Ben Franklin’s Role in America’s First Vaccination Battle

Hysterical crusades against vaccination are not new in America. In fact, Benjamin Franklin’s older brother was at the center of the first vaccination controversy in American history.

Incredibly, James and Benjamin Franklin opposed efforts to protect citizens from the world’s deadliest infection: smallpox. In the process. Strangely, James Franklin’s war on inoculation was also America’s first newspaper crusade.

The Franklin Brothers were at the center of America’s first pandemic controversy. That controversy resembles future American media crusades, scientific denial efforts, and political controversies.

James Franklin’s 18th Century Clickbait

In 1721, James Franklin was the owner/editor of The New England Courant, Boston’s fourth newspaper.

Like a modern website producer, James Franklin needed clickbait; in the form of sensational headlines, to attract eyeballs to his publication. James needed sensational headlines to attract advertisers and subscribers to generate revenue.

Like future editors and producers, Franklin sought a sensational issue to attract attention. The issue James found was inoculation against smallpox.

Smallpox in the 18th Century  

Smallpox, or the variola virus, was the most feared disease in 18th Century America. Colonists were frightened because smallpox had killed millions of native Americans and depopulated enormous areas of the Continent.

Variola was deadly because it went away for decades and came back every one or two generations. Hence, there was a new generation with little immunity to smallpox. Americans were highly susceptible to smallpox because they lived in isolated settlements that had brief contact with outsiders.

In 1721, Boston’s only defense against smallpox was quarantine. People locked themselves in their homes, kept strangers away, and blocked travel. Much as modern nations try to keep the coronavirus out. In a more extreme version of quarantine, soldiers or police herded infected people into pesthouses and locked them there to protect the community.

Inoculation  

Then Cotton Mather, a famous Boston pastor, learned of a more effective defense against the variola virus.

One of Mather’s slaves told the minister about variolation, a crude method of inoculation. In variolation, a doctor takes material from smallpox sores and rubs it into a cut on an uninfected person’s skin.

In addition, around 5% of those variolated developed full-strength smallpox and died.  A greater danger was that dirty instruments or doctors’ unwashed hands could infect inoculation recipients with other germs. Remember, Louis Pasteur, the father of germ was theory, was not born for another century. So some people died from other infections because of efforts to control smallpox.

Cotton Mather’s Variolation Crusade

Cotton Mather became a variolation true believer and began promoting the process.

Mather’s inoculation crusade caught James Franklin’s attention. James disliked Mather because the minister was an intolerant prude and a religious fanatic. Moreover, James smelled money from the attention a sensational story about a deadly disease and an unpopular cleric could generate.

In The Courant, James Franklin began making the same argument as modern anti-vaccination crusaders. James’ argument was that arrogant elitists were planning to subject ordinary people to a dangerous and unproven treatment for economic reasons. In other words, Franklin anticipated the arguments of some modern American anti-mask and anti-vaccination activists.

James Franklin’s Anti-Inoculation Crusade

Mather; who was both a religious fanatic and an intellectual, made the perfect villain for James’ narrative.

Thus, James used hysteria, class prejudice, and fear to sell newspapers. Hence, James Franklin pioneered the fear tactics later used by press barons such as Lord Northcliffe, William Randolph Hearst, and Rupert P. Murdoch.

Disgustingly James was putting Boston residents’ lives and Boston’s economy at risk during a pandemic. Hence, Benjamin Franklin’s older brother again anticipated modern anti-mask and anti-vaxxers with his irresponsible behavior.

In The Courant, James dismissed variolation as “the practice of an old Greek woman.” To explain, Franklin was appealing to religious and ethnic prejudice. James was accusing Mather, a devout Protestant, of adopting Greek Orthodox ideas.

Franklin was appealing to the prejudices of Boston’s staunch Protestant population. Colonial Boston’s residents were the proud descendants of the Puritans.  James was using religious prejudice and xenophobia to attack Mather.

Historians think James’ crusade worked because The New England Courant attracted 40 new subscribers.  Sadly, James Franklin’s unethical behavior was profitable.

Benjamin Franklin Anti-Vaxxer

Disgustingly, James Franklin’s anti-variolation crusade took place during a smallpox epidemic. Hence, Franklin was putting his neighbors at risk to sell newspapers. Worse, James’ brought his famous brother into the crusade.

One of James Franklin’s print-shop apprentices was the future Founding Father Benjamin Franklin. Benjamin learned the trades of printing and journalism, which would make him rich and famous, from his sensationalist brother.

Moreover, author Eric Burns thinks Benjamin wrote many of the anti-variolation articles in The New England Courant. Benjamin even ran the paper when James went to jail.

Cotton Mather Strikes Back

Cotton Mather’s response to James Franklin was far from Christian. Mather called Franklin’s charges a “wicked libel” in rival publications.

Then, Mather or his allies used the power of the government against James. The Massachusetts General Court (the colony’s government) arrested James Franklin for publishing a newspaper without a license. Since The New England Courant had been printing without a license for sometime, the arrest was questionable.

James Franklin went to jail and Benjamin took control of The Courant and continued his brothers’ crusade. Decades later Benjamin wrote “I had the Management of the Paper.” In that role, Ben Franklin began his lifelong career of rebellion and attacks on authority.

How Smallpox Made Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin spent several years as his brother’s apprentice and sometime replacement at The New England Courant. In that role, Franklin adopted his brother’s profession and radical politics.

Eventually, Ben left for another apprenticeship in London. Young Ben then moved to Philadelphia, where he became the 13 colonies’ most successful publisher and Colonial America’s most famous person.

Franklin would leverage that fame to become Pennsylvania’s political boss, the colony’s representative in London, and a leader of the movement for American independence. Ironically, Ben Franklin, who began his career attacking inoculation, became America’s first famous scientist besides his business and political careers.

By the time of the Revolutionary War, events proved Cotton Mather right and the Franklin brothers wrong. Variolaiton was a popular practice in 1770s America. Founders; such as Abigail and John Adams, inoculated their children. Moreover, George Washington variolated the Continental Army to counter the Crown’s inoculation of British regulars.

Thus, a political crusade against a new medical practice during a pandemic helped make one of America’s most famous Founding Fathers. History shows that political controversies in pandemics are nothing new.

See: Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism By Eric Burns; Chapters Three and Four, for a full account of the Franklin brothers’ anti-variolation crusade.

See: Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1776-1782 by Elizabeth A. Fenn for the full story of Smallpox in Revolutionary America.