Silence Dogood, Anthony Afterwit, Fanny Mournful, Caelia Shortface. Dickens’ characters? No. They’re just a few of the many evocative pen names Benjamin Franklin used to wittily present a controversial or libelous issue or two sides of an argument while remaining anonymous.
As a sixteen-year-old apprentice at his brother’s paper, the New England Courant, Franklin was privy to the planning sessions of its quick-witted staff who thrived on combative articles directed against the political, religious, and moral affairs of the day. When his brother, James Franklin, rebuffed his appeals to try his hand as a contributor, he composed a droll, satirical piece and slipped it anonymously under the door. Thus, the irrepressible Silence Dogood, Franklin’s first pseudonym, was born.
In this first essay in 1722, Mrs. Dogood, a middle-aged preacher’s widow, dispassionately revealed the misfortunes of her early years, including the ill-timed wave that swept her father overboard as he stood on deck rejoicing at her birth (her parents being ship-board at the time) and the demise of her mother when Silence was but a young girl. She went on to reassure her readers that she “liv’d a cheerful Country life” and “past away the Time with a Mixture of Profit and Pleasure, having no affliction but what was imaginary, and created in my own Fancy; as nothing is more common with us Women, than to be grieving for nothing, when we have nothing else to grieve for.” Franklin’s autobiography describes his “exquisite Pleasure” the following day on hearing the praise of the assembled Couranteers. The essay was printed, and his brother invited Mrs. Dogood’s further correspondence. Franklin went on to write thirteen more, with each flaunting Dogood’s fondness for gossip, sense of humor, and unapologetic vanity.
Pen names were not uncommon in Franklin’s time. In fact, anonymous publication was an essential feature of pre-Revolutionary politics that continued through the crafting of the Constitution and Bill of Rights and well into early administrations of the American democracy.
As early as 1774, Daniel Leonard, one of Massachusetts’ most brilliant lawyers, writing under the pseudonym Massachusettensis, implored his readers to remain loyal to the king, while John Adams, countering as Novanglus, made the case for American independence, his essential argument being that the American colonies were not part of England and therefore not subject to Parliament’s dictates.
During the debates over the design and ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1787 and 1788, many writers hid their identities from the popular press by using pen names, which allowed them to express more pointed and even slanderous views while maintaining a shield from the authorities. While most Americans might have known that Hamilton, Madison, and John Jay were the Publius of The Federalist Papers, few would have been aware that Roger Yates, an Anti-Federalist, published sixteen essays under the name of Brutus in the New York Journal or that John Dickinson, one of five Delaware delegates to the Constitutional Convention, wrote nine letters in support of ratification under the name Fabius.
In 1793, with England and France once more at war, Hamilton and Madison squared off anonymously in response to Washington’s Neutrality Proclamation. As Pacificus, Hamilton argued that the Constitution’s grant of executive power gave the president authority to proclaim neutrality, further claiming that Congress’ power to declare war was limited. Madison, writing as Helvidius, maintained that the power to declare war was constitutionally assigned to Congress and that the Neutrality Proclamation infringed this legislative power. Seven Pacificus and five Helvidius letters were published, presaging a battle over the roles of the executive and legislature in American foreign policy that continues to this day.
And in 1801, Hamilton helped launch the New-York Evening Post by writing eighteen articles under the pen name of Lucius Crassus that viciously criticized Jefferson’s early days as president. It’s the only daily publication from that period still in existence, although it dropped “Evening” from its masthead in 1934.
Writers often used the names of Roman statesmen or Latin-infused terms as pen names, believing it signified a noble purpose and learned distinction. Hamilton chose Publius for The Federalist Papers after Publius Valerius Publicola, who is credited with the founding of the Roman Republic. What more fitting pen name could Hamilton have chosen for what he believed would be the founding of an American Republic. In addition to the pseudonyms referenced above, Hamilton wrote as Catallus, Metellus, Horatius, and Phocion.
