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Andrew Gross, “Community and Contagion: Crises of Liberalism in the Writing of Benjamin Franklin”

Andrew Gross

Andrew Gross

In 1722, when Benjamin Franklin began publishing letters under the pen-name Mrs. Silence Dogood in his brother’s newspaper, The New-England Courant, Boston was in the midst of a smallpox epidemic. The epidemic triggered a crisis of public health and a crisis of public debate. Over half the population of about 11,000 residents was infected with a disease that would kill fourteen percent of its victims; but for the first time on what would become American soil, doctors began to inoculate—in the face of violent opposition. Silence Dogood mentions neither the disease nor the inoculation debates. However, James Franklin’s paper played a key role in the controversy, backing the faction that argued against inoculation. Those arguing in favor rallied around Cotton Mather.

My talk will analyze the arguments behind the positions, exploring if perhaps the belief in the “invisible world,” so central to the witchcraft cases, put Mather in a better position to understand the mechanics of contagion. I will also discuss Franklin’s evolving attitude towards disease, in particular after the death of his four-year-old son Francis to smallpox in 1736. However, the main focus of my paper will be on the debates themselves, and particularly on how opposing inoculation enabled a diverse group of publically concerned citizens to constitute themselves as a group by putting forth arguments about the body and its maladies. As with contemporary “anti-vaxxers,” the anti-inoculators may have been united more through their opposition to authority than by any coherent political ideology. However, they began to understand themselves as a coalition and to articulate distinct visions of community, by opposing what they saw as sanctioned attacks on the body and the body politic. This controversy over the benefits of inoculation and its meaning provides an opportunity to explore the formation of publics and counterpublics at the moment when the first daily newspapers began to appear.

Andrew S. Gross is a professor of American literature at the University of Göttingen. His latest book, The Pound Reaction: Liberalism and Lyricism in Midcentury American Literature, appeared in 2015. Other publications include the co-authored Comedy, Avant-Garde, Scandal: Remembering the Holocaust after the End of History; the co-edited Pathos of Authenticity; and a guest-edited issue of Amerikastudien.