Governing the tongue…

Cotton Mather, the famous 17th century Puritan minister from New England used to stutter in his early years and overcame this impediment to speech through a great deal of effort in his early twenties. When he discovered that his efforts had bore fruit and he no longer stuttered, he was exuberant. He had found the ‘freedom of speech’ with which to become an orator in the tradition of his family. His father Increase Mather and his grand father John Cotton were all part of New England’s Puritan Ministers.

Cotton soon discovered that a command on the language and ability to use one’s tongue to speak lucidly was not enough and that freedom of speech also involved government of speech. Jane Kaminsky writes about his dilemma in the beginning of her book Governing the Tongue: The Politics of Speech in Early New England.  

in June 1681, when Mather–usually an anxious young man, even by Puritan standards–appears uncharacteristically exuberant. The reason for his delight is clear. During the previous winter, his twentieth, he has with great effort overcome the crippling speech defect that had earlier caused him to fear that he lacked the “necessary Supplies of Speech” …

…With a heart full of “Gratitude unto the Lord,” young Mather retires to his prayer closet, where he cries out in thanks for his newfound voice: “How Miraculous a Thing is the Freedom of Speech .!”

Skip ahead to the following spring. The delight Mather’s “freedom of speech” brought him the previous June has been supplanted by anxiety. Now, instead of agonizing over the physical impediments to his tongue’s liberty, Mather frets about his lack of restraint in speaking. Perhaps his unaccustomed fluency has suddenly made him aware of something virtually every early modern Englishman and Englishwoman already knows: that the hot passions of the tongue more often cause words to flow too freely than not freely enough–particularly, it seems, in New England. Has not the history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s first half century, a history that includes both the inspiring oratory of John Cotton and the “infectious” heresies of Anne Hutchinson, proved the truth of the popular maxim stating that “the tongue is every man’s best or worst”? 

Whatever the reason, just months after reveling in his “freedom of speech,” Mather sets out to define, and refine, and confine his verbal liberties…Having at last taught himself to speak freely, he now reminds himself also to speak “cautiously, moderately,deliberately,” and rarely. In order to sound like a godly man, Mather writes, he must “take heed that hee sinned not with HisTongue.” He tells himself, in short, that free speech is not enough. Or, more precisely, he cautions himself: free speech is sometimes too much. (Kamensky, 1999, p. 3-4)

When freedom of speech is assumed as natural, we lose sight of the ways in which speech [even when set free] is governed in all human societies.

About Irfan

I am an independent researcher and blogger interested in everything under the sun, but more so in the philosophy and history of education and education reform generally, and specifically in the so-called post colonial contexts


  1. Powers of Freedom… | Just questions! - 20/09/2012

    […] by Irfan 0 Comments Freedom to speak his mind freely wasn’t a thing of this world that Cotton Mather could acquire after defeating his stutters.  Soon he realised that in order to set his speech truly free he had to tame it too. In order to […]

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