Similarly, writers employed multiple pen names feeling that readers were more likely to accept their viewpoint if numerous people appeared to be expressing the same position. Using more than twenty-five pen names, Samuel Adams adapted a total disregard for the truth in his articles in the Boston Gazette. Most journalists of the time did likewise, filling their publications with bile, lies, and savage exaggerations. In eighteenth-century newspapers, there was no clear distinction between fact and fiction.
Two attributes set Benjamin Franklin apart from most pseudonymous writers of the Founding period. First, he consistently used humor even while tackling the most vexing and serious issues of the day. Most writers of the era lacked levity and used Roman names or Latin-infused terms for their pen names to convey serious intent. In the case of Franklin, even before scanning a word of his essays or letters, the reader smiled at the pen names he chose for his fictional authors. In addition to the aforementioned Silence Dogood, Anthony Afterwit, Fanny Mournful, and Caelia Shortface, Franklin was Alice Addertongue, Harry Meanwell, Obadiah Plainman, Patience, Margaret Aftercast, and Busy Body.
Each pseudonym cunningly forecast the topic to be deflated, the lesson to be imparted, or the issues to be laid bare. Thus, in his first Silence Dogood letter, Mrs. Dogood made fun of the tendency of citizens to value what they read by what they know of the status of the writer: “And since it is observed, that the Generality of People, now a days, are unwilling either to commend or dispraise what they read, until they are in some measure informed who or what the Author of it is, whether he be poor or rich, old or young, a Schollar or a Leather Apron Man . . . it may not be amiss to begin with a short Account of my past Life and present Condition, that the Reader may not be at a Loss to judge whether or no my Lucubrations are worth his reading.” And speaking as Dogood in letter 4, Franklin satirically exposed his bitterness at being unable to continue his formal education given his family’s modest income and noted that financial burdens often prevented the brightest students from entering universities. In a dream, Dogood recounted her journey to an edifice of higher learning, ostensibly Harvard, the entrance to which was guarded by “two sturdy Porters named Riches and Poverty, and the latter obstinately refused to give Entrance to any who had not first gain’d the Favour of the former;” rejecting them “for want of this necessary Qualification.” Therefore, Dogood claimed, parents “consulted their own Purses instead of their Children’s Capacities” resulting in the majority of those attending university being “little better than Dunces and Blockheads. Alas! Alas!”
The choice of the surname Silence was deliberate. Here Franklin underscored the absence of influence he as a sixteen-year-old, or for that matter any outspoken young or post-menopausal woman, had in a society where they were disregarded and expected to be silent. But in writing as a competent middle-aged widow, Silence Dogood might impart some knowledge worth reading.
In 1747, in The Speech of Miss Polly Baker, Franklin’s feigned narrator Polly launched into a heated defense of her unwed status and five illegitimate children. “I cannot conceive (may it please your Honours) what the Nature of my offence is. I have brought Five fine children into the World.” Franklin, himself, had fathered a child out of wedlock, and this was his veiled way of protesting against what he felt to be an unjust law. Using wit and satire, Polly, who had been fined and whipped for her “crimes,” ridiculed a law that punished women for having illegitimate children while the fathers, many of them prominent men, went unpunished. She reasonably asked why should women be punished for performing “the Duty of the first and great Command of Nature, and of Nature’s God, Increase and Multiply,” while men who fathered these children took no responsibility for their care. She asked, “Is not this a greater Offense against the Public Good, than mine?” So convincing was her indictment of the juries’ punishments, that the judge commuted her sentence and married her the next day—so Franklin said. Polly’s case dramatized gender inequality and the harshness of New England’s laws. The speech was reprinted countless times in England and the American colonies and became so ingrained in lore that many readers accepted it as truth. It was more than thirty years before Franklin revealed his shameless Polly was fictitious.
