We all think of Benjamin Franklin as a grandfatherly type who invented and published things, sort of that eccentric neighbor who was everyone’s friend, but there was a ruthless side to Franklin.
In 1728, a printer named Samuel Keimer founded the Pennsylvania Gazette, the second newspaper ever printed in the colony. It did not do well, and Keimer quickly fell into debt and fled the nation. Before he left, though, he sold the paper to a young man interested in the business of printing and journalism named Benjamin Franklin. Franklin took a hands-on role in writing the news of the day and, of course, opinion columns often authoring his own well positioned letters to the editor.
Wanting to expand his publishing empire, Franklin announced that a new publication entitle “Poor Richard’s Almanack,” would be produced by the Gazette. This new periodical would not focus on the news, but rather, on other key information — a calendar, weather predictions, probably some stuff about astrology, some poetry, etc. Written by “Richard Saunders,” a pseudonym Franklin adopted, it was a smorgasbord of readables and something for everyone. But it wasn’t Franklin’s idea. In fact, much of the content was “borrowed” from another almanac already in circulation: The American Almanack, published by a man named Titan Leeds. To be truly successful, Franklin needed to destroy this competitor.
The American Almanack was founded in 1687 by a devout Quaker named Daniel Leeds. The publication earned the disdain of the Philadelphia area Quakers as it frequently satirized them. This proved very popular with the non-Quakers of Philadelphia. When Daniel decided to retire in 1716, he turned the reins over to his son, Titan. By the time Ben Franklin/Richard Saunders got into the nix, Titan Leeds was a well-known leader in the almanac space. “Poor Richard” was the upstart and unless the popularity of the “American Almanack” waned, Franklin’s new business was not likely to succeed.
In the initial edition of Poor Richard’s Almanack, published in 1733, “Richard Saunders” penned a letter to his readers explaining why he was entering the almanac business, particularly in light of the fact that an already good one was being published by Titan Leeds. Saunders explains that his motivation isn’t solely for the public good — he’s poor and needs an income, Ben Franklin offered to partner with him in the endeavor. Saunders’ only remaining concern was his friendship with Titan Leeds — he didn’t want to compete with his compatriot. But, Saunders continued, that wouldn’t be an issue for very long (via):
“Indeed this Motive would have had Force enough to have made me publish an Almanack many Years since, had it not been overpowered by my Regard for my good Friend and Fellow-Student, Mr. Titan Leeds, whose Interest I was extremely unwilling to hurt: But this Obstacle (I am far from speaking it with Pleasure) is soon to be removed, since inexorable Death, who was never known to respect Merit, has already prepared the mortal Dart, the fatal Sister has already extended her destroying Shears, and that ingenious Man must soon be taken from us. He dies, by my Calculation made at his Request, on Oct. 17, 1733, 3:29 P.M., at the very instant of the conjunction of the Sun and Mercury: By his own Calculation he will survive till the 26th of the same Month. This small difference between us we have disputed whenever we have met these 9 Years past; but at length he is inclinable to agree with my Judgment.”
Leeds didn’t die in 1734, and he used his own almanac that year to assure his readers that he was very much alive — and, for good measure, wrote that Saunders “has usurpt the knowledge of the Almighty herein and manifested himself a Fool and a Lyar.” Franklin, who hadn’t yet published his almanack when Leeds’ hit, replied in kind (as Saunders), writing that while he could not be sure when Leeds died, it was likely that he had. His proof? The real Titan Leeds would never use such coarse language to describe a friend, to wit: “Mr. Leeds was too well bred to use any Man so indecently and so scurrilously, and moreover his Esteem and Affection for me was extraordinary.” Saunders mourned the loss of his friend and argued that the 1734 edition of the American Almanack was being written by a scoundrel who was using the good name of the now-deceased Titan Leeds to sell copies of the publication. Franklin carried the ruse forward for the next few years, only calling it quits in 1740. Titan Leeds actually did die in 1738, and the 1739 version of his Almanack carried an obituary to their now-former publisher.
In 1800, with Jefferson and Adams at loggerheads over who should be President of the United States, Franklin advised his new friend – John Adams – of the tactic. When Jefferson directed his friend John Callender who was an editor of The Richmond Recorder, to publish libelous articles printed about Adams. The easily enraged Adams simply had articles published in return stating that the election was now over because Jefferson was now dead.
Dirty business and dirty politics are often bedfellows. Its amazing how we forget the real character of some of our founding fathers.