Saturday, May 7, 2022

Opinions We Never Finished Reading. IV

Meanwhile, beyond the grim world of the witch killers Coke and Hale, there's evidence of more relaxed attitudes on both sides of the Atlantic, in some places that you might not expect at all. 

For instance, in 1729, around the same time as the prosecution of Eleanor Beare, a brand new newspaper, the Philadelphia Gazette, published by Samuel Keimer, was running a series of articles, presumably pirated, from a new English reference work, Chambers' Cyclopaedia, in alphabetical order, and apparently not paying enough attention to what he was issuing. It included a lengthy discussion of Abortion in the fifth number, which had been okay in a bound volume in England, but too explicit for the comfort of an American newspaper audience, reading a little like a how-to manual:

Anyway, none other than that first fearless American comedian-blogger, Benjamin Franklin, had a number of grudges against Keimer, who had given him his first job when he came to Philadelphia as a 17-year-old in 1723, and undercut his own plan to start a newspaper by founding the Gazette at the end of 1728. Franklin and some friends really intended to drive Keimer out of business, in a series of  satirical opinion columns published under the nym "The Busy-Body", in Andrew Bradford's American Weekly Mercury. He began, however, by mocking Keimer over the abortion article, in the following bogus letters to the editor of the Mercury:

Mr. Andrew Bradford,

In behalf of my Self and many good modest Women in this City (who are almost out of Countenance) I Beg you will Publish this in your next Mercury, as a Warning to Samuel Keimer: That if he proceed farther to Expose the Secrets of our Sex, in That audacious manner, as he hath done in his Gazette, No. 5. under the Letters, A.B.O. To be read in all Taverns and Coffee-Houses, and by the Vulgar: I say if he Publish any more of that kind, which ought only to be in the Repositary of the Learned; my Sister Molly and my Self, with some others, are Resolved to run the Hazard of taking him by the Beard, at the next Place we meet him, and make an Example of him for his Immodesty. I Subscribe on the behalf of the rest of my Agrieved Sex. Yours

24 January, 1728.Martha Careful

Friend Andrew Bradford,

I desire Thee to insert in thy next Mercury, the following Letter to Samuel Keimer, for by doing it, Thou may perhaps save Keimer his Ears, and very much Oblige our Sex in general, but in a more Particular manner. Thy modest Friend,CÆlia Shortface

Friend Samuel Keimer,

I did not Expect when thou puts forth Thy Advertisement concerning Thy Universal Instructor, (as Thou art pleas’d to call it,) That, Thou would have Printed such Things in it, as would make all the Modest and Virtuous Women in Pennsilvania ashamed.

I was last Night in Company with several of my Acquaintance, and Thee, and Thy Indecencies, was the Subject of our Discourse, but at last we Resolved, That if thou Continue to take such Scraps concerning Us, out of thy great Dictionary, and Publish it, as thou hath done in thy Gazette, No. 5, to make Thy Ears suffer for it: And I was desired by the rest, to inform Thee of Our Resolution, which is That if thou proceed any further in that Scandalous manner, we intend very soon to have thy right Ear for it; Therefore I advice Thee to take this timely Caution in good part; and if thou canst make no better Use of Thy Dictionary, Sell it at Thy next Luck in the Bag; and if Thou hath nothing else to put in Thy Gazette, lay it down, I am, Thy Troubled Friend,

27th of the 11th Mo. 1728.Cælia Shortface

This is such a rich mine of evidence on the actual status of abortion in the culture, as opposed to the rulings of the expert jurists Alito quotes. It was a part of women's culture, the "Secrets of our Sex", and not a subject for men's conversation in taverns and coffee-houses, but very real, and an essential element of women's healthcare, as it is today. Also it was funny, in a dangerously transgressive way, because some abortions, as today, were connected with the subject of extramarital sex, which unlike abortion really was illegal (that doesn't, as you may have guessed, mean it didn't take place, even in the world of the Founding Fathers).

That is, not always funny, since it could also be lethal: Gary Kowalski in the history blog American Creation (covering much of the same material as I'm covering) brings up

a case from 1742 that occurred in the village of Pomfret, Connecticut, where 19-year-old Sarah Grosvenor died in a bungled abortion urged on her by her 27-year-old lover Amasa Sessions.  Magistrates filed charges against both Sessions and the “doctor of physick” who mangled the operation, but Dayton points out the legal complaints were not for performing the abortion as such (which was legal) but for killing the mother.  The whole episode was surrounded with a hush of secrecy, in an era when “fornication” was not only illegal but culturally taboo.  Abortion, in the colonial context, carried a stigma of shame not because it ended the life of a fetus but because it was associated with illicit intercourse

That's the kind of murder case Matthew Hale was talking about in the 1670 ruling quoted in the previous post, and that, as I was saying then, proves that abortion itself was in fact legal in Britain and the colonies, however socially disapproved.

But it's overwhelmingly likely, I suppose, that most abortions then as now, were performed on married women, with no effective methods of birth control, who simply didn't feel they could cope with more children than they already had—even perhaps some of the friends of that respectable Quakeress Mrs. Shortface. Franklin, a genuine friend as well as lover of women, knew all about it.

That's the context in which Thomas Jefferson wrote admiringly in his Notes on the State of Virginia about the Native women:

They raise fewer children than we do. The causes of this are to be found, not in a difference of nature, but of circumstance. The women very frequently attending the men in their parties of war and of hunting, child-bearing becomes extremely inconvenient to them. It is said, therefore, that they have learnt the practice of procuring abortion by the use of some vegetable; and that it even extends to prevent conception for a considerable time after.

Jefferson, unlike Franklin, didn't think it was funny (he never thought that about anything, sadly), but he did see that it was resourceful, and scientific. And it never occurred to him to condemn abortion as immoral.

Franklin actually succeeded in driving Keimer out of business, by the way, after a siege of nine months, upon which Keimer sold him the Gazette and fled his creditors, winding up in Barbados, where he started the first newspaper in the Caribbean. May something like this happen to Samuel Alito!

Via Encyclopedia Virginia.

Link to Postscript.

No comments:

Post a Comment