And This Moment

You…and this moment

The little boy, four years old, took his last breath and died. He was a victim of smallpox. His death devastated his parents. In some ways, the shadow of their son’s death would never leave the family’s consciousness. Evermore, darkness covered a small corner of the mother and father’s minds.

His name was Francis. His dad called him Franky. It was a musical name, Francis “Franky” Franklin.

His father was Benjamin Franklin. The man who we know for kites and electricity, for his role in the American Revolution, for his invention of dozens of objects and items, buried his son in 1736.

Of course, the death of a child in the lives of parents is always a profound moment. That is not the reason, however, why I offer this moment up to you. I decided to do so because of the circumstances surrounding Benjamin Franklin and the death of Franky.

It’s about smallpox, you see.

Fifteen years before his son’s death, before Benjamin Franklin’s marriage and the onset of adulthood, before his family life, and before a robust business enterprise and civic reputation, the future father of Franky was a teenager working for his brother James as a printing apprentice.

James Franklin owned and operated the New England Courant, a newspaper in 1721 Boston. James Franklin created the newspaper as a new kind of media. The Courant blended foreign news with local reports, the bawdier and more sensational the better. The Courant sought to provoke readers, to titillate them. Edgy, fast-paced, and testing the limits of good taste and decorum, James Franklin’s Courant never missed a chance to be in the middle of public arguments. Controversy sells newspapers.

James Franklin used Benjamin to set type, write stories, and scoop up any reports that should make their way into the pages of the Courant.

One of the earliest examples was in 1721. That year, Boston suffered from a massive outbreak of smallpox, one of the worst experiences with the disease in several decades. As it happened, a young doctor named Zabdiel Boylston and a highly influential church minister and social commentator, Cotton Mather, independently hit upon the idea of using a version of smallpox to help develop bodily defenses against further effects of the disease. It was the first use of inoculation.

The problem was that inoculation was alien to nearly everyone in Boston. Word of experimentation and of trial-and-error uses of the practice rocketed across the town. The New England Courant—the Franklin brothers—picked up early winds of this controversy and set to work exploiting the situation to whip up readership. They chastised the supporters of inoculation, especially Mather as the embodiment of the town’s “establishment.” They blasted Mather and inoculation at every opportunity. They blamed him for the hundreds of deaths in Boston. And when a mob threw a grenade into Mather’s house one night in an attempted assassination, it wasn’t a leap to wonder how far they had been incited by the rhetoric of the Franklin brothers.

Benjamin Franklin was the younger of the two brothers. He was learning the trade, craft, and art of the printing industry from his older brother. Benjamin already possessed a powerful intellectual curiosity and was a skilled reader. The time with his brother was a critical component to his growth and development, adding a sense of real-world experience as well as exposure to innovation, risk-taking, creativity, and strategy.

But there was no question as to who was the Courant’s leader and driving force. It was James Franklin. Benjamin was the follower, the observer, the soak-it-up sponge in a daily world framed by his older brother. The ferocity of the Courant’s attacks on Cotton Mather originated with James with a follow-up, follow-along assist from Benjamin.

Now, let’s think again about Franky, fifteen years later in Philadelphia. By that time, Benjamin Franklin had left his brother’s employ and set up his own newspaper. His newspaper echoed much of his older brother’s earlier work as a bold and brash publication.

However, Benjamin Franklin had changed his views of smallpox inoculation. He supported the practice he had condemned a decade-and-a-half ago. Franklin’s evolution on inoculation was typical among British colonists by the 1730s.

This meant that when smallpox struck Franky in 1736, Benjamin Franklin was ready and willing to have him inoculated. Except, for some reason, the father delayed. He waited before contacting a doctor to do the procedure. Tragically, scarcely a few days later, it was too late. Franky died.

Pause at this moment in Benjamin Franklin’s life. He had the memory of having opposed a medical innovation that was now a proven life-saver. His previous actions had prolonged suffering and had resulted in the public demolition of a respected community leader’s reputation. And now, here he was, having come around to an acceptance of the value of a medical break-through, yet he had dawdled and procrastinated. This time his own actions, which earlier nearly killed Cotton Mather, now actually killed his own son.

I’ll wager you have a guess as to the effects of this experience on Benjamin Franklin.

For the rest of his life, Benjamin Franklin thought about Franky, missed Franky, saw Franky’s face whenever he paused and looked deeply into the eyes of a nearby child. Indeed, Benjamin Franklin truly saw few other children after 1736—instead, he saw Franky in their faces. Regret, an enduring sorrow, a silent pain and misery that never went away, the moment that Franky Franklin died resurrected a dual memory. The disease that killed his only child was the disease that he had helped to spread fifteen year before.

One moment, two times.

Have you had one moment, two times? Have you done or decided something earlier in your life that you came to regret? I’m sure you have; we all have. But was it like Benjamin Franklin’s, where the earlier regretted episode was brought back into the midst of your life by a subsequent experience and then you stumbled again, made a crucial mistake again? I hope not.

One moment, two times.

Thanks for reading. All the best, Dan