The Bitter Race to Publish America's First Magazine
Benjamin Franklin is known for being one of history’s most famous polymaths. But despite being a famed statesman and inventor—plus establishing the nation’s first volunteer fire company and subscription library—at heart Franklin considered himself a printer. (As a young man, he even composed an epitaph comparing the "Body of B. Franklin, Printer" to "the Cover of an Old Book" and promising that he would one day "appear once more/In a new & more perfect Edition.") In the 1740s, it was his ambition as a printer that ended up embroiling him in a rivalry with a local competitor to launch America’s first magazine.
Franklin's father, Josiah, originally wanted his bookish son to enter into the clergy, but he couldn't pay for the requisite education. Instead, Franklin ended up apprenticing with his brother James, a printer, in their home city of Boston. Franklin followed in his sibling's footsteps and later became a successful printer in his own right, co-founding a printing shop in Philadelphia in 1728.
Some of the most notable products of Franklin's shop included his newspaper the Pennsylvania Gazette and Poor Richard's Almanack, which Franklin started publishing in 1732. But by 1740, Franklin had set his sights on another goal: producing the very first monthly magazine in the Thirteen Colonies.
At the time, England had its own monthly news magazine, called The Gentleman’s Magazine. Founded in 1731, it offered readers a curated mix of news, commentary, and literature; today, it’s remembered as the first publication to use the word magazine (derived from the Arabic makazin, or "storehouse") to describe a collection of printed material.
Franklin planned to loosely model his own magazine after The Gentleman’s Magazine. It would be published monthly and would offer an aggregation of stories from colonial newspapers. The printer also had a prospective editor in mind: an attorney and writer named John Webbe, who had published a series of essays on government in the Pennsylvania Gazette several years prior.
Franklin outlined his new business scheme to Webbe, hoping to bring him on board. The plan was to create a 57-page magazine, with an initial print run of 1000 copies. It would cost customers 15 shillings a year, or 15 pence per issue. Franklin would foot the production bills, and Webbe would be responsible for its contents, as well as writing promotions and abstracts. And since Franklin served as Philadelphia's postmaster, he would be in charge of distributing the magazine throughout the colonies. Since Franklin was paying to make the magazine, he proposed receiving 75 percent of proceeds, while Webbe would receive 25. Franklin would also receive three-fourths of the magazine’s royalties for the first 2000 copies; if more copies sold, he and Webbe would split them.
Initially, Webbe accepted Franklin’s offer. But after some consideration, he decided he wanted more money than Franklin was willing to give. So he went behind Franklin's back and pitched the idea to another printer named Andrew Bradford, proposing a larger share of the profits than Franklin had been offering.
Bradford was Webbe's friend—and Franklin's rival. He published Pennsylvania's first newspaper, the American Weekly Mercury, and once served as Philadelphia's postmaster; long before, he had also briefly employed Franklin at his print shop. But in later years, the ambitious Franklin launched a competing printing press and newspaper and replaced Bradford as Philadelphia's postmaster. Since then, their relationship had soured.
Bradford had reportedly also considered the idea of founding a magazine, so he jumped at the chance to beat Franklin—with Webbe as his editorial right hand. On October 30, 1740, Bradford printed a prospectus in the Mercury for a new publication called the American Magazine, or a Monthly View of the Political State of the British Colonies. Bradford promised readers that the publication would include an ambitious mix of political, legal, business, economic, and foreign news, as well as commentary and analysis. Their magazine would also be longer—and cheaper—than Franklin's. It was to be published for March (which meant it would appear in April, since 18th century magazines were always printed the month following their cover dates).
Not one to back down from a challenge, Franklin retaliated with his own magazine advertisement, published in the Pennsylvania Gazette about two weeks later. His publication, he announced, would be called The General Magazine, and Historical Chronicle, For all the British Plantations in America. In addition to hard news, The General Magazine would include excerpts from new books; opinion essays and poetry; and news of births, marriages, deaths, and promotions. Franklin also lowered his planned price from 15 pence to nine pence, made the magazine longer, and decided to fund it entirely himself (rather than relying on subscriptions) to get it out faster.
The magazine would be ready for January, Franklin promised (which meant it would appear in February). The advertisement also noted that the magazine "would not, indeed, have been published quite so soon, were it not that a Person, to whom the Scheme was communicated in Confidence, has thought to advertise it in the last Mercury, without our Participation; and, probably, with a view, by Starting before us, to discourage us from prosecuting our first Design, and reap the Advantage of it wholly to himself." (On "a Person," Franklin included the footnote "John Webbe.")
Webbe responded with a series of newspaper articles in the Mercury attacking Franklin, accusing him of "the most mischievous Kind of Lying" and of having "the Slyness of a Pickpocket." According to Webbe, the project was never supposed to be secret and he hadn’t really committed himself to it, anyway. Franklin did not immediately reply, merely reprinting his advertisement, but some scholars think one of the proverbs printed around this time in Poor Richard’s Almanack may have been related to the betrayal: "If you would keep your Secret from an enemy, tell it not to a friend."
Meanwhile, two magazine deadlines loomed. Bradford wanted to scoop Franklin, so he moved up the American Magazine’s publication date. Both magazines ended up running in February 1741, but Bradford’s publication ultimately got there first: The American Magazine was published on February 13, 1741, three days before Franklin's.
The intense rivalry among Franklin, Bradford, and Webbe had started with a bang, but ended with a whimper: Bradford’s American Magazine folded after three issues, and Franklin’s General Magazine lasted only six issues. But while Bradford and Webbe may have gotten there first, their names are now just footnotes in history—while Franklin's brilliant reputation, as a printer and far more, lives on.
Additional Source: The Life of Benjamin Franklin, Volume 2: Printer and Publisher, 1730-1747, J.A. Leo Lemay