Happy Birthday Silence Dogood!
The 300th anniversary of Benjamin Franklin’s groundbreaking essay on freedom of speech is July 9, 2022.
Three hundred years ago in the spring of 1722, Ben Franklin began publishing articles in the New England Courant, his brother’s newspapers, under the pseudonym Silence Dogood.
Because he was only 16, Ben had not yet proved his writing capabilities to his older brother. Hence, he used a pen name to conceal his identity. Little did he know that this pen name would soon come in handy.
Ben had come of age when newspapers came of age. Newspapers in the 1720s were the new social media of the century. Although printers had finally figured out how to monetize newspaper publishing by selling ads, the British government wanted to control this new form of communication.
James Franklin used his New England Courant to criticize the British government and the elites of society. His satire soon angered the British authorities, who demanded that he obtain a license from them before publishing. When James refused, they put him in jail.
Benjamin stepped in to keep his brother’s paper running. He then used his Silence Dogood identity to publish a ground-breaking article on freedom of speech on July 9, 1722. He showed bravery to advocate for the freeness of speech while his brother was languishing in jail for publishing a newspaper.
“Without freedom of thought there can be no such thing as wisdom and no such thing as public liberty without freedom of speech; which is the right of every man, as far as by it, he does not hurt or control 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 anything else his own.
Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech, a thing terrible to public traitors.” July 9, 1722.
Silence Dogood continued this article by reminding readers that decades earlier, King Charles I and had make it illegal for Britons to criticize Parliament.
James was eventually released from prison, but he couldn’t agree to the government’s demand that they review his newspapers before publishing in his name. James solved the problem by publishing under Benjamin’s name instead.
Eventually Benjamin broke off on his own and moved to Philadelphia, where he bought the Pennsylvania Gazette. He continued to advocate for freedom of speech and set the standards for freedom of the press that others followed. The man who started off under the name of Silence deserves to be called the “Father of Freedom of Speech in America.”