This writer decided to write about the year 1721 after he got one of those Fact-a-Day calendars

Historians in the News
tags: Boston, Free Press, small pox

An interview with writer Stephen Coss, the author of The Fever of 1721: The Epidemic That Revolutionized Medicine and American Politics (2017).

Q: This one year in American history has rarely been discussed. What inspired you to write about Boston in 1721? 

In 1994 I received a “Fact-A-Day” desk calendar as a Christmas stocking stuffer, and one of the facts concerned Doctor Zabdiel Boylston’s daring inoculation experiment during the 1721 Boston smallpox epidemic. I had never heard of Boylston (except as a street in Boston) or the inoculation experiment, but I was intrigued. At the time I was working in advertising, writing and producing TV commercials and writing screenplays in my spare time. I recognized the dramatic potential of the story and did enough research to write a screenplay about it. For a number of reasons, that screenplay got shoved in a drawer, where it sat for more than decade. In late 2006, I casually mentioned the screenplay to a friend who had just published his first book. He suggested the story might be suited for a book-length treatment. I jumped back into the research and discovered that there was even more to the story of 1721 than Boylston’s inoculations. The year also marked a beginning both for what would become the American revolutionary movement and for the evolution of a free press in America. Last but not least, I came to see that the year had a profoundly formative influence on one of our greatest Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, who was a teenaged apprentice in his brother’s Boston printing house. There were a few books that dealt with Boylston’s inoculation experiment and the resulting controversy. But no other book discussed the political and journalistic controversies that were afflicting Boston concurrently, making 1721 a year that changed both medical history and American history.

Q: You argue that Boston 1721 was actually the first drama of the American Revolution. Why was this year – over fifty years before the events of 1776 – crucial to American independence? 

Prior to 1721 there had been friction between the American colonies and England and even, in a few instances, outright rebellion against royal governors who were seen as tyrannical. (Indeed, Massachusetts had expelled its royal governor in 1689 for that very reason.) But those small rebellions had always been qualified by assurances on the part of the Americans that they weren’t rebelling against English authority—only against governors who overstepped the authority granted them by Parliament and the king. What happened in Boston in 1721 was very different, and marked a turning point in the relationship between England and its American subjects. Now, instead of an angry mob pushed to drastic action by the outrageous behavior of a malevolent royal governor, the elected Massachusetts House of Representatives launched an organized and sustained political rebellion against both governor Samuel Shute (who was ill-tempered, inflexible, and undiplomatic, but no tyrant) and the British authority he represented. The House obstructed nearly every royal prerogative Shute had been ordered to implement. Moreover, it began usurping authority that England had clearly vested in its appointed governor. Nothing like it had occurred in America. In London it was seen by many as an attempt by Massachusetts to gain independence from England. 

This newfound political power had been made possible by the advent of a new kind of political strategy and infrastructure. The idea was to build widespread popular support for the elected government and against British control. The mechanism utilized to build that power base would become known as the Boston Caucus. The man behind all of it was a charismatic politician named Elisha Cooke, who by 1721 had become the most hated American in London. Cooke’s Caucus would live on for the next five decades, evolving into several causes and The Sons of Liberty. In a very literal sense he showed the way to the Patriots, especially Samuel Adams, who took control of the Caucus following the Stamp Act rebellion of 1765. That he became the new Cooke was no accident, since his father, Samuel Adams Sr., had been Elisha Cooke’s right-hand man. In short, then, 1721 gave Americans a new paradigm for resisting English rule. In my opinion it was where the road to the American Revolution began. 

Q. Smallpox was not the only fever in Boston in 1721. Elisha Cooke was also challenging the Crown for control of the colony.  How did the very real fever and fear of disease in Boston fuel the political fever?  

