The Best Defense is a Good Offense: False Virtue, Fake News, & Mark Twain’s Birthday Roast of Ben Franklin

On this date in 1856, Samuel Clemens, at barely twenty years of age, gave what was likely the first of the improvised comedic toasts for which he would, as Mark Twain, become widely renowned. The occasion was an impromptu celebration of the sesquicentennial of Benjamin Franklin’s birth. As the Keokuck Daily Gate City reported it, a group of local printers, including Orion Clemens, who ran the Ben Franklin Book & Job Office, gathered at the Eagle Hotel and “toasted their patron saint.”

Nothing survives of Clemens’s speech, save testament that is was, indeed, funny. In the coming decades, informal gatherings like these would evolve into professional societies like the Typothetae of New York, founded in 1862, and the New England Franklin Club, established two years later. Both would invite Twain to speak on Franklin’s Birthday, which became the premiere event night for printers organizations nationwide.

Predictably, at such banquets Twain turned his toasts to Franklin into roasts of Franklin. At one such dinner, in 1887, Twain speculated that even if he didn’t wish Franklin to “be shoved into a barrel of Madeira,” he “would have wanted to get the barrel of Madeira into him.” One of the most canonized passages in Franklin’s Autobiography is his list of thirteen virtues. Atop this list sits Temperance, “which is so necessary where constant Vigilance is to be kept up…against the unremitting Attraction of ancient Habits, and the Force of perpetual Temptations.” Twain naturally appreciated the irony of raising a glass, the contents which corrupted not only temperance, but the other twelve virtues in turn, to Franklin.

The insinuation that the world would’ve been better off without Franklin’s famous virtues was a favorite conceit of Twain’s. In an 1870 homage “To Late Benjamin Franklin” he complained of the effect “Franklin’s pernicious biography” had on fathers, including his own, who mistook it for a manual on child-rearing. By trying to live up to Franklin’s celebrated maxims, Twain reported, he had been driven to his “present state of debility, indigence, and mental aberration.”

Twain’s characterization of Franklin’s Autobiography as the bane of children is only partially exaggerated. Over 150 editions were published in the century following the author’s death. Selections from it, as well as aphorisms from Poor Richard’s Almanac, were consistently included in textbooks, anthologies, and other popular reading materials for children in 19th-Century America. As Twain put it, Franklin’s “simplest acts were contrived with a view to their being held up for the emulation of boys forever – boys who might otherwise have been happy.”

Twain could trust that Franklin’s works would be familiar to almost any audience, a ubiquity truly unusual for the time. As Twain vied for an unprecedented cultural celebrity, Franklin’s posthumous popularity preceded him and, as common knowledge, became a valuable object for Twain’s satirical talents. While most of what Twain said publicly about Franklin was pejorative, it’s hard to take many of these statements at face value. In many cases he was lambasting Franklin at banquets in Franklin’s honor, which he habitually attended.

During his first trip to Philadelphia, at the age of 17, Sam Clemens sought out all the historical sites related to the idol of his father and older brother, writing approvingly of efforts by the Philadelphia Typographical Union to “erect a monument to Franklin.” Albert Bigelow Paine explicitly compares Clemens to “a young Ben Franklin” in the authorized biography he published shortly after his patron’s death. Paine argues that Clemens was far more virtuous and industrious than Twain let on and, of course, notes that Franklin and Twain rivaled only each other in terms of cultural celebrity during their nation’s first century and thus were crucial collaborators in the creation of what would come to be known as Americana.

But the crux of Paine’s argument is simply that the careers of both men were defined by the shared profession of their youth: printing. What both Franklin and Twain mean by printing is, in the parlance of our time, publishing. Colonial and antebellum printers produced books, pamphlets, posters, directories, contracts, currencies, and, most notably, newspapers. They owned and operated the presses which gave us what remains the most popular sobriquet for mainstream journalism.

In 1729, 23-year-old Ben Franklin purchased The Pennsylvania Gazette. In its pages, two years later, he published his “Apology for Printers.” This essay is worth revisiting amidst recent, intensely partisan, doubts about the accuracy and legitimacy of journalism. Franklin’s essay reminds us, among other things, that phrases like “just the facts,” “journalistic objectivity,” “fair and balanced,” “accurate and impartial,” though now conventionally associated with the industry, are not intrinsic to it. According to Franklin, these are not reasonable standards to hold publishers to. Ever fond of lists, Franklin asks his readers, “who are angry with me on Account of printing things they don’t like,” to calmly consider ten foundational principles of his trade.

