Rhode Island

Ann Smith Franklin, First Lady of Rhode Island Journalism

There were actually two Franklins who left Boston for another coastal city to start up a newspaper and an almanac: founding father Benjamin Franklin and his sister-in-law, Ann Smith Franklin.

Ann Smith Franklin printed this.

Ann Smith Franklin printed this.

Widowed with four small children, she began publishing the Newport, R.I., Mercury. She also printed an almanac series, the laws of Rhode Island and the colony’s paper money, election ballots, legal forms and popular books.

She was born October 2, 1696 in Boston to Samuel and Anna Smith. Not much is known about her childhood, except she had a good education and she was a Puritan. She married James Franklin in Boston on February 4, 1723. Both were 26.

James had traveled to England in 1717 and brought back a printing press. He established the first independent New England newspaper, the Courant, with the help of Ann and his younger brother Benjamin, who was indentured to him. The New England Courant got him into trouble. James criticized the Puritan theocracy, and in 1722 he was imprisoned for a month for printing ‘scandalous libel.’ He continued to print ‘wicked’ articles, which continued to get him in trouble, and so in 1727 he and Ann took their printing press to Newport, R.I., where James’ brother John, a tallow chandler, lived.

James and Ann Franklin had five children while living in Newport, three of whom lived to adulthood. Together they launched the Rhode Island Gazette, the colony's first newspaper, on Sept. 27, 1732. Ann helped James in his print shop. She set type, ran the press and sold their newspapers, books and James’ Rhode Island Almanack by Poor Robin.

James died in 1735 after a long illness. Ann took over the printing business, but didn’t make enough money to support her family. In 1736, she asked the General Assembly of Rhode Island for a contract:

Whereas your petitioner being left with several small children which is a great charge to her, and having not sufficient business at the printing trade, humbly prays hour Honors will grant her the favor to print Acts of the Colony and what other things shall be lawful and necessary to be printed, in order for your Petitioner’s support and maintenance of her family, she having no other way to support herself.

She got the job.

As the official printer to the colony, she printed election ballots, legal forms and the colony’s charter. She revived the Rhode Island Almanack, though she gave it up after five years and instead sold her brother-in-law’s Poor Richard’s Almanack. She printed election ballots, legal forms and the colony’s charter. In 1745 she received her biggest commission, 500 copies of a folio edition of the Acts and Laws of Rhode Island, ‘Acts and Laws, of his Majesty's Colony of Rhode-Island, and Providence-Plantations, in New-England, in America, Newport, Rhode-Island: Printed by the Widow Franklin, and to be Sold at the Town-School-House.’ She also printed sermons to supplement her income, and broadsides of private quarrels.

Ann’s son James went to Philadelphia to apprentice with his Uncle Benjamin, and her two surviving daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, helped her set type in the print shop. When James returned from Philadelphia in 1748, he ran the business, called ‘Ann and James Franklin.’ Ten years later they started a newspaper, The Newport Mercury.

As Ann approached her 60s, she turned more of the business responsibility over to her children, but all three died early. After James died in 1762, Ann went back to the printing press. She became the sole editor of The Mercury on Aug. 22, 1762, never missing an issue. She took on a partner, Samuel Hall, late in 1762, but she died on April 16, 1763.

Her obituary appeared in The Mercury, describing her as someone whose ‘economy and industry … supported herself and her family, and brought up her children in a genteel manner.'

In 1985, she was inducted into the Rhode Island Journalism Hall of Fame.

With thanks to Women in Early America: Struggle, Survival, and Freedom in a New World by Dorothy A. Mays.



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