A health crisis like a burgeoning epidemic magnifies societal tensions of all kinds, especially in the political realm. (Look at the political reaction to just a handful of Ebola cases in the U.S. in 2014.) By the time the smallpox outbreak began in Boston, tensions between the Cooke-led House of Representatives and Royal Governor Shute were already extremely high. The growing epidemic made both sides even testier. The House defied the royal governor outright; Governor Shute was furious, resentful, and desperate to regain control of the colony lest he find himself recalled to London to answer for his failure to tame the impertinent Americans. Indeed he was so frustrated and desperate that he decided to use the threat of smallpox contagion as leverage against the defiant House. As royal governor, he had the power to convene and dismiss the legislature more or less at will. In November 1721, at the very height of the epidemic, Shute called the House into session in an area rife with smallpox cases. He claimed he wanted only a brief session to handle the colony’s most pressing business. But when the House refused to capitulate to his demands, he extended the session, effectively holding the representatives hostage in an attempt to coerce their cooperation. When the inevitable finally happened—a House member contracted smallpox and died—anger against the governor increased exponentially, not only in the House, but among rank-and-file Bostonians and people throughout the colony as well. Shute’s gambit had failed. And his administration was doomed.

Q. You argue that The New-England Courant was a precursor to today’s satirical outlets like The Onion or The Daily Show. What about this publication was so innovative and incendiary? 

American newspapers before The New-England Courant were little more than mouthpieces for the government. Boston papers seldom printed anything government officials or the powerful Puritan clergy might consider unfavorable or controversial. In fact, the Courant’s predecessors courted government favor and boasted in their mastheads that they were “Published by Authority.” They were also very boring. In August 1721 the first issue of the Courant appeared without the words “Published by Authority” and immediately began mocking the Puritan clergy. In the months and years that followed, the newspaper continued satirizing religious figures, government officials, and Harvard College. It also poked fun at Boston’s sanctimonious self-image, and at sacrosanct institutions like marriage. It expressed scandalous ideas about religion, love, sex, drinking, and political corruption, often by employing humor, irony and sarcasm. Nothing quite like it had existed in America previously. It was so incendiary that its publisher, James Franklin, was thrown in jail. America’s long tradition of political and social satire starts with the Courant, and you can follow its influence up through Twain and Will Rogers to The Onion, The Daily Show, and other contemporary shows offering a humorous but biting perspective on politics and society’s sacred cows. A lot of the Courant’s satire still rings true today. In fact, if you took some of the material James Franklin published and updated the language and a reference or two, it would be right at home in The Onion or on The Daily Show.

Q: One of the topics at the heart of this book is the role and responsibility of the media. Despite being the first independent newspaper in the colonies, did The Courant truly have the public’s interest at heart? 

The New-England Courant was the first American newspaper to espouse journalistic objectivity long before it became a standard, and to exercise press freedom and explicitly call for that freedom in its pages. I think we would all agree that the Courant had the public’s interest at heart, but on some issues the Courant was conspicuously partisan. Nominally, at least, the paper was founded to oppose inoculation, which it continued to do quite un-objectively for its first several issues. I believe that the Courant’s publisher and editor, James Franklin, used the inoculation controversy opportunistically, as a springboard for the launch of his newspaper, which he had been anxious to start for several years. He seems to have jumped on the anti-inoculation bandwagon because that’s what readers wanted to read and his partners in the venture wanted to promote. (He also distrusted Cotton Mather, inoculation’s chief proponent.) Like the many Boston physicians who opposed inoculation, James probably believed early on that his anti-inoculation stance was in the public’s interest. As it turned out, he was wrong. To his credit, he ended the paper’s anti-inoculation screed after its third issue. Later on, after inoculation had proven itself in Boston, he dutifully printed news of another successful inoculation experiment underway in England.  Overall, I would say that he was a champion of the people’s right to know. For example, he printed updates on the severity of the smallpox epidemic (very bad news) when the other Boston newspapers did as the government wished and said nothing. He tried to walk a line between telling the truth in the public interest and creating a newspaper people would buy. In that respect his challenge wasn’t all that different from the one newspapers and television networks face today. 

