He attended the public school.
While at school, Russell frequented the printing office of Isaiah Thomas and learned to set type. On April 19, 1775, with several schoolmates he followed a detachment of troops to Cambridge and because of sudden developments in the preparations for war was unable to return home; after spending three months in doing errands for officers quartered in the Harvard Yard and in acting as clerk for a company of Connecticut troops, he encountered his father, received a thrashing, and next day was taken to Worcester and apprenticed to Isaiah Thomas, who had recently removed the Massachusetts Spy there from Boston. At the time of the Declaration of Independence, he impulsively enlisted in the army but, being not yet sixteen years old, was released; in 1780, however, Thomas was drafted and employed Russell as his substitute. He joined the army at West Point, was a member of the guard at the execution of Major John André, but served in no engagement. At the end of his six months' enlistment he returned to continue his apprenticeship, from which Thomas reluctantly relieved him in 1781 when he reached his twentieth year, and he became a full-fledged journeyman. Equipped with two years' experience as journeyman, some familiarity with writing (gained mainly by making surreptitious contributions to the Spy), and a young wife to whom he had been married two months, he decided in November 1783 to set up a newspaper in Boston, but difficulty in obtaining equipment delayed until March 24, 1784, the publication of the first number of The Massachusetts Centinel and the Republican Journal, to be issued twice a week by William Warden and Benjamin Russell. At the end of the second year, Russell became sole owner and editor and so continued until 1828, when he retired from journalism. The title was soon shortened to the Massachusetts Centinel and in 1790 changed to the Columbian Centinel. Russell soon proved his ability as a journalist, not only by energetic news gathering, vigorous writing, ingenious typography, and novel incipient cartoons, but by associating himself and his paper with mechanics and merchants and by taking an active part in politics. Thus he soon became an important citizen, and his paper the most enterprising and influential in Massachusetts. With him as voluntary contributors were associated such men as Fisher Ames, John Lowell, George Cabot, Stephen Higginson, and Timothy Pickering. Though the first number of the Centinel bore the motto "Uninfluenced by party, we aim only to be just, " Russell was naturally a thoroughgoing Federalist. He denounced Shays's rebellion and all disorder, was strongly nationalistic, and vigorously urged ratification of the Constitution. He joyously acclaimed the adherence of each state, was leader among the Boston mechanics who influenced the Massachusetts convention in favor of ratification, and in the next issue after that event uttered a column of ecstatic verse. He gave the administrations of Washington and Adams unqualified support and, as the Federalist party took shape, made the Centinel its leading organ in New England. The proceedings of the first session of Congress he printed gratis, though later when funds were available Washington asked for and paid the cost. During the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars no other American paper was so noted for its "foreign intelligence" and the accurate details of the movements of forces and operations in Europe. It was said that Russell had the map of all the seats of conflict in his head and could trace and define every league of ground traversed by Bonaparte from the Battle of Marengo to Waterloo. To "Major Ben's" office Louis Philippe and Talleyrand, during their residence in Boston, regularly went for news, and the former gave Russell an atlas of which the editor made constant use. Russell thought the election of Jefferson a national calamity; no act of his administration or Madison's won the approval of the Centinel, and during this period of verbal violence no paper was more vituperative in denouncing the Republicans and all their works. He reluctantly supported De Witt Clinton against Madison and bitterly opposed the War of 1812. But the influence of Russell and his paper in national politics declined with the Federalist party, and it was still further weakened when the editor took a leading part with old political enemies in honoring Monroe on his visit to Boston in 1817. If he thus destroyed his influence, however, he gained renown by coining the phrase, "era of good feelings. " He is also among those who have been credited with the invention of the word gerrymander (Buckingham, post, p. 91). As a citizen, Russell was public-spirited and generous. Though associated with the well-to-do, he was always proud of being a mechanic; he was president of a printers' mutual protective society and in 1795 founded the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association, of which he was president from 1808 to 1817. He held many public offices, especially after his retirement from journalism. For several years he was president of the Boston board of health, successively member of the school committee, member of the Common Council, and alderman. From 1805 until 1821 and 1828 until 1835, he was a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives; he was twice elected senator from Suffolk County (1822 and 1825) and ended his political career as a member of the Executive Council in 1836 and 1837.
Russell was married on September 21, 1783, to Esther Rice of Worcester, Massachussets, daughter of Lemuel and Abigail Rice. After her death, he married Guest Campbell, a widow, in 1803. He had two sons and a daughter.