“Here lies Ben Franklin — a printer” is the message gracefully displayed at the gravesite of my favorite Founding Father in the City of Philadelphia. He was ambassador to both England and France as well as a signer of the Declaration of Independence and contributor to the US Constitution. He was also an inventor, a philosopher and creator of the first library, the first zoo and the first fire company in the New World.
But he chose to mark his resting grounds at Christ Church with a rather simple designation — “a printer.” I too started my life as a printer, having learned how to set metal type with a hand composition at Dobbin’s Tech High School in North Philadelphia. I held jobs at three printing places and joked that I once worked as a “stripper.” That is the designation in offset printing for someone using an X-Acto knife to “strip” away from a thin goldenrod sheet covering a negative in order to expose light to a plate that a press would eventually create the printed word or photograph on a sheet of paper.
I learned that being a printer could be a courageous job while studying history and the legal profession. It was John Peter Zenger, a printer, that helped journalists of today avoid imprisonment by producing truthful stories about government officials. Zenger published a newspaper and printed an article that criticized the newly-installed British governor of New York who removed the chief justice of the colony’s supreme court in 1733. Zenger was put in jail but freed up when a lawyer persuaded a jury to find him not guilty of sedition.
That attorney was Andrew Hamilton, who obtained the moniker of “Philadelphia lawyer” when he suggested to a jury that the truth should become the defense against libel. Previously, the state imprisoned you for saying anything bad about the government no matter how true it might have been.
That same lawyer helped to establish another principle in law called “jury nullification.” A jury could decide not to follow a law if it deemed it to be wrong. That’s what they did in not following the governor’s mandate and freeing the printer thus forging the path for freedom of the press.
I’d like to thank all printers that have provided the world with such courage and far-sightedness. That would include that fellow named Guttenberg who started it all!