They say that Gutenberg’s printing press changed the course of history, pressing into being a new form of Christianity and an array of new societal possibilities based on expanded literacy. For me though, the printing press was fully realized only by Benjamin Franklin. You can find Benjamin Franklin all over Philadelphia–there is the Franklin Institute and the Library Company and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and how many statues and other iconography? Even organizations whose claims to Franklin I find somewhat tenuous shout their association loudly. Why wouldn’t they? He was a scientist and leader “able to restrain alike thunderbolts and tyrants.” He is on the hundred dollar bill. Before he was anything else, though, Benjamin Franklin was a printer – of newspapers, books and currency. To travel back in time, away from Meta and Tiktok and Twitter and toward the Pennsylvania Gazette, I enter off the three-hundredth block of Market Street. There are flowers in the courtyard, a burst of yellow Black-eyed Susans, and they provide good contrast against the red brick, the blue-and-white sky, the ghost-gray of the outlined framework of the house that could once be found here, and the varied gray modern buildings poking up from Chestnut Street. If, upon entering, you turn right and back around toward Market Street, you can enter the printer’s shop. In the printer’s shop things are swift and textural and satisfying. National Parks Service employees cheerily answer questions on alternating 15-minute shifts where they print for us, again, the Declaration of our Independence. The inking process is my favorite–they pound lightly at the type using boxing glove-like-poufs. The press itself is oddly gentle, belying its power. One light twist and touch and out comes the printed word. Maybe this time, with this latest printed declaration, our liberty will stick the landing and endure? Is liberty something that must be declared again and again, in each generation? In reenacting our past here in this small shop, can we awaken a deeper, truer love of freedom? Can this then sustain our democracy in these disorienting times? What would Franklin do to protect our liberty today, if he were capable? I purchased three printings.
They are of the past, the good-parts version. No advertisements for run-away slaves. These are quotes that speak of hope for women and former slaves and scientists, and elide the sharper horrors of who America was, even then. These are words that sing of gentle remonstration, of progress and possibility. Franklin’s response to the question, “Well Doctor, what have we got–a republic, or a monarchy?” is what speaks the loudest to me. “A republic, if you can keep it,” he is quoted as answering. I have struggled, as an adult, with feeling betrayed at Franklin’s failure to prevent the so-called Three-Fifths Compromise from compromising our Constitution. Franklin, a former slaveowner, had become an abolitionist by the time of the writing of the Constitution. And yet, when the time came when he might have spoken in Independence Hall for freedom, he disappoints me. Why can he not say, explicitly, that slavery is wrong? Here is some of what he did say: . . . there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered, and believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other. I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution. For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. How can we evade this corruption he spoke of? Why do so many seem not fearful of, but rather, hungry for despotism? Are there words that I could print, words that Franklin would print, if he were able, that would save us from such a fate? I don’t know, but I do know that if you happen to find yourself on East Market Street in Philadelphia, I do recommend a visit to Franklin’s printing shop. I did feel that it gave me something, for free at that. Thus, enriched, I went back out into courtyard, and cut across through the ghost house, and out onto Chestnut, where I turned left and around to enter the Science History Institute. Before the pandemic, I attended an evening lecture at the Institute, and have been receiving their emails ever since. Apparently, it is a new place, though made of things old, forged in 2018 from the Chemical Heritage Foundation and the Life Sciences Foundation. If you love old science books and vacuum tubes and batteries nestled in bright lighting and thoughtful curatorial framing, it is a nice two-level room to wander for an hour or two or so. Another interesting feature is the requirement for vaccination and masks–unusual, but for me, not unwelcome in the summer of 2022. Overall, there is something jarring about an institute of science history in this year, in this time. What do people think science is, anymore? Magic? Alchemy? Something to believe in or not believe in, a parallel or antagonist to faith? The magic of science fuels microwaves and photocopiers, and is only for human profit. Science sometimes seems understood merely as a means to fulfillment of these words: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”In any case, I enjoyed walking through the collection, learning how our water was made drinkable and how battery-powered objects were developed and how various science curricula gained and lost popularity over the years. Long live the pursuit of truth.