Publick Occurrences 2.0

February 14, 2013

Postal Regulations and the Press in Franklin’s Day and Ours

I read this morning at Jim Romenesko’s blog about the travails of the New Hampshire Gazette, which styles itself The Nation’s Oldest Newspaper, after a change last month in postal regulations. The descendant of the newspaper of that name founded by Daniel Fowle in 1756 (and now run by a distant cousin), the Gazette is a free bi-weekly newspaper based in Portsmouth, and has long relied on the U.S. Postal Service to circulate copies to subscribers—I’ll let you click over to Romenesko to read the details.

In announcing its troubles, the New Hampshire Gazette wrote that its staff “can only imagine what Benjamin Franklin, the newspaperman who founded the Post Office, would think of this.” Fortunately, I can answer that question: their trouble is pretty much the same reason that Franklin ended up involved with the post office in the first place.

As a young newspaper printer trying to break into the Philadelphia market with his Pennsylvania Gazette, Franklin posed a challenge to the leading printer in town, Andrew Bradford, who published the American Weekly Mercury. Bradford, who was also the Philadelphia postmaster, found a way to thwart Franklin’s ambitions by forbidding him from mailing newspapers to subscribers via the post. The ambitious Franklin seized the advantage as soon as it offered itself, as he related later in his Autobiography:

In 1737, Col. Spotswood, late Governor of Virginia, and then Post-master, General, being dissatisfied with the Conduct of his Deputy at Philadelphia, respecting some Negligence in rendering, and Inexactitude of his Accounts, took from him the Commision and offered it to me. I accepted it readily, and found it of great Advantage; for tho’ the Salary was small, it facilitated the Corespondence that improv’d my Newspaper, encreas’d the Number demanded, as well as the Advertisements to be inserted, so that it came to afford me a very considerable Income. My old Competitor’s Newspaper declin’d proportionably, and I was satisfy’d without retaliating his Refusal, while Postmaster, to permit my Papers being carried by the Riders.

The postmaster position helped make Franklin’s career by giving him access to news circulating the colonies and providing him with the ability to add patronage appointments for his growing network of printing associates. A decade and a half later, Franklin angled himself into position to become Deputy Postmaster General for North America, a position he held from 1753 to 1774, and then of course served briefly as the first Continental Postmaster General (he didn’t actually “found” the Post Office, but that’s not important).

In other words, New Hampshire Gazette, Franklin (and many other eighteenth-century printers) knew your pain.


August 14, 2010

Modern Education’s Influence on Benjamin Franklin

Filed under: Education,Founders — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 8:11 am

The view from the dental chair last week:


Possibly there is a good Lockean idea in there somewhere, but this bit of modern School of Education dogma — learning only occurs through games or craft projects — did not sound like Ben Franklin to me.  He was all about learning by reading about things, as well doing them.  He started one of the world’s great libraries, the old-fashioned kind full of papery things! (The phraseology did not very 18th-century either, like having Franklin mention his learning curve.)  The speedy search feature of the online Franklin Papers revealed nothing close, and apparently even fans of this quotation have some doubts about whether anyone historical actually wrote it. They think maybe it is ancient Chinese proverb, no fooling. Like “Stay thirsty, my friend!” But perhaps I sell the proverbists short.


July 23, 2010

Modern Franklin Gets the Boot [UPDATED]

Filed under: Founders,Printing History,science — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 11:52 am

Outbreaks of popular resistance against expert medical advice are a long Anglo-American tradition, and preventative measures like inoculation and vaccination have been recurring targets for us freemen. It will always be a little counter-intuitive to expose a healthy person to potentially harmful substances to keep them from getting a disease they don’t seem to have. It seemed even worse in the case of early inoculation, which involved giving someone a disease like smallpox on purpose in hopes they would get it in a less virulent form and develop some immunity.  Sometimes the patient  just got sick and died of the “cure.”

One of the most famous populist crusades against the modern medicine of its time was in 1721 when young Ben Franklin and his older brother James went after the smallpox inoculation policy favored by colonial Boston’s ministerial elite. The Massachusetts Historical Society has an excellent online presentation about the controversy, including images of Ben’s pseudonymous essays from the New England Courant. (Historians help me with some less well-known examples).

