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From Boyhood to Manhood
The "Courant" in Trouble
by Thayer, William M.

"The Legislature is calling you to an account," said a customer to James Franklin, as he entered the office. "The officials can't put up with your cutting criticisms."

"I am aware of that. I heard that they were going to haul the Courant over the coals; but I do not see what they can do about it."

"They can stop your printing it, I suppose. It would be an intolerant act, of course; but governments have never been tolerant towards the press, you know."

"The day is coming when they will be," responded James. "A free press is indispensable to human progress. So long as I run the Courant it shall speak plainly of intolerance and hypocrisy of every form. I shall hit the corruption of the times in high places or low."

"That is sound doctrine," replied the customer. "I endorse it, but government officials do not. They feel very sore, and will make trouble for you if they can."

At that moment Benjamin came rushing into the office under considerable excitement.

"The Assembly are having a hot debate over the Courant," he said. "I heard a gentleman say that they would stop the publication of the paper, if possible."

"Perhaps they will, but I doubt it," replied James. "The Courant will not be muzzled so long as I own it."

"It ought not to be," responded the customer. "We need an outspoken paper that will rebuke corruption and shams everywhere."

"And that is all the trouble," said Benjamin. "That is what the Assembly and the ministers denounce. They are better friends of the British government than they are of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay."

"True, very true," rejoined the customer. "The tyrannical control of the English press is a shame; and yet these officials who truckle to the English government want to try it on here. But such intolerance ought not to be borne."

The Courant was exceedingly sarcastic, and no writer was more so than Benjamin, young as he was. This was the real cause of the action of the Assembly. A letter appeared in the Courant, justly rebuking the government for dilatoriness in looking after a piratical craft off Block Island. The letter purported to come from Newport, and represented that the Colony were fitting out two vessels to capture her. It concluded thus:

"We are advised from Boston that the government of the Massachusetts are fitting out a ship (the Flying Horse) to go after the pirates, to be commanded by Capt. Peter Papillon, and it is thought he will sail sometime this month, wind and weather permitting."

This thrust at the government for tardiness would be regarded as a good joke now, but it was a crime then, and the aristocracy of the Province, always working in harmony with the King and Parliament, was stirred up by it to intolerance.

James was summoned before the Council, and his apprentice also, both of whom stood upon their dignity, refusing to answer some of the questions put. Benjamin was dismissed, because it was found that he was only an apprentice. But James was put on trial and pelted with questions. The legislators were determined to find out who wrote the "scurrilous article aforesaid," as they called it, but James refused to tell. He placed himself squarely upon his personal rights as a citizen, and heroically stood by his guns. Come what might, he resolved to defend his course before this august tribunal.

The Council became more exasperated by his defiant spirit, and threatened him with incarceration. But James stood his ground like a martyr, without thinking he would soon become one. Benjamin was equally defiant, and refused to answer some questions, but was excused on the ground that "an apprentice was bound not to betray his master's secrets." James was convicted of "a high affront to the government," and the sheriff was directed to commit him to the Boston jail. These new quarters were unexpected to him, but he went thither with the consciousness that he was suffering for a brave effort to correct public wrongs.

We have called attention to a single paragraph reflecting upon the government in the Courant. It should be told that such criticisms were frequent in its columns. The Governor, Council, and nearly all the ruling class of the Province were in full sympathy with Great Britain, while others were restive under what they regarded as oppressive rule. Most of the ministers belonged to the first class, and so came in for a share of the Courant's sarcastic utterances. The Courant represented the second class--the common people--who read its columns gladly.

Dr. Cotton Mather attacked the paper in a paragraph that shows what the paper contained:

"We find a notorious, scandalous paper called The Courant, full freighted with nonsense, unmanliness, raillery, profaneness, immorality, arrogance, calumnies, lies, contradictions, and what not, all tending to quarrels and divisions, and to debauch and corrupt the mind and manners of New England."

Increase Mather, also, assailed the Courant over his own signature, denouncing it as a "wicked libel," because it represented him as one of its supporters, using language uncommonly expressive.

"I do hereby declare," he said, "that, although I had paid for two or three of them, I sent him word I was extremely offended with it. In special, because in one of his vile Courants, he insinuates, that if a minister of God approve of a thing, it is a sign it is of the Devil; which is a horrid thing to be related! And he doth frequently abuse the Ministers of Religion, and many other worthy persons, in a manner which is intolerable. For these and such like reasons I signified to the Printer that I would have no more of their Wicked Courants. I, that have known what New England was from the Beginning, cannot but be troubled to see the Degeneracy of this Place. I can well remember when the Civil Government would have taken an effectual Course to suppress such a Cursed Libel! which if it be not done I am afraid that some Awful Judgment will come upon this Land, and the Wrath of God will arise, and there will be no Remedy. I cannot but pity poor Franklin, who, though but a Young Man, it may be Speedily he must appear before the Judgment Seat of God, and what answer will he give for printing things so vile and abominable?"

