to the subject of Pride, a “reigning Vice of the Town.”  More specifically, “Pride of Apparel” which has manifested itself in the “monstrous topsy turvy Mortar-Pieces,” called Hoop-Petticoats.  DoGood asks of her readers to question whether women, “who pay no Rates or Taxes, ought to take up more Room in the King’s High- Way, than the Men, who yearly contribute to the Support of the Government.”[25]

Franklin’s good-humored demeanor was a large part of his public persona, as well as his mischievous spirit.  In the DoGood letters, one is able to see how that is applied to such a wide range of topics. What is more interesting about these letters is to read his early opinions (and in some cases, perhaps read under what circumstances his opinions originated) on matters that later formed the identity of our nation.  At just sixteen, Franklin discussed the importance of Freedom of Speech after his brother was jailed for insulting the Boston authorities.  Other issues discussed were the oppression of women and the separation of church and state.  His disgust with Harvard University’s petty education might have later led him to design his own discipline when he founded the University of Pennsylvania.  For these reasons, the DoGood letters are entertaining and substantive.  With the Silence DoGood letters, a modern reader is privileged to discover this young revolutionary. 


[1] J.A. Leo Lemay, Franklin: Silence DoGood, The Busy- Body, and Early Writings. (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1987). 5.

[2] H.W. Brands.  Interview by author.  Phone conversation.  New York, NY., May 8, 2007.

[3] Brands, First American, 25

[4] Brands, First American, 26.

[5] Brands, Interview

[6] Benjamin Franklin, The Works of the Late Benjamin Franklin. Consisting of His Life, Written by Himself.  Together with Essays, Humorous, Moral and Literary Chiefly in the Manner of the Spectator. (Charlestown: Principal Booksellers, 1798) 25.

[7] Benjamin Franklin, Private Life of the Late Benjamin Franklin. (London: Pater-Noster Row, 1793) 27.

[8] Brands, First American, 26.

[9] Lemay, Franklin, 5.

[10] Brands, First American, 29.

[11] Lemay, DoGood, 11.

[12] Lemay, DoGood, 13.

[13] Brands, Interview.

[14] Lemay, DoGood, 14.

[15] Lemay, DoGood, 15.

[16] Carol Hymowitz and Michaele Weissman, A History of Women in America. (New York: Bantam Books, 1978), 2.

[17] Marcello Maestro, “Benjamin Franklin and the Penal Laws.” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 36, No.3. (Jul.-Sep., 1994),551. http://www.jstor.com

[18] Brands, First American, 203.

[19] Maestro, Franklin, 551.

[20] Maestro, Franklin, 551.

[21] Lemay, DoGood, 27.

[22] Brands, First American, 29.

[23] Benjamin Franklin, The Silence DoGood Letters II. (New York: Privately Printed, 1969.) 13.

[24] Franklin, Works of Franklin Consisting of his Life, 32.

[25] Lemay, DoGood, 17-19.  

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Filed under 1700's, Colonial America, Essay Contest, Franklin, Newspapers, Posted by Caroline Fuchs

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