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From Boyhood to Manhood|
XV. 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
"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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
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.