A true history of fake news: The many identities of Benjamin Franklin

Illustration by Angela Zirbes

Part one of two. Read part two: A true history of fake news: Unicorns on the moon

Before the term “fake news” gained wide circulation during the 2016 presidential election season, deception had long been part of the U.S. media landscape. When Benjamin Franklin emerged as the publisher of the Pennsylvania Gazette, he used it to plant ironic satires, partisan potshots and other false stories.

The line between fact and fiction has been blurry since the early days of journalism. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, newspapers would often print straight news alongside hoaxes, tall tales and real events told through the eyes of fictional characters — a literary form known as a sketch. Today, it is not uncommon for people to mistake satirical news stories for real events — credulously re-posting them on their social media accounts — and there is no evidence that our predecessors were any wiser.

Satirists like Mark Twain, who hatched several surreal hoaxes as a newspaper writer, eventually pushed the industry to more clearly define the limits of journalism, and by the beginning of the 20th century this tricky tradition largely came to an end. New codes of ethics and standards of professionalism moved tall tales, sketches and hoaxes to the margins of the page, or eliminated them altogether.

Today, people lament the decline of journalistic standards and pine for an idealized past, but we should remember that fake news is as American as apple pie. Even the popular story about George Washington — who could not tell a lie about chopping down the cherry tree — was a fiction invented by his biographer in order to boost book sales.

Benjamin Franklin got his start working for his brother James Franklin’s New England Courant, which often displaced news from the front page with items, according to Nelson Keyes’ 1956 biography Ben Franklin: An Affectionate Portrait, intended to be “entertaining and opinion-forming, rather than dully matter-of-fact.” During this time, Franklin developed a love of pseudonyms that were used to stir up his ideological opponents, a practice that predated anonymous internet trolls by three centuries. He penned at least 100 items under fake names throughout his life: Ephraim Censorius, Patience, the Casuist, the Anti-Casuist, Anthony Afterwit, Silence Dogood and his most famous, Richard Saunders, the Richard of Poor Richard’s Almanack.

“Just published for 1733: Poor Richard: An Almanack,” announced an ad in the December 19, 1732 edition of Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette, “containing the lunations, eclipses, planets motions and aspects, weather, . . . [and the] prediction of the death of his friend Mr. Titan Leeds.” Saunders not only narrowed down Leeds’ time of death to the date and time — October 17, 1733, at 3:29 p.m. — but also the exact moment when two worldly bodies aligned: “at the very instant of the conjunction of the Sun and Mercury.”

Franklin was a rationalist product of the Enlightenment, a cynic who valued science over superstition and heaped scorn on astrologers such as Titan Leeds. More crucially, Leeds was a business rival, and the printer’s way up the ladder of wealth was often achieved by stepping on his competitors.

When Titan Leeds did not die on that date, Franklin/Saunders bemoaned the fact that he couldn’t attend to his best friend during his final moments on earth. This infuriated the astrologer, who was not in on the joke and ranted in his not-quite-posthumous 1734 almanac about this “false Predictor,” “conceited Scribbler,” “Fool,” and — last but not least — “Lyar.” Poor Richard was shocked by these rude utterances, and noted that there was absolutely no doubt Leeds had died, for it was “plain to everyone that reads his last two almanacks, no man living would or could write such stuff.”

Franklin owned and operated the printing house that churned out Leeds’ almanac, giving him a crucial advantage in this war of words. This inside knowledge allowed Franklin to read his attacks and respond to them in Poor Richard’s Almanack before Leeds’s publication even went to press. The astrologer’s ongoing protests continued to pour fuel on the fire, which by now had captivated much of the colonies’ reading public and turned Poor Richard’s into a bestseller. (After he actually did die, Franklin published a letter from Leeds’ ghost admitting that Saunders was right all along.)

Franklin executed several hoaxes, pranks and satires over the course of his life, and readers frequently mistook his often-anonymous or -pseudonymous stories for real events. However, he saved his most meaningful deception for last. Weeks before Franklin’s death in 1790, he wrote a pseudonymous newspaper editorial arguing that Muslims should be allowed to enslave Christians — inverting the ideology of Christian pro-slavery advocates. Filled with fake citations and an elaborate backstory, the goal of the piece was to make them see the errors in their ways — or at least to ridicule their hypocritical beliefs.

In it, Franklin/Historicus quoted a speech that had allegedly been given by a Muslim leader a century earlier: “Who are to perform the common labors of our city,” he asked, “and in our families? Must we not then be our own slaves? And is there not more compassion and more favor due to us Mussulmen, than to these Christian dogs?”

He enthusiastically piled on reasons for maintaining the status quo, including the fact that the labor pool enjoyed by Muslims would be annihilated if slavery ended. Property values would drop, as would tax revenues. And what on earth would be done with all those slaves if they were released from bondage? You can’t trust those shifty Christians to stay out of trouble! Franklin/Historicus further needled anti-abolitionists by arguing that slavery actually uplifted those Jesus-loving infidels: “[T]hey have an opportunity of making themselves acquainted with the true doctrine, and thereby saving their immortal souls.”

There was the added benefit, he claimed, that Muslim slave masters treated their slaves with more humanity than how “free” laborers were handled in Christian nations. Also, slaves couldn’t slit the throats of other warlike Jesus-lovers — just like European savages had done for centuries. Franklin signed off in his usual deadpan style, “I am, Sir, your constant Reader and humble Servant, Historicus.”

Kembrew McLeod is all about the Benjamins. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 245.

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