Q. What was the public mindset and why were the people of Boston so afraid and outraged over the practice of inoculation, especially when the results of the practice were overwhelmingly successful? 

We tend to think of early 18th century New Englanders as superstitious and closed-minded, and it’s easy for us to look back on the opposition to inoculation smugly. But what inoculation’s advocates were proposing was completely counterintuitive. Inoculation meant taking smallpox pus from the sores of someone sick with the disease and implanting it in an incision made in the arm of someone who had never had the disease. It seemed insane and tantamount to attempted murder—which is how some people described it. It didn’t help that the evidence for its safety and efficacy came from two sources seen as dubious—the minister Cotton Mather, who had never lived down his role in the Salem witch hysteria, and his black slave Onesimus, who claimed to have undergone inoculation as a young boy in Africa. One of the first inoculation patients, the son of the doctor who conducted the experiment, became quite ill. Although he recovered and other patients came through the procedure smoothly, this “close call” amped up the outrage. As more inoculations were performed successfully, people began arguing that the immunity produced was only temporary, and that inoculation was artificially spreading smallpox further than it might otherwise spread. The most influential argument came from Doctor William Douglass, who hated Boylston and had a vested interest in stopping his experiment. Douglass claimed that inoculation could somehow “cause” the plague, another dreaded and deadly disease that in 1721 was ravaging France and seemed poised to make the leap to America. Underlying all of these objections was the question of God’s will. Many Boston Puritans firmly believed that God visited plagues and natural disasters on the people as punishment for their sinfulness. If smallpox was God’s punishment, was it right to try to mitigate its devastation?

Q. Dr. Zabdiel Boylston was the first to implement the life-saving practice of inoculation in Western medicine. Why do you think Boylston and his impressive contribution to medicine is relatively little-known? 

I think Boylston’s relative anonymity is mostly due to the fame accorded to Edward Jenner for “discovering” vaccination about 80 years after the Boston experiment. Vaccination was inoculation but with cowpox instead of smallpox. Cowpox vaccination produced a milder reaction than inoculation but an equally good immunity to smallpox. It was safer and it wasn’t contagious (whereas a person who had been inoculated with actual smallpox could transmit the infection to another person). Vaccination improved inoculation; and it was vaccination that made it possible to eradicate smallpox by the late 20th century. So we tend to forget Boylston and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who pushed England’s royal family to approve an inoculation experiment at about the same time Boylston was conducting his experiment in Boston. But without Boylston and Montagu, we might not have had Jenner.  

Q. Young Benjamin Franklin appears in the book as a printer’s apprentice to his older brother James. Why was this moment in time important to Benjamin Franklin’s development and his future role as a Founding Father?

I like to say that all Benjamin Franklin really needed to know he learned in 1721. Before Ben Franklin became a printer’s apprentice to his brother James in 1718 he was thoroughly demoralized. The previous two years had seen him yanked out of school and set to work in his father’s candle making and soap boiling shop. Ben hated it and fantasized about running away to sea. When he was sent from the tallow shop to his brother’s new printing house (in a deal that unfairly favored James), he immediately took to his new surroundings. There were books everywhere; just as important, there were his brother’s “ingenious” friends, who debated politics and social issues and who, in 1721, became the New-England Courant’s clever and funny correspondents. The intellectual stimulation of the printing house brought Ben alive again, inspiring him to begin his fabled self-education, which included teaching himself how to write in the simple but powerful style that would make him famous. The newspaper James founded in 1721 gave him an opportunity to put his newfound writing talent to work, as Silence Dogood. 

James made Benjamin an excellent printer, taught him how to succeed in business against long odds (skills Ben would employ when starting his own business in Philadelphia), and imbued him with his foundational beliefs about political liberty and freedom of the press. By observing James’ bitter feuds with Cotton Mather and the Massachusetts government, Ben also learned a hard lesson about the futility of confrontation. His strategy of good-natured persuasion—the talent that made him America’s essential diplomat—dates back to 1721.  His front-row seat for that year’s inoculation controversy also helped spark his fascination with science and medicine and gave him a model in Dr. Boylston, a man of humble background who by courage, conviction and intelligence earned membership in the world’s most esteemed scientific organization. The Ben Franklin who left Boston in 1723 for New York and ultimately Philadelphia was far different from the boy who had come into the printing house five years earlier. Although he would continue to learn and grow, his essential character, interests and beliefs were set for the rest of his long and fantastically consequential life. 