From the outset, he dismisses the delusion of a press employed primarily in the promotion and distribution of objective, factual truths. “The Business of Printing has chiefly to do with Mens Opinions; most things that are printed tending to promote some, or oppose others.” Because the trade of the publisher depends upon opinions and, moreover, “the Opinions of Men are almost as various as their Faces,” Franklin laments that the printer is “scarce able to do any thing in their way of getting a Living, which shall not probably give Offence to some, and perhaps to many.” Franklin argues that, in light of this peculiarity of their profession, “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 Publick; and that when Truth and Error have fair Play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter.” Trusting, perhaps naively, that justice will be served in the court of public opinion, “Printers naturally acquire a vast Unconcernedness as to the right and wrong Opinions contain’d in what they print; regarding it only as a Matter of their daily labor.”

Franklin’s “Apology” thus emphasizes the agency and civic duty not of the press, but of its consumers, who must view the “great variety of things opposite and contradictory” which they read with a cautious, critical eye. No reader should “expect to be pleas’d with every thing that is printed” since “if all Printers were determin’d not to print any thing till they were sure it would offend no body, there would be very little printed.” The cacophonous industry of American prose, still in its infancy in 1731, was something Franklin vigorously defended because any alternative would put an end “to Free Writing, and the World would afterwards have nothing to read but what happen’d to be the Opinions of Printers.”

Upon this document as much as any other, Franklin made his reputation as “patron saint” of printers, publishers, and journalists. But, as the industry he lionized evolved over the course of his exceptionally long life, and came to enjoy, partially on the basis of his “Apology,” unprecedented legal protections, Franklin did express some second thoughts. As he approached the end of his first (and only) term as Governor of Pennsylvania, the 83-year-old published (in a newspaper) a satire of the newspaper press, which he dubbed “The Supremest Court.”

Any Man who can procure Pen, Ink, and Paper, with a Press, and a huge pair of Blacking Balls, may commissionate himself; and his court is immediately established in the plenary Possession and exercise of its rights. For, if you make the least complaint of this judge’s conduct, he daubs his blacking balls in your face wherever he meets you; and, besides tearing your private character to flitters, marks you out for the odium of the public, as an enemy to the liberty of the press. 

If, by liberty of the press, “it means the Liberty of affronting, calumniating, and defaming one another,” Franklin muses, “I shall cheerfully consent to exchange my Liberty of Abusing others for the Privilege of not being abus’d myself.” If the legislature must “leave the liberty of the press untouched,” Franklin suggests they “permit liberty of the cudgel to go with it.” He writes, “Thus, my fellow-citizens, if an impudent writer attacks your reputation, dearer to you perhaps than your life, and puts his name to the charge, you may go to him openly and break his head.”

Franklin’s satire, though it gently advocated the extension of libel laws by states, primarily demonstrates the persistent wisdom of his then 70-year-old “Apology,” as equal access to printing assured Franklin and his legendary eloquence would by heard by the Supremest Court. Twain took up this theme in many of his commentaries on Franklin, publishing, and journalistic integrity. “A libel suit simply brings the plaintiff before a vast newspaper court to be tried before the law tries him, and reviled and ridiculed without mercy,” Twain observed. The best defense against the vitriol of others is, as Twain argued and exemplified, the liberal exercise of one’s own wit.

“That awful power, the public opinion of a nation, is created in America by a horde of ignorant, self-complacent simpletons who failed at ditching and shoemaking and fetched up in journalism on their way to the poorhouse,” he told an assembly of journalists, publishers, and professional writers in 1873. One can imagine the pregnant pause left at the end of this sentence, as audience members register that the career path Twain is describing is his own. “I know from personal experience the proneness of journalists to lie,” he continues and, after only half-denying a series of humorous accusations made against him, reminds his audience and his accusers, “have published vicious libels upon people myself – and ought to have been hanged before my time for it, too – if I do say it myself.” But he wasn’t. And, as a word of warning, he admits, “to this day I am liable to lie if I don’t watch myself all the time.”