For the Fourth: Benjamin Franklin (Kind Of) on Freedom of Speech

By on July 4, 2012

On this Independence Day, FIRE would like to quote Benjamin Franklin, favorite son of our own hometown of Philadelphia, on free speech. 

Actually, that’s not 100% true. This particular statement of free speech was not written by Franklin but rather quoted at length with approval by Franklin from an "Abstract from the London Journal." But even this didn’t appear under the name "Benjamin Franklin"—Franklin printed it under the name of Silence Dogood, a fictional middle-aged widow that Franklin made up. Why did he do that? Because Franklin was only 16 when he wrote the letters from Silence Dogood to his brother James’ newspaper, the New England Courant (where Franklin was an apprentice printer), and James refused to print anything his little brother wrote.

It gets weirder: this issue of the Courant, from 2-9 July 1722, was printed by Benjamin Franklin, not James Franklin. Why? Because James Franklin was in jail at the time for printing something that offended government officials in Massachusetts—and the 16 year old Benjamin Franklin went on publishing the paper without him! 

So we have Ben Franklin printing something written by someone else under another someone else’s name in yet another someone else’s paper that was in fact being printed by nobody else besides him. Franklin certainly was an American original! It’s no wonder that when James found out that Benjamin was writing the Silence Dogood letters, Benjamin broke off his apprenticeship and ran away to Philadelphia to avoid his brother’s wrath.

With that context, let’s see some excerpts of what Franklin/Dogood/the London Journal had to say about free speech:

SIR,

I prefer the following Abstract from the London Journal to any Thing of my own, and therefore shall present it to your Readers this week without any further Preface.

Without Freedom of Thought, there can be no such Thing as Wisdom; and no such Thing as publick Liberty, without Freedom of Speech; which is the Right of every Man, as far as by it, he does not hurt or controul the Right of another: And this is the only Check it ought to suffer, and the only Bounds it ought to know.

This sacred Privilege is so essential to free Governments, that the Security of Property, and the Freedom of Speech always go together; and in those wretched Countries where a Man cannot call his Tongue his own, he can scarce call any Thing else his own. Whoever would overthrow the Liberty of a Nation, must begin by subduing the Freeness of Speech; a Thing terrible to Publick Traytors.

Freedom of Speech is ever the Symptom, as well as the Effect of a good Government. 

GUILT only dreads Liberty of Speech, which drags it out of its lurking Holes, and exposes its Deformity and Horrour to Day-light. 

FIRE is in hearty agreement with Mr. Franklin. Happy Independence Day!