Our Funny Founding Father
by A.M. Juster
Many Americans consider Benjamin Franklin the wittiest of our Founding Fathers, mostly for aphorisms that appeared in his wildly popular Poor Richard’s Almanack. One could argue that he was America’s first significant humorist. Nonetheless, few Americans know that he wrote some of our nation’s earliest published light verse, and even fewer realize how deeply Franklin immersed himself in the works of Swift and Pope.
The first great April Fool’s Day prank, perpetrated brilliantly by Jonathan Swift, directly inspired Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack. In 1707 Swift had tired of Britain’s leading astrologer, John Partridge, the publisher of a tacky but popular almanac. Among Partridge’s other sins, he had made disparaging remarks about the Church of England. Swift’s fictional creation, Isaac Bickerstaff, retaliated with an almanac called Predictions for the Year 1708, which predicted that the astrologer’s death would occur at 11:00 in the evening on March 29, 1708. Swift’s almanac contained a deliberately clumsy elegy for Partridge that begins:
Here, five Foot deep, lies on his Back,
A Cobler, Starmonger, and Quack;
Who to the Stars in pure Good-will,
Does to his best look upward still.
Weep all you Customers that use
His pills, his Almanack, or Shoes. …
A flustered Partridge responded with a well-turned heroic couplet:
His whole Design is nothing but Deceit.
The End of March will plainly show the Cheat.
Despite Partridge’s insistence on his current and anticipated vitality, on the night of March 29 “Bickerstaff” issued a pamphlet called The Accomplishment of the First of Mr. Bickerstaff’s Predictions, which declared that Partridge had indeed died.*
Benjamin Franklin not only borrowed from Swift by creating an almanac written by a fictional character, he borrowed Swift’s trick of damaging a rival by declaring him dead. Franklin’s light side, though, may have been a bit darker than Swift’s because Franklin stood to gain financially from his satirical attack.
In the 1730’s Franklin’s newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette (Franklin posthumously published a political cartoon in this newspaper, America’s first), competed bitterly with Andrew Bradford’s American Weekly Mercury. In 1741, as each man was competing to start his magazine first, Bradford published an advertisement suggesting annual, not monthly, subscriptions to his American Magazine; this solicitation infuriated Franklin. Franklin soon smeared his rival by publishing a poem under the pseudonym of “Shelagh.” Franklin chose a name that was shorthand for an Irish woman in order to tap into anti-Irish feeling and falsely paint Bradford as someone of Irish lineage. His poem is heavy on dialect and deliberately clumsy, even more so than Swift’s “elegy” for Partridge:
ARRA JOY! My monthly macasheen shall contain sheets four,
Or an Equivalent, which is something more;
So dat twelve Times four shall make fifty two,
Which is twice as much as fifty two Newsh-Papers do:
Prishe Shingle: But shubscribe for a Year,
You shall have it sheaper, at de shame Prishe, Honey dear;
And if you will but shubscribe to take it de Year out,
You may leave off when you pleashe, before, no doubt.
‘Tis true, my Book is dear, but de reason is plain,
The best Parts of it ish de Work of my own Brain:
How can odher Men’s Writings be wort so much;
Arra! If you tink so, you’re no vhery good Shudge.
De newsh which I left out, becaush it was old,
And had been in odher Papers so often told,
I shall put it into my nexsht (do t’is shince told onesh more)
Becaush ’twill be newer dan it wash before
For de dear Buyer’s Shake, and de Land’s Reputaish’
No Schweepings, but dose of my own Schull shall have plaish;
And dose, you must tink, will be vhery fine:
For do dis Advertisement my Printer does Shign,
To tell you de Trute, de Shense is all mine.