Q.  Your book offers a wide cast of characters, from well-known figures like Cotton Mather to Samuel Adams, to lesser-known revolutionaries like James Franklin or Dr. Zabdiel Boylston. Which figures were your favorite to research and write about?

I found all of these people compelling and admirable. What I admired in Boylston, Mather, Elisha Cooke and James Franklin was courage. Each, in his own way, risked greatly in order to act on his convictions. The two characters I got to know most intimately were Cotton Mather and James Franklin, largely because they wrote and published so much during this period. Reading Mather’s diary was fascinating; you see the struggle between the two sides of his personality—the highly educated, rational, compassionate man who wants to “do good” for his people, and the bitter, power-hungry and occasionally regressive and craven man whose egomania and insecurity had been his undoing at Salem. The character I felt the most sympathy for was James Franklin. All that most people know about him is by way of the unflattering and dismissive treatment he gets from his famous brother in the Autobiography. I think we might give him more credit today if not for the fact that his little brother was a genius and resentful about how James treated him as an apprentice. In truth, Ben owed a lot to James; and the record shows that he took a lot of what James did and he ran with it, making it his own. James was a true innovator and far ahead of his time politically. And you have to admire the gumption of a guy who would criticize the government knowing he would probably get thrown in jail—and who, after spending time in jail, went right back to criticizing the government.  

Q:  Your research for this book utilizes many primary sources—where did you find them, and did any one source prove most informative?

I was very fortunate in that the many extant newspapers from this era—not only James Franklin’s New-England Courant, but also the other Boston papers, the Boston News-Letterand the Boston Gazette, have been digitized—hundreds of newspaper issues in 1721 and the years immediately preceding and following that year. I also accessed court records from Massachusetts; the governmental correspondence between Massachusetts and London has been collected and published, as have the journals of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Cotton Mather’s diary, the diary of judge Samuel Sewall, who also plays a role in the story, and the letters of Benjamin Franklin, who made a few references to this early period in his life in some late letters. I visited Boston and the Massachusetts Historical Society, where I examined actual surviving copies of the Courant. And I went to Newport, Rhode Island to research James Franklin’s life after he left Boston, and to see the press that he and Benjamin used to print the Courant, which is housed in a museum there. Among the primary materials the diaries and the newspapers were extremely valuable because they offered glimpses of the quotidian—what the weather was like, what people were selling, what they were doing in their leisure time, what they were gossiping about, etc. Those details helped bring the narrative alive.

Q: You are a first-time historian and this is your first book. What was most challenging to you in reconstructing this period and these characters for your readers? 

This is a book about medical history, American political history, and the history of the press. It’s also a biographical study of Cotton Mather, James and Benjamin Franklin, Zabdiel Boylston, and Elisha Cooke. So the scope of the book is fairly wide. Since I hadn’t had the advantage of studying any of those subjects in depth prior to beginning the book I needed to do an enormous amount of foundational research in order to understand the contexts of the events I was writing about and how events that transpired over a few years’ time fit into the larger lives of my characters. What was the history of medicine leading up to the inoculation trial in 1721? What was the state of relations between the American colonies and England—and how did that relationship evolve in the decades after the showdown between Cooke and Royal Governor Shute? What was Mather’s actual role at Salem and what happened in the thirty years between that event and the inoculation trial? How did what Ben Franklin learned in 1721 benefit him later in life? Gaining the perspective to write the book meant researching both broadly and deeply; it was a huge and sometimes daunting undertaking, but it was crucial and I loved it. 

Read entire article at Simon and Schuster (Special to HNN)

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