Tag Archives: Cotton Mather

The Smallpox Debates

Benjamin Franklin’s older brother James started America’s first fiercely independent, antiestablishment newspaper, the Boston Courant, in 1721. At that time, defying authority in Boston meant going against the Puritan clergy in general, and the Mathers family in particular. James took an antiestablishment stand with the Courant‘s very first edition, arguing against Cotton Mather in one of the hottest debates around.

Unfortunately, he took the wrong side.

Smallpox had periodically devastated Massachusetts ever since its founding; a 1677 outbreak wiped out 12 percent of the population. During the 1702 epidemic, three of Cotton Mather’s children were stricken, but survived. Mather, who had trained as a physician before becoming a preacher, began studying the disease.

He was introduced to the practice of inoculation by his black slave, who had a scar from being inoculated in Africa. It turned out that in parts of Africa, inoculation was already a standard procedure. When a new wave of the disease hit Boston in 1721, Mather (having greatly evolved since the days of the Salem witch trials) wrote a letter to Boston’s ten practicing physicians, detailing the process of inoculating, and urging them to adopt the practice.

Most of the doctors rejected the idea, and so, as a matter of principle, did Franklin’s newspaper. With little justification other than to take a stand against the Puritan establishment, the Courant’s first edition contained two essays attacking Mather’s proposal. This began an escalating public dispute that sold papers for weeks, and got the Courant off to a very healthy start.

(Isaacson 22-24)

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Benjamin Franklin’s Early Education

As the tenth son of a pious Puritan, Benjamin Franklin was to have studied for the ministry, as his father’s tithe to the Lord. At age 8 he was sent to Boston Latin School to prepare for enrollment at Harvard. He excelled in his studies at the school; yet his father changed his mind after a year, deciding against a formal education for young Benjamin. In his writings, Franklin claimed that the decision was due to the expense of the thing, but the more likely reason is that Josiah Franklin realized his skeptical, puckish, irreverent son was not suited to be a parson.

Historians have fantasized about what could have happened had Benjamin Franklin attended Harvard. Some have argued that a formal education would have removed those qualities that we find so attractive about Franklin: his spontaneity, freshness, irreverence, and his intuitive literary style. Yet this need not have happened; at the time Harvard administrators were struggling mightily against a student culture that was already marked by much drinking and partying, and of the thirty-nine students who would have made up Franklin’s class, less then half ended up as clergy.

In any case, Franklin’s father chose to allow the boy, who had already expressed a disgust at the family trade of tallow-rendering, to select his own trade. He took him on long walks through Boston to visit various types of craftsmen; the passing familiarity with different trades thus acquired helped form Franklin into a lifelong dabbler, which was of great use to him as an inventor.

Benjamin ended up becoming apprenticed, at age 12, to his older brother James, who had recently set up shop as a printer. The print trade was a natural fit for the boy, who was already a devoted reader. It gave him access to books, which he would sneak from various booksellers’ apprentices, borrowing them in the evening and often staying up all night to read them before smuggling them back to their places first thing in the morning. Books were his most important early influences; his childhood favorites included John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Plutarch’s Lives, Cotton Mather’s Bonifacius: Essays to Do Good, and Daniel Defoe’s An Essay upon Projects.

The ideas formed under these early influences would continue to resurface throughout Franklin’s life:

  • From Bunyan’s book Franklin adopted a refreshingly sparse and clean prose style, as well as a firm belief in the concept of Progress, both individual and corporate, as the fruit of human struggle against adversity.
  • Plutarch’s work also contributed to this idea, and to Franklin’s gradual move away from Calvinism, with its emphasis on the essential depravity of man and the predestination of his soul, toward the deism that he would share with most of the great minds of the Enlightenment period.
  • From Mather’s tract Franklin took one of the aspects of Puritanism that he would retain throughout life, its focus on the performance of practical good works for the benefit of the community.
  • Along the same lines, Defoe’s book proposed ideas for many community projects of the type Franklin would later start up in Philadelphia: fire insurance associations, pension societies, welfare schemes and the like.

It was from Defoe that Franklin also obtained the progressive notion of equal education and rights for women; early experiences debating in favor of this idea convinced Franklin that a disputatious personal style was less likely to bring people around to his point of view than the convivial, Socratic approach which later became his trademark.

(Isaacson 18-27)

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