Zoe Irene VanSandt
no Founding Father is as
accessible as Benjamin Franklin. His
bawdy humor and earthy good nature appeal to twenty-first century
a way that the moralistic Washington and prickly Adams do not. But, as the saying goes, behind every good
man is a woman. This paper will examine
not one, but three women who were part of the
Read first encountered Ben
Franklin shortly after his arrival in
Colonial Americans sought economically advantageous marriages. Love was wonderful, but property was essential. Typically, when a man proposed marriage, he did so to the woman’s parents or guardian. If the overture was not outright rejected, careful negotiations began. Of what property was he possessed now and what were his future prospects? How much of a dowry could he expect from her family? What assistance would be given by either side of the family after the marriage took place? There was more to marriage than two people falling in love and setting up house behind a white picket fence. Marriage helped ensure orderly transmission of property from one generation to the next and, therefore, protected society from chaos. Property considerations were also a way to protect the family from inappropriate extended family connections; marrying above or beneath one’s rank in society could create myriad problems. Careful pre-nuptial evaluation of prospects would root out potential threats to family fortunes large or small.
negotiations sometimes came to an impasse, as did Ben Franklin’s early
at securing a mate. Initially rebuffed
by Deborah Read’s family, Franklin made his way to
after the marriage,
Deborah, who seems to have indeed been a cheerful person in most circumstances, was not the kind of woman, however, to be submissive at all times. After all, they had not married in the church and she may not have consciously assented to that part of the marriage liturgy containing the word “obey.” Of course, Ben Franklin did not really want a wife totally dependent on his decision making. He wanted a good helpmate—someone who willingly shared the burdens of building a life, running a business, raising a family, creating a home. Deborah provided this support, and safe in his knowledge of her common sense and mutual interest, he was free to pursue a life in politics, philosophy, and science.
commitment to the matrimonial enterprise was soon tested.
Around the time of their marriage,
twenty-seven years Deborah and Ben Franklin prospered in
reasons for her remaining in
neither expected such lengthy separations and Deborah did miss her
husband. In addition, a woman with an
absent husband faced certain obstacles in colonial
available tool, however, was utilized by the
Deborah to keep the various
In the document Franklin attested that he was appointing his “trusty and loving Friend and Wife Deborah Franklin, to be my true and lawful Attorney, for me, and in my Name and Stead, and my Use, to ask demand, sue for, levy, recover and receive, all such Sum and Sums of Money, Debts, Rents, Goods, Wares, Dues, Accounts, and other Demands whatsoever…” and also to pay any debts accrued in his name.5
additions to collecting rents and
taking care of correspondence, Deborah Franklin purchased lots in
the winter of 1768-69 Deborah suffered a stroke and a slow decline set
in. Ben Franklin was notified, but did not
Throughout the years, one of Deborah Franklin’s correspondents and occasional guest was her sister-in-law, Jane Mecom. Known to historians as Benjamin Franklin’s favorite sister, Jane Franklin Mecom was six years younger than her brother and saw him infrequently after he fled Boston for Philadelphia when she was eleven. Distance and very different destinies did not weaken the sibling bond, however. They were dedicated letter writers. Many months, or even years, might pass between letters, but the correspondence that began in 1727 continued until Benjamin Franklin’s death in 1790—a total of 63 years. (Jane died four years after her brother.)
Not surprisingly, little is known about Jane Franklin’s childhood. She was fifteen when she married Edward Mecom, a neighbor eight years her senior. As a younger daughter of a large family she did not have much to bring to the marriage and her life with Edward Mecom was fraught with economic and emotional difficulty. She bore twelve children over a period of twenty-one years; she outlived her husband and eleven of her children. Three babes died before their first birthday. Two sons suffered from disabling mental illness in adulthood. Grandchildren gave her headaches and heartache. Her life was not easy. Her life was not atypical of eighteenth century colonial women.