It is quite evident that neither James nor Benjamin had that respect for the "Judgment Seat," which became Christians; but James replied in the Courant to this onslaught, maintaining that Mather had garbled his quotations from the paper, or based his opinion on parts of paragraphs which did not convey the full and correct meaning. He turned the tables upon him, also, by declaring that, while Mather ceased to be a subscriber to his paper, "he sent his grandson every week to buy it; and, paying in this way a higher price, he was more of a supporter of the paper than ever." In the same issue, too, James said:

"I would likewise advise the enemies of the Courant not to publish any thing more against me unless they are willing to have the paper continued. What they have already done has been resented by the Town so much to my advantage, that above forty persons have subscribed for the Courant since the first of January, many of whom were before subscribers to the other papers. And by one Advertisement more, the Anti-Couranters will be in great danger of adding forty more to my list before the first of March."

James showed that he did not say "if the Ministers of God approve of a thing, it is a Sign it is of the Devil"; but that he did say, "Most of the Ministers are for it, and that induces me to think it is from the Devil; for he often makes use of good men as instruments to obtrude his delusions on the world." There would be decided objection to the first utterance, at that time or since; but the second one, what the Courant did say, was as near the truth as either side was found in most matters.

To return to James in prison. He was confined in a cell, and was very uncomfortable. It was a dirty, dismal place, meant to be a place of punishment, indeed. James found it so, and he soon was ready to do almost any thing for freedom of the yard. He sat down and addressed a very humble petition to the Council, confessing his wrong, and imploring forgiveness and release from his cell.

"I am truly sensible of and heartily sorry for the offense I have given to the Court in the late Courant, relating to the fitting out of a ship by the government, and I truly acknowledge my inadvertency and folly therein in affronting the government, as also my indiscretion and indecency when before the Court; for all of which I intreat the Court's forgiveness, and pray for a discharge from the stone prison, where I am confined by order of the Court, and that I may have the liberty of the yard, being much indisposed, and suffering in my health by the said confinement."

While the Council are considering this petition, we will see what has become of the Courant. The whole charge of it devolved on Benjamin from the time his brother was imprisoned, and he fearlessly and ably met the emergency. It was truly wonderful that a boy of sixteen should shoulder the responsibility of such an enterprise, in such circumstances, and carry it with so much courage and ease.

"I can look after it; there's no trouble in that," said Benjamin to the "liberal club," who assembled as soon as possible after James was incarcerated. "The action of the Court will increase our subscribers; and I propose to make the paper more spicy than ever."

"Glad to hear that," responded one of the club. "Let us defy such intolerance, though all the magistrates and ministers in Boston support it; the mass of the people are with us."

"That is so," remarked another; "and more are coming over to our side every day. Intimidation does not become us now. We must continue to be outspoken; and if Benjamin can look after the paper, we are all right."

"That I can do, and I want no better sport," replied the plucky printer-boy. "You may be sure that such persecution will not be sustained by a great majority of New England people. We are living in New England, and not in Old England, and the people know it."

"I think Benjamin understands it," added a third member of the club; "and his courage and ability will meet the occasion. For one I want the Courant to continue to be what it has been, the General Court to the contrary notwithstanding."

Benjamin did understand it, and edited the paper on the same line. He forgot all his disagreements with his brother in his sympathy with him under persecution, and in his utter contempt for the action of the Court. In these circumstances, his attacks upon the administration were rather more severe than ever. "The proceedings of the Council were assailed by argument, eloquence, and satire, in prose and verse, in squib and essay. One number, issued just after James Franklin's release, was nearly filled with passages from 'Magna Charta,' and comments upon the same, showing the unconstitutionality of the treatment to which he had been subjected. It is evident that a considerable number of the people of Boston most heartily sympathized with the Courant in its gallant contest for the liberty of the press, and that the issue of the number was, to these and to others, the most interesting event of the week." [*]

[* Parton's Life of Franklin, vol. i, p. 88.]

The authorities considered James' petition, and granted it, but they kept him four weeks in prison before they let him out. He returned to his printing office, resolved to make the Courant more outspoken still for the freedom of the press. The club met him with warm congratulations.

"A great many printers have suffered more than you have," said one of the number; "for you have not lost your head, not even an ear. In Old England persecution of printers has been in order for a long time. Less than two years ago, one John Matthews, a youth nineteen years of age, was executed at Tyburn for writing and publishing a tract in favor of the expelled Stuarts."

"But such things do not fit our country," answered James. "My father came here to escape that spirit of caste and intolerance that abounds in England, and so did those who came long before he did. To repeat them here is a greater abomination than to act them there."

"Let me read to you," interrupted Benjamin, "an account of a printer's execution in England, about twenty years before my father emigrated to this country. I came across it in this book, a few days ago. It is horrible." Benjamin read as follows:

"The scene is in a court-room in the Old Bailey, Chief Justice Hyde presiding. The prisoner at the bar was a printer, named John Gwyn, a poor man, with a wife and three children. Gwyn was accused of printing a piece which criticised the conduct of the government, and which contained these words and others similar: 'If the magistrates pervert judgment, the people are bound, by the law of God, to execute judgment without them, and upon them.' This was all his offense; but it was construed as a justification of the execution of Charles I, as well as a threat against Charles II, then king of England. The poor man protested he had never read the offensive matter; it was brought to him by a maid-servant; he had earned forty shillings by printing it.