“If to scandalize be really a Crime, what do these Puppies mean?” asked Alice Addertongue, another of Franklin’s pseudonymous personalities, as she systematically and amusingly undermined those who criticize scandal while indulging in it themselves. In a mock letter to The Pennsylvania Gazette on September 12, 1732, Addertongue boastfully presented herself as the “Center of all Scandal in the Province.” Having been chastised as a child for her inclination to self-praise, she switched to dispraising others, which she found was more acceptable to company and to herself. “Scandal, like other Virtues,” she wrote, “is in part its own Reward, as it gives us the Satisfaction of making ourselves appear better than others, or others no better than ourselves.” When she hadn’t heard ill of a woman (or man), Miss Addertongue cleverly elicited it by speaking well of her, explaining, “If you know anything of Humane Nature, you perceive that this naturally introduces a Conversation turning upon all her Failings, past, present, and to come.” She further asserted, “‘tis an Imposition upon the Publick” that people only allow one-fifth of their failings to be known in order to enhance their reputations; therefore, she felt justified in adding “probable circumstances” to correct their versions. “I think I keep within Bounds if in relating it I only make it three timesworse than it is.” She claimed there were few as careful as she in doling out justice, because “the worst that is said of us is only half what might be said, if all our Faults were seen.”
Franklin endowed Alice with copious charm as he convincingly laid bare the nature and rationalization of scandal and its widespread use. Through Miss Addertongue, he explained the real motive for scandal as a perverted form of self-praise. Unable to praise oneself, one maligns another. Although totally amoral, Alice triumphantly captivates the reader.
The second way that Franklin set himself apart from other eighteenth-century pseudonymous authors was through the development of a complete persona for each of his imaginary characters. He sometimes wrote as a man, more often as a woman, but always with the goal of presenting his opinion on an important issue. Through fourteen letters, we learn not only about Silence Dogood’s birth, her parents’ passings, her marriage and widowhood, but also her take—actually Franklin’s—on education, marriage, politics, and social issues. As Franklin ridiculed the penal laws in New England in “The Speech of Miss Polly Baker,” the reader is afforded a delightful portrait of Polly as a caring, industrious mother and a skilled debater. Alice Addertongue, a “young girl” of thirty-five who lived with her mother, informed us “I have no care upon my Head of getting a Living, and therefore find it my Duty as well as Inclination, to exercise my Talent at CENSURE, for the good of my Country folks.” Thus, she introduced her devastating and amusing dismissal of the male view of the impropriety of scandal.
Although Franklin’s use of male pen names was less frequent, Richard Saunders is probably his best-known pseudonym, being the Richard of Poor Richard’s Almanack. The Almanack first appeared in 1732 and through Richard Saunders, Franklin’s advice and sage witticisms filled its pages annually for the next twenty-six years. Who among us has not been forewarned that “early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise,” “haste makes waste,” or “fish and visitors stink after three days”? At the height of its popularity, the Almanack sold 10,000 copies a year, making it a harbinger of the self-help book.
Franklin’s teenaged resourcefulness in getting his viewpoints published presaged the keen diplomatic and social skills he would employ throughout his long and fruitful life. He infused his spurious writings with humor, recognizing that a story that delighted the reader was more likely to make a profound and enduring impression than one that trounced its targets. Through his ingenious use of pen names, Franklin left us with some of the most beguiling literature of the eighteenth century.
“Silence Dogood, No. 1,” founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-01-02-0008. Originally printed in the New England Courant, April 2, 1722.
Walter R. Borneman, American Spring: Lexington, Concord, and the Road to Revolution (New York: Back Bay Books, 2014), 59-62. Originally published in seventeen consecutive issues of the Massachusetts Gazette, December 12, 1774 to April 3, 1775.
“Pacificus,”founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-15-02-0038. Originally published in the Gazette of the United States, June 29, 1793 to July 27, 1793.
“Helvidius,” founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-15-02-0056. Originally published in the Gazette of the United States,August 24, 1793 to September 18, 1793.
“Silence Dogood, No. 4,” founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-01-02-0011. Originally published in the New England Courant,May 14, 1722.