A source of joy for Jane Mecom was the correspondence between herself and her brother. It provided emotional support for both of them and created a lifelong bond that weathered physical separation, the upheaval of the Revolutionary War, and the challenges of old age. It is thought that the first letter Ben Franklin wrote to his sister was to congratulate her upon her marriage and let her know he was sending a spinning wheel for a present. And, since this was, after all, Benjamin Franklin, he concluded with a few words of advice, this time on the virtue of modesty. “…remember,” he admonished his sister, “that modesty…makes …woman more lovely than an angel.”7
What emerges from their correspondence is a story of two people who feel great affection and respect for each other. Jane kept her brother informed of family news—the health of parents and siblings, the joys and sorrows of numerous nieces and nephews. As Ben Franklin’s fame increased, he became a target for people who claimed to be distantly related and sought his help. Off would go a letter to his sister in Boston—is this family related to us? Franklin helped some of Jane’s grandchildren find work (to varying degrees of success). As the siblings aged he provided more and more financial assistance to Jane—paying for her winter firewood, for example, or assisting with housing costs.
Although it may appear that he had much more to offer her than vice versa, and that is true if only material advantage is taken into consideration, a favorite sister’s love and respect is no small thing. He also valued her practical knowledge. A recurring theme in the letters was the recipe and production of crown soap. In 1771 Ben Franklin wrote to his sister from London asking her to send him the directions for this soap. “Let it be very exact in the smallest Particulars,” he wrote.8 Jane complied and the directions she sent were very exact. She even included a diagram illustrating how the mold should be constructed and used. Six months after his initial request (trans-Atlantic mail service was slow and unreliable in those days) Ben wrote to thank her. “They [the directions] are as full and particular as one could wish…I am glad…that those useful arts, which have so long been in our family, are now put down in writing. Some future branch may be the better for it.”9
Later, when the Revolutionary War was causing material shortages and anxiety for Jane Mecom, Franklin wrote from Paris in 1779 accepting her offer of a shipment of crown soap. “You will do me a great deal of Pleasure in sending me as you propose, some Crown Soap, the very best that can be made. I shall have an Opportunity of obliging some Friends with it, who very much admire the little Specimens I have been able to give them.”10 She sent the soap with an apology. “…I hope the Soap is also got saif to you Shall be glad to know what you think on it when you have tried it I was obliged to manage it in some Perticulars different from Useal method for want of convenencies Shall Rejoyce if it ansures the End you wished to have it for…”11
Apparently Franklin misplaced the recipe, for his sister sent it to him again in 1786 when he was back in Philadelphia. Throughout the spring of that year additional letters were exchanged on the topic of crown soap. Franklin received a shipment from his sister that was crumbly. A result of cold weather he wonders? His daughter melted down the crumbs and remolded the soap. An acceptable product emerged, but it was misshapen. He sent this account to Jane in the hopes she would make recommendations. He also instructed her to charge the cost of soap making supplies to him. Her reply was quick—“…I am much mortified at your Disopointment…” and later in the letter, “…my Dear good Gentileman how could you mention my Drawing on you for the cost of a Little Soap when all I Injoy is of yr Bounty I could not help crying when I Read it the Pleasure I Injoy in the hopes of Gratifieing you is a full compensation…”12
A more successful batch of soap was sent from Boston to Philadelphia, even though Jane claimed it was still not perfect. Her brother responded, “I receiv’d the second Box of Soap, which appears very firm and very good, I am much obliged by the Pains you have taken to humour me in that Matter.”13
Why is this exchange worth examining? Soap making, after all, pales in comparison to drafting a treaty or framing a constitution. But within the context of women’s lives in the eighteenth century, soap making was a necessary and important skill. And within the context of Franklin family dynamics, crown soap symbolized shared family history. Indeed, disputes arose occasionally over which family members were to be entrusted with the recipe. Crown soap balanced the relationship between Benjamin Franklin, famous older brother, and Jane Mecom, struggling younger sister. She had expertise to offer; he graciously accepted her superior knowledge in this realm.
In their last years, as the only siblings still alive of the original seventeen children of Josiah Franklin, Jane Mecom and Ben Franklin sometimes mentioned the time when death would separate them. She expressed the hope that before that day came, they would be able to live next door to one another. That never happened, but Franklin, ever the thoughtful older brother, arranged for an annuity in his last will and testament to supply income for his sister, as well as securing property for her.
