Early next week, we're going to investigate Benjamin Franklin, and the things you should (and may not) know about this first best-known American in the world. This diary is based on his best-known work, the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, and it's an example of how he doesn't always tell you what really went on.
Here, he is remembering events that happened when he was 14 and 15:
My brother had, in 1720 or 1721, begun to print a newspaper. It was the second that appeared in America, and was called the New England Courant. The only one before it was the Boston News-Letter. I remember his being dissuaded by some of his friends from the undertaking, as not likely to succeed, one newspaper being, in their judgment, enough for America. At this time (1771) there are not less than five-and-twenty. He went on, however, with the undertaking, and after having worked in composing the types and printing off the sheets, I was employed to carry the papers thro' the streets to the customers.He observes that the newspaper was controversial. Follow me below the fold for an example, which will probably upset your understanding of New England society just a bit.
When James began to publish the Courant, his newspaper was about as revolutionary as it could be in Boston at that time. It was launched at the outbreak of a smallpox epidemic in 1721, which was different from all other previous epidemics because it involved a distinctly modern controversy over inoculation.
This is the most influential and orthodox of the Puritans in Boston at the time: Cotton Mather, the grandson of the august preacher John Cotton, who had employed Roger Williams as his reader (a co-minister) in Salem before Williams was banished to Rhode Island. When the epidemic broke out, Mather circulated a letter to the physisicians of Boston to recommend a technique he had learned from his slave Onesimus, since the technique was used in Africa.
I'll let that sink in for a moment. Puritan Massachusetts had actually been the first colony in British North America to accept slavery. As you remember from my last diary in this series, the defeat of the natives in the Pequot war in 1637 resulted in Indian slavery and the first black slaves arrived in Boston from the Caribbean the following year. Africans were not treated very differently from white servants in New England except that somehow they and their children served for life. Not surprisingly for these literate people, the Puritans, there was an active movement in Massachusetts to teach their slaves to read so they could interpret the Scriptures, and increasingly this was viewed as the necessary preparation for eventual emancipation. Slaves never represented more than 4% of the total population in Massachusetts or Connecticut, and perhaps 5% in Rhode Island, but slave ownership was almost universal among the urban elite in the port cities. Cotton Mather was a member of the urban elite, hence Onesimus.
I suppose predictably, both the smallpox and its remedies were seen as black, and Dr. William Douglass, the best educated doctor in town, implied that Mather, with his advocacy of a “negroish” cure, was flouting the “all-wise Providence of God Almighty.” The Courant opposed inoculation, and, although its essayists were concerned with the same issues that had long occupied the courts and the churches, it divorced them from the traditional settings by making them public. Cotton Mather singled out James Franklin as an example of how badly New England had declined in in its first hundred years decline.
Ben Franklin again, from the Autobiography:
One of the pieces in our newspaper on some political point, which I have now forgotten, gave offense to the Assembly. He was taken up, censur'd, and imprison'd for a month, by the speaker's warrant, I suppose, because he would not discover his author. I too was taken up and examin'd before the council; but, tho' I did not give them any satisfaction, they content'd themselves with admonishing me, and dismissed me, considering me, perhaps, as an apprentice, who was bound to keep his master's secrets.You see how evasive Franklin is in the Autobiography. It seems that James was also a thorn in the side of the government of Massachusetts Bay. From the Massachusetts Historical Society:
A seemingly innocuous note on page two of The New-England Courant, Number 45, 4-11 June 1722 landed James Franklin in jail. Franklin suggested that colonial officials were lax in the pursuit of pirates: “the Government of the Massachusetts are fitting out a Ship to go after the Pirates … tis thought [the captain] will sail sometime this Month, if Wind and Weather permit.” Infuriated by the implication that they were in collusion with the pirates, the General Court ordered him jailed for remainder of the legislative session. For the three following weeks, sixteen-year-old Benjamin Franklin became the printer and publisher of the Courant while his older brother sat in jail just across the street.The following year, Benjamin Franklin escaped to Philadelphia. More about that by Wednesday.