"When he was pronounced guilty, he humbly begged for mercy, pleading poverty, his young children, and his ignorance of the contents of the paper. 'I'll tell you what you shall do,' roared the brutal wretch who sat on the bench, 'ask mercy of them that can give it--that is, of God and the king.' The prisoner said, 'I humbly beseech you to intercede with his majesty for mercy.' 'Tie him up, executioner,' cried the judge; 'I speak it from my soul: I think we have the greatest happiness in the world in enjoying what we do under so good and gracious a king; yet you, Gwyn, in the rancor of your heart, thus to abuse him, deserve no mercy.' In a similar strain he continued for several minutes, and then passed upon the prisoner the following sentence: He was to be drawn to the place of execution upon a hurdle, and there hanged by the neck. While still alive he was to be cut down, castrated, and disemboweled. 'And you still living,' added the judge, 'your entrails are to be burnt before your eyes, your head to be cut off, and your head and quarters to be disposed of at the pleasure of the king's majesty.' The printer was overwhelmed with terror, and in his great agony he cried to the judge again to intercede for him. The heartless magistrate replied, 'I would not intercede for my own father in this case.' The prisoner was removed and executed. His head and limbs were set up over the gates of the city."

"That was in 1663," said Benjamin as he closed the account; "and, though we have no record of another so fiendish affair, it is a fact that within a few years some printers and editors in England have had their ears cropped, others have been flogged publicly, and others still put into the stocks and pillory. We have not come to that yet."

"Not quite," answered one of the club; "but the authorities who would please the king and suppress liberty of the press will go as far as they dare to go in that direction; depend on that. It becomes us to vindicate our rights fearlessly, or we shall yet share the fate of Gwyn."

"I do not propose to spike one of my guns," said James, who listened to the last remarks with profound emotion. "We are right, and Americans will support us. The Courant was started for a purpose, and we must not lose sight of it."

"Benjamin has run the paper to suit while you were in jail, so that I think both of you together will satisfy us perfectly in the future," added another of the club. "I fully believe, with the rest of you, that it is no time now to cringe before the authorities. A stand for the right is more necessary now than ever before."

We should have stated before that, in the infancy of the Courant, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu returned from Turkey with the remedy for the small-pox--inoculation. This disease had prevailed fearfully in Boston. When the town had but five or six thousand inhabitants, seven hundred of them died of small-pox in six months. In 1721, when Benjamin was in the printing office, and the population of the town was twelve thousand, the number of deaths by small-pox was eight hundred and fifty. Many persons attacked with it died within two or three days, so that it was a terror to the people. Of course inoculation was received with delight by many. Cotton Mather examined its claims, and so did his father, Increase Mather; and both endorsed it. But the Courant, for some reason, opposed it, and brought all its resources of ridicule and sarcasm to make it appear ridiculous. A writer in its columns called it the "minister's remedy," because the clergy favored it. Week after week it denounced the method, and warned the people. Finally, Increase Mather publicly called attention to the scandalous sheet, and besought the people to crush it, lest the judgments of God be brought down upon the land for its highhanded wickedness.

That the treatment of James Franklin by the authorities was not justified by thoughtful citizens in other parts of the country is evident from the following extract from the Philadelphia Mercury:

"The injustice of imprisoning a man without a hearing must be apparent to all. An indifferent person would judge from this conduct, that the Assembly of Massachusetts are oppressors and bigots, who make religion only an engine of destruction to the people. We pity the people who are compelled to submit to the tyranny of priestcraft and hypocrisy." Then followed a sarcastic postscript, over which the reader may smile: "P.S. By private letter from Boston, we are informed, that the bakers are under great apprehensions of being forbid baking any more bread, unless they will submit to the Secretary as supervisor general and weigher of the dough, before it is baked into bread and offered to sale."

The closing sentence referred to the action of the Legislature in enacting that Franklin should publish nothing more without first submitting it to the Secretary of the Province and receiving his endorsement--legislation that will be quoted in the next chapter.

Franklin continued to issue the Courant after his imprisonment with more plainness and exposure of public wrongs than he did before. For several months he handled the governor and public officers severely, never forgetting those ministers who supported the cause of the king instead of the cause of New England. He little thought that he was fighting a battle for the ages to come. From his day the press in our country began to enjoy liberty. He began a conflict which did not end until liberty of speech and press was proclaimed throughout the land.

Men have often contended for right, and started enterprises, the results of which the divinest prophet could never have foretold. When John Pounds, the poor Portsmouth shoemaker, with a passion for doing good to those who needed it most, gathered a few street-arabs into his shanty to teach them something good, while he hammered his leather and mended shoes, he did not dream that he was inaugurating a benevolent enterprise that would spread throughout the Christian world. But he did, and to-day the fifteen millions of old and young in the Sabbath schools of our Republic are but the growth and development he began in his shop. In like manner, the Franklin brothers inaugurated a measure that culminated in the complete freedom of the press.


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