Franklin was also heavily influenced by Alexander Pope. In 1728 a a friend of Franklin who was traveling to London with him attacked Pope in verse, an offense which earned James Ralph immortality when Pope responded by including Ralph in The Dunciad Variorum. Despite this exposure to Pope’s venom, in 1744 Franklin preordered from England six sets of a projected new edition of Pope’s work with the statement that “That poet has many Admirers here.” Many of Franklin’s poems in Poor Richard’s Almanack exhibit Pope’s aphoristic wit, punning and classical training, albeit with a dose of Franklin’s preachiness:
Wedlock, as old men note, hath like been,
Unto a public crowd or a common rout;
Where those that are without would fain get in,
And those that are within, would fain get out.
Grief often treads upon the heels of pleasure,
Marry’d in haste, we oft repent at leisure;
Some by experience find these words misplaced,
Marry’d at leisure, they repent in haste.
Some have learn’t many tricks of sly evasion,
Instead of truth they use equivocation,
And eke it out with mental reservation,
Which, to good men, is an abomination.
Our smith of late most wonderfully swore,
That whilst he breathed he would drink no more,
But since, I know his meaning, for I think,
He meant he would not breathe whilst he did drink.
The Benefit of Going to Law
Two beggars traveling along,
One blind, the other lame,
Pick’d up an oyster on the way,
To which they both laid claim:
The matter rose so high, that they
Resolv’d to go to law,
As often richer fools have done,
Who quarrel for a straw.
A lawyer took it straight in hand,
Who knew his business was
To mind nor one nor t’other side,
But make the best o’the cause,
As always in the law’s the case,
So he his judgments gave,
And lawyer like he thus resolv’d
What each of them should have;
Blind plaintif, lame defendant, share
The friendly laws’ impartial care,
A shell for him, a shell for thee,
The middle is the lawyer’s fee.
Many of Franklin’s aphorisms still capture the American imagination, whether remembered exactly (“Fish and visitors stink in three days”) or misremembered over time (“A penny saved is a penny earned” arguably began as Franklin’s “A penny saved is two pence dear”). His poetry did not have the same lasting impact, but it did help make light verse an expected part of American newspapers, popular journals and almanacs, and thus it played an important part in making poetry of American culture.
It seems only fair to give old Ben the last word:
Epitaph in Bookish Style
Like the cover of an old book
Its contents torn out
And stript of its lettering and gilding
Lies here, food for worms.
But the work shall not be lost
For it will (as he believed) appear once more
In a new and more elegant edition
Revised and corrected
*Partridge’s defiant pamphlet reiterating (in anticipation of Monty Python) that he was not dead yet was not enough to persuade readers. On the morning of April 1, a sexton woke Partridge to ask him about his funeral sermon. Neighbors kept commenting on Partridge’s striking resemblance to the dead astrologer. Swift’s 1709 prose piece, “A Vindication of Isaac Bickerstaff,” piled on one last time and declared that Partridge’s own wife had stated that the astrologer had neither “life nor soul.” En.wikisource.org/wiki/A_vindication_of_Isaac_Bickerstaff,_Esq The nonexistent Bickerstaff then moved onto greater fame and responsibility when Richard Steele named him the editor of the famed Tatler essays.
Aldridge, A. “A Humorous Poem By Benjamin Franklin” Volume 98 No. 6 Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society (1954) at 397-399.
Mayhew, G. “Swift’s Bickerstaff Hoax as an April Fool Joke” Volume 61 Modern Philology (1964) at 270-280.
Rogers, P. The Alexander Pope Encyclopedia. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2004.
Wolf, E. “B. FRANKLIN, Bookman” Volume 50 No. 1 American Library Association (1956) at 13-16.
Zall, P. Benjamin Franklin’s Humor. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2005.
A.M. Juster‘s most recent books are Horace’s Satires (U Penn Press 2008) and Tibullus’ Elegies (Oxford University Press 2012). His book of original poetry, The Secret Language of Women (University of Evansville Press 2003), won the Richard Wilbur Award and he is a three-time winner of The Formalist‘s Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award. His neighborhood five-and-ten is “Ben Franklin.”