- Benjamin Franklin's Printing Network: Disseminating Virtue in Early America
Four hefty new biographies of Benjamin Franklin have found their way onto bookstore shelves in the past five years, tempting one to wonder if there is still a stone left unturned when it comes to scholarship on Franklin. Here is where Ralph Frasca's book surprises and delights. Frasca takes us into a part of Franklin's world that has been often studied, his world of print, but not with an eye to the ways in which Franklin operated within a complex network of printers to pursue his quests for personal success and the dissemination of virtue.
Frasca offers an extensive study of Franklin's community of print—a varied collection of printers he helped finance and sponsor—paying particular attention to how this "Franklin network" provides a more informed and nuanced understanding of American eighteenth-century print culture (2). Frasca's book is an extended treatment of this network, which "lasted from the 1720s to the 1790s" and "stretched from New England to the West Indies, and comprised more than two dozen printers" (19).
By looking at the printers not only as individuals but also as a complex and integrated community, Frasca argues that one can obtain a better understanding of the period's printing economics along with its editorial practices and how those practices influenced emerging notions of the freedom of the press. Frasca argues that underlying the lessons one learns about print economics, editorial decisions, and press freedom from the [End Page 665] Franklin network is a rich substratum of information on just how important Franklin's own conceptions of virtue and morality were to his printing endeavors. Franklin was forever concerned with teaching others his brand of virtue through the medium of print, hence the book's subtitle: "Disseminating Virtue in Early America." Frasca offers us a rewarding study of a complex individual who believed in printing not only as a way to make his own fortune but also as a way to offer material and moral wealth to his countrymen.
Frasca divides his study into three primary sections. His first four chapters are a careful study of the formation of Franklin's conceptions of virtue and how these conceptions came to form a definite line of moral reasoning espoused throughout his journalism. Most intriguing here is the way in which "the acquisition of wealth became central to virtuous conduct" for Franklin (14). Franklin saw material wealth as the single greatest motivator for human action, so he harnessed that motivation to the pursuit of moral perfection.
Frasca finds an interesting catalyst for Franklin's desire to be a moral teacher: the teachings and writings of Cotton Mather. What becomes most striking in Frasca's treatment is the way in which Franklin fused Mather's concentration on "good Works, Works of Kindness, Charity, Mercy, and Publick Spirit" with his own brand of pragmatism, which had taught him that such virtuous behavior ultimately led to the greatest relational, emotional, and material success (38). In the end, Frasca argues that Franklin's thinking was undergirded by a more pronounced religious moral grid than many have come to associate with him. He also became a kind of behaviorist, stressing that changing one's actions to align with certain core, usually Christian, virtues was the single best route to both the private and public good.
The second four chapters explore the successes and failures of key partnerships within Franklin's printing network and how these relationships influenced the reach of his moral teachings through the medium of print. Once Franklin's own printing business became secure, he found himself with chances to expand printing into other parts of the country. Frasca traces these forays into such places as South Carolina, New York, Connecticut, and the Caribbean, where Franklin carefully placed and financed his own hand-picked lieutenants to carry forth the practice of printing with his own moral flavor. Noteworthy in this section is how Franklin was not afraid to...