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The art of apology
Franklin defends his craft
Touchiness over perceived slights is nothing new in American culture. Benjamin Franklin in 1731 printed an advertisement that provoked the ire of influential elements of Philadelphia society. The ad informed the public that a ship was about to leave Philadelphia for Barbados; it invited all who sought passage for themselves or their cargo to approach the captain for terms. It concluded with a curious proviso: "No Sea Hens nor Black Gowns will be admitted on any terms."
Franklin wasn't quite sure what this last statement meant, but the person ordering the ad wanted it included, and in it went.
No sooner was the ad posted around Philadelphia than Franklin began hearing complaints from members of the clergy. Sea hens were noisy, meddlesome birds, and priests of the Church of England - "black gowns" - were insulted to be associated with them, let alone excluded from the voyage. They demanded an apology from Franklin for printing such a libel.
He gave them an apology, but it wasn't what they had in mind. "Apology" then as now had two meanings: an expression of remorse, and a justification of one's actions. Franklin's critics wanted the former; they got the latter.
"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," he said. "Hence they cheerfully serve all contending writers that pay them well."
"It is unreasonable to imagine printers approve of everything they print, and to censure them on any particular thing accordingly," Franklin continued, "since in the way of their business they print such great variety of things opposite and contradictory."
Franklin asked his readers to consider what would be the result of printers following a course like the one implied by his critics. "If all of that business should make such a resolution and abide by it, an end would thereby be put to free writing, and the world would afterwards have nothing to read but what happened to be the opinion of printers."
A like result would follow from excessive diffidence on the part of printers. "If all printers were determined not to print anything till they were sure it would offend nobody, there would be very little printed," he said.
Franklin did not ignore the hurt feelings. He explained that he had not been aware of the pejorative connotations of "sea hens," In fact, he said he had never heard the term before he read it in the copy that was handed to him to print. He noted that he counted clergymen among his friends. He remarked that if he had intended to harm the ministers, he could have done so more directly.
And finally, he wrote impishly, "I got five shillings by it."
Actually, this was no small matter for a struggling 25-year-old printer with a new wife and small child to support. "None who are angry with me would have given me so much to let it alone," Franklin said.
If they would, he might change his policy. This was the impishness again. "If all the People of different Opinions in this Province would engage to give me as much for not printing things they don’t like as I can get by printing them, I should probably live a very easy Life."
Franklin related a fable, as he often did to make a point. "A certain well-meaning Man and his Son were travelling towards a Market Town, with an Ass which they had to sell. The Road was bad; and the old Man therefore rid" - rode - "but the Son went a-foot. The first Passenger they met asked the Father if he was not ashamed to ride by himself and suffer the poor Lad to wade along thro’ the Mire; this induced him to take up his Son behind him. He had not travelled far when he met others, who said they were two unmerciful Lubbers to get both on the Back of that poor Ass in such a deep Road. Upon this the old Man gets off, and let his Son ride alone. The next they met called the Lad a graceless, rascally young Jackanapes to ride in that Manner thro’ the Dirt while his aged Father trudged along on Foot; and they said the old Man was a Fool for suffering it. He then bid his Son come down and walk with him, and they travell’d on leading the Ass by the Halter; ’till they met another Company, who called them a Couple of senseless Blockheads for going both on Foot in such a dirty Way, when they had an empty Ass with them, which they might ride upon. The old Man could bear no longer; My Son, said he, it grieves me much that we cannot please all these People: Let us throw the Ass over the next Bridge, and be no farther troubled with him.”
Franklin commented that if the old man had acted on this impulse, he would have been called a fool for trying to please all his critics. "Therefore, tho’ I have a Temper almost as complying as his, I intend not to imitate him in this last Particular. I consider the Variety of Humours among Men, and despair of pleasing every Body; yet I shall not therefore leave off Printing. I shall continue my Business. I shall not burn my Press and melt my Letters."
It was a good thing he did not. Franklin's letters and press became the basis for one of the most consequential careers in American history. And his defense of freedom of opinion - "When Truth and Error have fair Play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter" - is as pertinent today as it was in his time.