But historical context only goes so far, and just because some Founder did it, does not necessarily make it right in every case. So quite likely Dr. Andrew Wakefield really did need to be drummed out of the medical profession [original link to AP story no longer works]:

LONDON — The doctor whose research linking autism and the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella influenced millions of parents to refuse the shot for their children was banned Monday from practicing medicine in his native Britain.

Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s 1998 study was discredited — but vaccination rates have never fully recovered and he continues to enjoy a vocal following, helped in the U.S. by endorsements from celebrities like Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy

Wakefield was the first researcher to publish a peer-reviewed study suggesting a connection between autism and the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella. Legions of parents abandoned the vaccine, leading to a resurgence of measles in Western countries where it had been mostly stamped out. There are outbreaks across Europe every year and sporadic outbreaks in the U.S.

“That is Andrew Wakefield’s legacy,” said Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “The hospitalizations and deaths of children from measles who could have easily avoided the disease.”

Wakefield’s discredited theories had a tremendous impact in the U.S., Offit said, adding: “He gave heft to the notion that vaccines in general cause autism.”

In Britain, Wakefield’s research led to a huge decline in the number of children receiving the MMR vaccine: from 95 percent in 1995 — enough to prevent measles outbreaks — to 50 percent in parts of London in the early 2000s. Rates have begun to recover, though not enough to prevent outbreaks. In 2006, a 13-year-old boy became the first person to die from measles in Britain in 14 years.

“The false suggestion of a link between autism and the MMR vaccine has done untold damage to the UK vaccination program,” said Terence Stephenson, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. “Overwhelming scientific evidence shows that it is safe.”

Unfortunately, even when the British totally discredit you, there is always Texas, as Brian Deer of the London Times explains.


February 27, 2009

Rocking the Revolution: A Rebels Rising Playlist

Filed under: Music,Playlists,Popular culture,Revolution,Urban history — Benjamin Carp @ 7:27 am

In honor of Oxford University Press publishing the paperback edition of Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution, I thought we might strike up a playlist.  The annotations make it a long entry, so if you’re in the mood for some Friday fun, please follow me below the fold.  In the meantime, pick up a copy and add it to your syllabus today.

I should start by saying that there isn’t much musical, historical, or thematic rhyme or reason to this list (which I first created in 2007 when the hardcover edition was published): I just wanted a CD-length playlist inspired by the book, drawn from songs I already owned (although I did hunt down a couple more).  Under my self-imposed rule, the songs had to have “rebels,” “rising”, “city,” “cities,” or the name of one of the book’s five cities (Boston, New York City, Newport, Charleston, and Philadelphia) in the title.  I also included songs that corresponded with the introduction and epilogue.  Where songs are named for a specific city, they are in chapter order; the three “rebels” songs precede the three “rising” songs.  Here’s the book’s table of contents if you’d like to follow along.



February 3, 2008

Poor Ben

Filed under: Founders,Media — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 3:00 pm

The Washington Independent is a new political news site from the Center for Independent Media that looks pretty good in general, but I was not sure what to make of their recent item “Live with Ben Franklin.” Author Luis Rumbaut quotes a long passage from Benjamin Franklin’s well-known (to historians) complaints, as a colonial Pennsylvania politician, about his colony’s German population. Rumbaut uses the passages to liken Franklin to a “nativist web site” or a far-right talk show host. Rumbaut seems to be a fighting a good fight against the current outbreak of anti-immigrant politics, but I wonder what his purpose was bringing Franklin into it? Far from shaming anyone, this kind of thing just encourages the Ron Pauls of the country, and their less presentable fellow travelers, whom Rumbaut wants to criticize. The far right loves nothing better than out-of-context or made-up Founder quotations that seem to put Our Forefathers on the same ideological team as modern nativists, racists, antisemites, and natural citizenship enthusiasts. What inspired those Texas vigilantes to call themselves “Minutemen” in the first place, hmmm?

In addition, one need not special plead for Ben Franklin to observe that ethno-political tensions and celebration of English political traditions, in a colonial Pennsylvania that was still struggling to get British royal government (instead of the Penn family proprietorship), was a rather different proposition than the Minutemen and Ron Paulists today displacing their free-floating cultural hostilities and economic insecurities onto immigrants. And that is not even to mention the fact that the Founders were inspired by some of the most advanced political ideas of their time; these modern ultraconservatives, not so much.


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