We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Benjamin Franklin's Humor

Paul Zall

Publication Year: 2005

Although he called himself merely a “printer” in his will, Benjamin Franklin could have also called himself a diplomat, a doctor, an electrician, a frontier general, an inventor, a journalist, a legislator, a librarian, a magistrate, a postmaster, a promoter, a publisher—and a humorist. John Adams wrote of Franklin, “He had wit at will. He had humor that when he pleased was pleasant and delightful . . . [and] talents for irony, allegory, and fable, that he could adapt with great skill, to the promotion of moral and political truth.” In Benjamin Franklin’s Humor, author Paul M. Zall shows how one of America’s founding fathers used humor to further both personal and national interests. Early in his career, Franklin impersonated the feisty widow Silence Dogood in a series of comically moralistic essays that helped his brother James outpace competitors in Boston’s incipient newspaper market. In the mid-eighteenth century, he displayed his talent for comic impersonation in numerous editions of Poor Richard’s Almanac, a series of pocket-sized tomes filled with proverbs and witticisms that were later compiled in Franklin’s The Way to Wealth (1758), one of America’s all-time bestselling books. Benjamin Franklin was sure to be remembered for his early work as an author, printer, and inventor, but his accomplishments as a statesman later in life firmly secured his lofty stature in American history. Zall shows how Franklin employed humor to achieve desired ends during even the most difficult diplomatic situations: while helping draft the Declaration of Independence, while securing France’s support for the American Revolution, while brokering the treaty with England to end the War for Independence, and while mediating disputes at the Constitutional Convention. He supervised and facilitated the birth of a nation with customary wit and aplomb. Zall traces the development of an acute sense of humor throughout the life of a great American. Franklin valued humor not as an end in itself but as a means to gain a competitive edge, disseminate information, or promote a program. Early in life, he wrote about timely topics in an effort to reach a mass reading class, leaving an amusing record of early American culture. Later, Franklin directed his talents toward serving his country. Regardless of its origin, the best of Benjamin Franklin’s humor transcends its initial purpose and continues to evoke undying laughter at shared human experiences.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Front cover

pdf iconDownload PDF (409.1 KB)


pdf iconDownload PDF (28.6 KB)


pdf iconDownload PDF (20.3 KB)
pp. vii

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (22.3 KB)
pp. ix

A quarter-century ago, I compiled an edition of anecdotes by and about Ben Franklin aimed at charting the growth of his fame as America’s enduring voice of good-humored common sense. The present book focuses on how a quintessentially private person used humor to craft the image of an iconic sociable American. ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (53.4 KB)
pp. 1-10

They used to say that George Washington was first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen, and Franklin was first in everything else. But at the nation’s bicentennial, the mass-circulating Reader’s Digest replaced Washington in the hearts of his countrymen with Ben Franklin because Franklin represented ...

read more

1. Silence Dogood 1722–1723

pdf iconDownload PDF (71.6 KB)
pp. 11-26

At thirteen, Franklin plunged into print with a timely ballad about lighthouse keeper George Worthylake drowning with two daughters in the heavy November surf of Boston Harbor. A few months later, he followed with another timely ballad on the capture of the notorious pirate Blackbeard off the Carolina coast. ...

read more

2. Paragraphs in Philadelphia 1729–1735

pdf iconDownload PDF (75.3 KB)
pp. 27-46

Except for two impoverished years at London, youthful Franklin flourished in Philadelphia. He printed with Samuel Keimer until 1728 when he broke off to start his own shop. Keimer then published The Universal Instructor . . . or Pennsylvania Gazette. He claimed that the city’s only newspaper, ...

read more

3. Philadelphia's Poor Richard 1733–1748

pdf iconDownload PDF (75.2 KB)
pp. 47-64

In adopting the model of Swift’s satire, Franklin used techniques familiar from his own practice of Socratic irony by pretending to be innocent or ignorant. He pretended to be madcap Poor Richard Saunders so successfully that the popular imagination confused worldly Franklin with Poor Richard as the Polonius of puritanical proverbs. ...

read more

4. Philadelphia Comic Relief 1748–1757

pdf iconDownload PDF (84.6 KB)
pp. 65-84

Although strained over the years, the humor of Poor Richard’s prefaces helped create the public taste for an indigenous comic hero. Franklin’s more serious writing led to increasing success in business, technology, and public service. He wrote position papers for the Pennsylvania legislature ...

read more

5. Making Friends Overseas 1757–1774

pdf iconDownload PDF (76.0 KB)
pp. 85-102

As Pennsylvania’s agent in London, Franklin had to wait three years for the courts to make proprietor Thomas Penn pay his fair share for provincial defense. Franklin used that time and two more years enjoying club life, honors, and new friends among leaders of the liberal religious, intellectual, cultural, and political communities, ...

read more

6. Losing London 1773–1776

pdf iconDownload PDF (74.0 KB)
pp. 103-118

In the crucial years leading to America’s break with Britain, Franklin carried the burden of reconciliation. In June 1773 the Hutchinson letters he had sent to Boston provoked Massachusetts to petition the king for the governor’s removal. It was up to agent Franklin to submit the inflammatory petition to the Privy Council. ...

read more

7. Seducing Paris 1776–1782

pdf iconDownload PDF (73.4 KB)
pp. 119-136

Coming home to Philadelphia on 5 May 1775 allowed Franklin no time for comedy. On the following day, his neighbors elected him to the Continental Congress. In November, Congress dispatched him to confer with General Washington at Cambridge. The next spring, they sent him to Canada to recruit allies. ...

read more

8. Comic Release 1783–1785

pdf iconDownload PDF (69.8 KB)
pp. 137-152

The war ended with a preliminary agreement, 20 January 1783, but Franklin had little peace. Since the summer of 1781, worn out by the ills of old age and sick of bickering with members of his own delegation, especially John Adams, he had been petitioning Congress to relieve him. ...

read more

9. Revising Past and Future 1786–1790

pdf iconDownload PDF (64.0 KB)
pp. 153-168

Philadelphians met Franklin at the wharf on 14 September 1785 and paraded him home to Market Street “with acclamations of joy,” the booming of cannon, and the pealing of bells. They elected him president of the Supreme Executive Council as Pennsylvania’s hope for “reconciling all parties.”1 ...


pdf iconDownload PDF (41.3 KB)
pp. 169-174


pdf iconDownload PDF (42.2 KB)
pp. 175-180


pdf iconDownload PDF (44.5 KB)
pp. 181-186

E-ISBN-13: 9780813171869
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813123714

Page Count: 200
Publication Year: 2005