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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.
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Comment Preferences

  •  But what about the (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    inoculation against smallpox?

    I mean, anyone who ever paid attention in history class knows that autobiographies are rarely reliable: and Franklin's is one of the least reliable of the great autobiographies.

    But...I'd love to know more about that African inoculation against smallpox.  I know how it was officially done (cowpox), but the story you cite is new to me.

    I call him Rick Scumtorum because he IS scum: pond scum, with the brain of an alga.

    by Youffraita on Thu Feb 23, 2012 at 11:44:28 PM PST

    •  It's not so much "reliable" (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      The Geogre, mint julep

      Franklin wrote this between 1771 and 1790.  It was meant to be a "polite" memoir, and this its content had to be "polite" as well.  That means leaving stuff out and being less than thorough in some things.

      Longer and more complicated is always better in historical writing!

      All it takes is security in your own civil rights to make you complacent.

      by Dave in Northridge on Fri Feb 24, 2012 at 05:23:55 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  A masterpiece of autobiography (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        A good many folks nowadays accept that autobiographies are fiction. This does not mean that they're untrue, but that they are shaped, consciously and unconsciously. Since Franklin was a master, his autobiography is a masterpiece of form. I think he remembered quite well (and had the records, if he didn't) what the matters were, but he was working in a long line of memoirists who were supposed to buff and polish themselves.

        The autobiographer is supposed to entertain, and he does. You can count on him, if he says something happened. You just can't be sure that he's telling you exactly how or what it was. :-)

        Every reductio ad absurdum will seem like a good idea to some fool or another.

        by The Geogre on Fri Feb 24, 2012 at 06:07:21 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  Inoculation is different from vaccination. (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      dougymi, mint julep, Youffraita

      In inoculation a little pus from a sore on a recovering patient was used to give an infection to someone. If you were lucky, the virus would be relatively weak and you could develop immunity before the infection took off. It didn't always work, but it beat taking your chances with a virulent strain from someone who was just infected.

      This wasn't a new idea or necessarily from Africa. People were using inoculation for Leishmaniasis (a parasitic skin disease transmitted by sand flies) in ancient Mesopotamia. Leishmaniasis usually causes a single sore that heals after a few months but leaves a big scar. Parents would give their kids an inoculation somewhere hidden so that they wouldn't end up with a disfiguring scar on their face.

      Vaccination (from "cow") took this another step. The cow virus isn't well adapted to people, so being inoculated with vaccinia virus was less dangerous than smallpox. It still wasn't completely safe, but it beat the alternatives by a mile.

    •  Historians are changing their minds about (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      mint julep, Dave in Northridge

      the usefulness of oral history and autobiographies. This has occurred because government documents have been found to be equally as untrustworthy as accounts written or spoken by average people at the bottom. In 1989, the American Historical Society signaled a new acceptance of oral history by publishing a list of recommendations on how to use it. Basically, oral history becomes one of many sources that must be brought into play in order to refine the accuracy of history. When multiple sources corroborate the same event, you can be more certain of its accuracy. But yes, in the case of Franklin (as well as many other autobiographers of that day and today), he took "liberties." Pun intended.

      Painting the ivory tower beige.

      by ProfessorWho on Fri Feb 24, 2012 at 07:39:47 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  perhaps why we have freedom of the press (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Margd, mint julep

    so prominently placed in the bill of rights.

    I changed by not changing at all, small town predicts my fate, perhaps that's what no one wants to see. -6.38, -4.15

    by James Allen on Fri Feb 24, 2012 at 12:12:53 AM PST

  •  Historical Revisionism (0+ / 0-)
    I'll let that sink in for a moment. Puritan Massachusetts had actually been the first colony in British North America to accept slavery.
    Really?  Slavery for the first time in America in ... 1721?  


    REEALLY??   Not only does it beggar any realistic interpretation of history, it utterly reveals the revisionist motivation of your diaries.  It lays bare the simplistic and self-serving theme, "Northerners did it too, so it's totally unfair that the South gets the blame for slavery."  

    Well, cry me a freakin' James River.  Jamestown is older, yes, but they sailed away and the Indians chased them around the peninsula.  Shame that it happend that way, but it did.  There were lots of colonies of Europeans in North America that disappeared--Vinland, for example, in Nova Scotia is just one example.

    Slavery happened in the North, too, but it was outlawed well ahead of the Civil War.  What about the Dutch colonists in New Amsterdam?  They had slaves too.  Is that the subject of your next diary?  Oh please???  Can you butcher the Dutch history, too?

    •  1639, not 1721 (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Allogenes, mint julep, ProfessorWho

      Society with slaves, not a slave society.  Do I really have to be that obvious when I write anything here?  You might want to go to my two previous diaries to look at the comments on black arrivals in Virginia and indentured servitude.

      As for the Dutch, go look up "half-freedom" -- New Amsterdam had slaves too, only individual people didn't own them, the Dutch West India Company did too.  The holding were just as small as they were in New England.

