Ben Franklin’s 1731 Apology for Printers, translated into modern vernacular.
Since I’m often condemned by people for printing things which they say ought not to be printed, I’ve sometimes considered making a standing apology, published once a year, to be read anytime this happens. I’ve been too busy previously to do this, but given the extraordinary offense at an “N.B.” ad in a recent handbill I printed, it seemed like the time was right, even if my thoughts are a little rushed.
I request anyone who’s mad at me for printing things they don’t like to consider the following:
- Opinions are as diverse as faces, an observation so common it’s become a proverb (“So many Men so many Minds”).
- Printing is chiefly about opinions, whether promoting one opinion or opposing another.
- This results in the peculiar problem of printing, where it’s hard to make a living without giving offense to some (and perhaps many) people.
- It’s unreasonable to think that any one man would be pleased with everything printed.
- Printers are taught that both sides ought to be heard, and that truth will generally prevail, so they tend not to care which side a particular writer supports (as long as they pay them well!).
- Because of this exposure, printers become unconcerned whether they are printing “right” or “wrong” opinions. It’s their daily grind to print extremely venomous articles with calmness and indifference, and without ill will to the ones targeted, who nevertheless think the Printer is as much an enemy as the author.
- It’s unreasonable to imagine printers approving everything they print, since they print so many opposite and contradictory things. This makes it unreasonable to suggest that printers should only print what they approve, since doing so would put an end to free writing and the world would have nothing to read but the opinions of printers.
- If all printers were determined not to print anything unless it didn’t offend anyone, there would be very little printed.
- If they do print something vicious or silly, it might not be because they approve it, but because the people don’t appreciate the finer things. For example, I have seen Robin Hood’s Songs sell out, while having spent much longer selling a smaller quantity of David’s Psalms.
- Despite all this, printers DO continually discourage the printing of a great number of bad things. I myself refuse to print anything that might promote vice or immorality, even if there was a lot of money on the line. I have also refused to print things that might do real injury to a person. These refusals have made me many enemies, and it’s tough to remain so vigilant with denials. But the public doesn’t realize this, and therefore don’t give printers the benefit of the doubt that a mistake may have been made. As Waller says,
Poets loose half the Praise they would have got
Were it but known what they discreetly blot
This brings me to the case at hand, regarding the “N.B.” advertisement. The background is that an ad was brought to me about a ship headed to Barbados, with a notice at the bottom, “No Sea Hens nor Black Gowns will be admitted on any Terms.” I printed the ad and collected payment, and the handbill was hung up around town as usual. I didn’t think to ask about the meaning at the time, nor did I have any idea that it would cause offense. But several good men are very angry with me, saying I was too smart to do something like this, and that they wouldn’t have done the same in my position. Since therefore I had to be acting out of malice (according to them) they will no longer buy any of my papers nor deal with me in any way. This is very hard!
I wish I had refused to print the ad, but it’s in the past and cannot be revoked. I want to offer the following thoughts, some in mitigation and others beside the point. Please read these in good humor.
- I ran the ad without any malice and interpreted it at face value.
- I never saw the word Sea Hens before in my life, and though I knew that Black Gowns meant clergy of Church of England, I thought they wouldn’t mind a trifling mention of their dress.
- I have many clergy customers and friends, and I must be very malicious or stupid to print this for a small profit if I thought it would have given them offense.
- If I did have malice against the clergy, it’s odd that I haven’t written about it before, even though it’s easy to make jokes about.
- If I did have malice, there would be better ways of injuring the clergy.
- I only got $50 for it.
- No one who is mad at me would have paid that much to suppress the ad.
- If people could pay to suppress content, I could probably live a very easy life, and there would be very little printed.
- I am thankful for everyone who subscribes to my paper, even to those who once subscribed but have now canceled, but I beg they not encourage others to cancel, as it seems unnecessarily malicious to me.
- It’s impossible to know what you’d do as a printer unless you have been a printer.
- Discounting a few incidents as a rash youth, I have avoided printing items that give offense to the Church or State.
- I’ve printed thousands of ads that didn’t mention Sea Hens or Black Gowns, and this being the first example of an offensive ad, I had expected forgiveness.
I’ll end with an old story about a well-meaning man and his son who were headed to the market with a donkey. The road was bad, so the man road but the son walked. The first person they passed asked why he was letting his son walk alone, so the man pulled up his son. The second person they passed asked about the donkey, so the man hopped off and let his son ride alone to give the animal a rest. The third passerby laughed at the son who had apparently persuaded his dad to bear the hard burden, and so the father asked if they might walk together.
Finally, someone sees them leading the donkey by the halter when they get called blockheads for going on foot when they had a ride at-hand. The old man could no longer bear it: “My son, we cannot please all these people. Let us throw the donkey over the next bridge so we are no longer troubled by him.”
Had the old man done this, he’d have been called a fool for caring about the opinions of all that wanted to find fault with him. Therefore, although I also want to please everybody, I intend not to imitate him by leaving printing. I shall continue my business. I shall not burn my press and melt my letters.