James Franklin (1697-1735) was the first of ten children born to Josiah Franklin and Abiah Folger of Boston. He learned the printing trade in England and then returned to America, where in 1721, he began publication of the controversial and independent New England Courant, a newspaper disrespectful of civil and ecclesiastical policies. Young Benjamin Franklin–child number eight in the family–also worked on this paper until 1723 as an apprentice to his brother, who treated him harshly. Like many adopted Rhode Islanders, James Franklin ran afoul of the Massachusetts authorities, and having been jailed for a month for his opinions, he left Boston in 1726 for Newport, the home of his brother John, a tallow chandler.
In 1727, Franklin and his wife, the former Ann Smith (1696-1763), set up Rhode Island’s first printing press. In 1732, he issued the Rhode Island Gazette, the colony’s first newspaper, but it was discontinued on May 24, 1733. Franklin also printed books, pamphlets, and almanacs, sometimes using the pen name Poor Robin, which may have inspired his brother’s, Poor Richard.
When James Franklin died on February 4, 1735, his thirty-eighth birthday, leaving four children (one had preceded him in death), the printing shop was continued under the auspices of Ann Franklin, whose imprint appeared as The Widow Franklin. She also printed books, almanacs, pamphlets, and five hundred copies of the colony’s Acts and Laws (the Digest of 1745) in a folio edition.
Ann Franklin was eventually joined by her son, James Jr., who had apprenticed in Philadelphia with his uncle Benjamin. In June 1758, James Franklin Jr. published the first issue of the Newport Mercury, which became one of colonial America’s important newspapers. When he died in 1762, his mother once again took over the management of her printing business, which she carried on for another year until her own death. The Franklins of Newport were pioneers in the American publishing industry and strongly influenced public opinion in colonial Rhode Island.
James and Ann Franklin were inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1998.
For additional information:
Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley.