So Disgraceful to Our Country
- By Benjamin Franklin
(Portrait of Benjamin Franklin, 1778. Joseph Siffred Duplessis. Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Over the last four years or so, events in the United States of America—a country in which, as you know, I myself have no small interest—have made it difficult for those of us who are, shall we say, permanently retired from active duty, to remain so.
The recent controversy regarding a book contract, proffered to a certain notorious abuser of the public good and trust, has made it impossible for me, as a dedicated public servant, to remain silent any longer. On this issue, I long ago made my own sentiments and my own practice, clear, so let me indulge myself here by simply citing from my memoir, a text that I am told has received its fair share of readers over the years:
“In the conduct of my newspaper, I carefully excluded all libeling and personal abuse, which is of late years become so disgraceful to our country. Whenever I was solicited to insert anything of that kind, and the writers pleaded, as they generally did, the liberty of the press, and that a newspaper was like a stage-coach, in which anyone who would pay had a right to a place, my answer was, that I would print the piece separately if desired, and the author might have as many copies as he pleased to distribute himself, but that I would not take upon me to spread his detraction; and that, having contracted with my subscribers to furnish them with what might be either useful or entertaining, I could not fill their papers with private altercation, in which they had no concern, without doing them manifest injustice.
Now, many of our printers make no scruple of gratifying the malice of individuals by false accusations of the fairest characters among ourselves, augmenting animosity even to the producing of duels; and are, moreover, so indiscreet as to print scurrilous reflections on the government of neighboring states, and even on the conduct of our best national allies, which may be attended with the most pernicious consequences. These things I mention as a caution to young printers, and that they may be encouraged not to pollute their presses and disgrace their profession by such infamous practices, but refuse steadily, as they may see by my example that such a course of conduct will not, on the whole, be injurious to their interests.”
My feelings, as you will have understood, are clear. I regard Simon & Schuster, the venerable publishing company, as entirely correct in both opinions and actions. I laud them for dealing properly with a scroundrel, and for refusing to further the scurrilous behavior of those who esteem private profit more than public good; they have performed selflessly and courageously on behalf of their company, our country, and its citizens—indeed of the world as a whole.
Benjamin Franklin was a printer, public servant, and citizen of the world. He was born in Boston on 17 January 1706 and died in Philadelphia on 17 April 1790.