      Yes, revisionism, but to find the details that were swept under the rug and otherwise hidden.

      All it takes is security in your own civil rights to make you complacent.

      by Dave in Northridge on Fri Feb 24, 2012 at 05:56:00 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Oh for heavens' sake. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      mint julep, Dave in Northridge

      First of all, you didn't read properly. Second of all, you read non-existing intent into this account. Slavery in the North was NOT outlawed well ahead of the Civil War. New York City had one of the biggest populations of slaves all through the Civil War. Their owners caused considerable problems for Lincoln and the Union. In fact, Lilncoln made a promise to northern slave owners that he wouldn't emancipate their slaves until after the war was over. The so-called Emancipation Proclamation was only valid in areas of the South that were controlled by the Union. It was a token statement more than anything else. The northerners got to keep their slaves until the 13th Amendment was passed.

      Painting the ivory tower beige.

      by ProfessorWho on Fri Feb 24, 2012 at 07:43:58 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Thanks! (0+ / 0-)

        On the whole, thanks for the comment.  A couple of points:

         New York passed a gradual emancipation act in 1817 which gave slaves born before July 4, 1799 their freedom -- but not until July 4, 1827. There were slaves in New York even after that, yes, but not after 1841. The "northern states" which kept slavery were the so-called border states (Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri), and the black population of New York that was victimized in the New York City Draft Riots was a free black population.   These are details.

        All it takes is security in your own civil rights to make you complacent.

        by Dave in Northridge on Fri Feb 24, 2012 at 08:34:36 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Okay, you're right. (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Dave in Northridge

          It was during the Revolution that NYC had more slaves than any other city except Charleston, SC.

          During the Civil War, New Jersey still had a few slaves who were finally emancipated by the 13th Amendment, along with those in the five border states.

          It still amazes me that the OP thought you were trying to make a pro-slavery argument. Northerners were thoroughly implicated in the crime of slavery. One of the biggest reasons for joining the abolitionist movement in the North was because northerners worried that white southern slave-owners were "polluting the race" by having sex with their female slaves. White supremacy played a big role in abolition fervor in the North, which became very obvious after Reconstruction as freed blacks in both North and South were gradually prevented from full political and social participation.

          I can remember right after I learned to read as a child in Boston during the early 1960s, I saw a pair of water fountains labeled "Whites Only" and "Blacks Only" and asked my mother what that was all about. Her answer? "That's just the way it is."

          Painting the ivory tower beige.

          by ProfessorWho on Sat Feb 25, 2012 at 09:48:25 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  For most of the Revolution (0+ / 0-)

            NYC was under British occupation.

          •  This is not completely true (0+ / 0-)
            freed blacks in both North and South were gradually prevented from full political and social participation.
            Very few places in the North ever enacted restrictions on voting by black citizens. And there are even a few places in the South, such as Maryland, that never enacted any such restrictions. That is a major reason why Maryland, unlike most former slave states, had a Republican Party for most of the last century and a half. As late as 1936 you can still see some rural counties in Maryland with large black populations voting Republican -- against FDR in a Democratic landslide year!
        •  Delaware was also a slave state (0+ / 0-)

          whose slaves were freed by the 13th Amendment.

  •  Inoculation war in England (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dave in Northridge

    The war over the inoculation method in England became a high/low argument as well, but a curious one.

    In fact, reading this particular debate as a social/cultural key is strange. In England, John Arbuthnot, physician to Anne, was in favor, and he butted heads with the (in)famous John Woodward, who was against. Both would be establishment figures, but Arbuthnot, a Scot, was a Tory who was nevertheless a new man, and Woodward was a Whig who was nevertheless an old University product (of the Hooke and Boyle era).

    Woodward argued, consistently, a hyper-Aristotelian position. He would argue that what is logical must be true, and he would figure deductively. (His type of reasoning works betimes, and we saw it triumph again with the "armchair anthropologists" of the end of the 19th century like Fraser.) Arbuthnot (and Swift, Pope, et al. the "Christ Church wits") argued for the classics but the classics interpreted through nature.

    On the other side of them, though, were the newer whig values who were purely empiricist and rejected classical values (inherited "blood," etc.) in favor of "you are what you do." They themselves split on inoculation.

    This is a scholarly topic awaiting exploration.

    Every reductio ad absurdum will seem like a good idea to some fool or another.

    by The Geogre on Fri Feb 24, 2012 at 06:03:16 AM PST

  •  The fundamentalist minister got it right (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dave in Northridge

    and the enlightened journalist got it wrong.


    •  in a RARE instance of that. (0+ / 0-)

      I'd say we have the situation of a stopped clock telling the correct time twice a day here.

      All it takes is security in your own civil rights to make you complacent.

      by Dave in Northridge on Fri Feb 24, 2012 at 03:38:45 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

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