Strange Brouhaha

Saturday, April 22, 2006

"The First American"

I'm reading H. W. Brands' "The First American", his fascinating biography of Benjamin Franklin. It's worth at least checking out of the library for the prologue alone, which shows us a 68-year-old Franklin at a hearing of Parliament's Privy Council, being excoriated for leaking documents to the Massachusetts legislature.

When Franklin was sixteen, apprenticed to his brother the printer, he began writing secretly for the New England Courant under the pseudonym of Silence Dogood (the name is a dig at Cotton Mather). This passage comes from early in the book:

"Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thng as wisdom," [Silence] quoted from an English paper; "and no such thing as public liberty without freedom of speech, which is the right of every man.... Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech, a thing terrible to public traitors." This talk of traitors was strong stuff, but Silence had not finished. "It has been for some time a question with me, whether a commonwealth suffers more by hypocritical pretenders to religion or by the openly profane?...Some late thoughts of this nature have inclined me to think that the hypocrite is the most dangerous person of the two, especially if he sustains a post in the government." The openly profane person deceived no one and thereby limited the damage he could cause; but the godly hypocrite enlisted the unwitting many into his malign service. "They take him for a saint and pass him for one, without considering that they are (as it were) the instruments of public mischief out of conscience, and ruin their country for God's sake."

Franklin here is writing about Cotton Mather and the other influential ministers of Boston, but it doesn't take too much imagination to see that everything old is new again, does it?


  • In an interesting bit of cosmic propinquity, shortly after I finished writing this (I wrote it a couple of days before posting it), we were watching the cartoon "Liberty's Kids," and the episode we saw contained a recreation of the Privy Council session. It was neat.

    By Blogger Robert, at 10:32 PM  

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