No one can be fully prepared for the death of a much beloved sibling, regardless of age. Franklin’s son-in-law, Richard Bache, wrote the letter to Jane Mecom that informed her of her brother’s death in April, 1790. “Dear & Hond Madam, My duty calls upon me to make you acquainted with an event which I know will be a sore affliction to your affectionate Breast. …my dear Madam I do most sincerely condole with you on the loss of so excellent a friend &
A few months later, Jane wrote to her niece, Sarah Franklin Bache. “Dear Niece—He while living was to me every enjoyment. Whatever other pleasures were, as they mostly took their rise from him, they passed like little streams from a beautiful fountain…To make society agreeable there must be a similarity of circumstances and sentiments, as well as age. I have no such near me; my dear brother supplied all. Every line from him was a pleasure…It is, however, very agreeable to me, to see there is hardly a newspaper comes out in this town without honorable mention of him, and indeed it is a fund that cannot be exhausted.”15
At the time of Franklin’s death, his daughter was forty-seven years old. Sarah, or Sally as she was usually called, was an adolescent when her father began his diplomatic career back in 1757. Their relationship suffered due to his long absences and his insistence on transcontinental parenting decisions that often contradicted what Sally and her mother Deborah thought best. For example, by the time Sally was seven he had already chosen a future husband for her—the ten year old son of a close friend in London. Franklin insisted Deborah accompany their daughter to England once Sally was of a marrying age; Deborah refused and eventually, in 1767, Sally married Richard Bache (who, many remarked, physically resembled his father-in-law). Franklin, still in London, was irate. Deborah enlisted her sister-in-law Jane Mecom to write to Franklin, lending family support to the marriage. “I thank you for your Congratulations on my Daughter’s Marriage,” he wrote stiffly in his reply. “She has pleas’d herself and her Mother, and I hope she will do well: but I think they should have seen some better Prospect than they have, before they married, how the Family was to be maintain’d.”16 It would be several months before the breach was repaired, and indeed, the Baches were always financially dependent on Franklin’s largesse.
During the Revolutionary War, however, daughter and father were of one accord in supporting the cause of independence. Sally was a young woman during the heady days of the Stamp Act crisis in the mid-1760s and was even sent away from Philadelphia for a few days in the fall of 1765 in anticipation of an attack against the Franklin home. When the hated revenue act was repealed, Sally wrote to her father, “We have heard by a round-about way that the Stamp Act is repealed. The bells rung, we had bonfires, and one house was illuminated. Indeed I never heard so much noise in my life; the very children seem distracted. I hope and pray the noise may be true.”17 In these tense years leading up to independence, Sally had a front row seat for the revolution. By1775, when her father returned to Philadelphia for a short while, she had seen the relationship between colonies and England crumble beyond repair and her own support for the colonists’ cause grow. They might spar over family issues, but daughter and father shared the same revolutionary passion.
As was the case with most patriot American women, Sarah Bache experienced the war as simultaneously thrilling and threatening. Philadelphia was an important center for government and commerce, after all, and she and husband Richard were in the thick of it. Richard Bache had succeeded his father-in-law as postmaster in 1776 after Franklin had been sent to France to try to persuade that nation to lend aid, and served on several committees related to war concerns as well. Residents of Philadelphia, which during the war was as close to a national capital as we had, were in constant readiness for evacuation should the British army invade the city. In the spring of 1777, Sally wrote to her father shortly after he arrived in France. “You had not left us long before we were obliged to leave town. I shall never forget or forgive them [the British army] for turning me out of house and home in the middle of winter…Your library we sent out of town, well packed in boxes, a week before us; and all the valuable things, mahogany excepted, we brought with us.” 18 In addition to securing Franklin’s valuable library, Sally had small children to protect and was aware that, should the fight for independence be unsuccessful, her family would be a potential target of the British government.
Though denied a political voice, women did not shirk their duty. During the 1760s the Daughters of Liberty had instigated and supported boycotts of British goods. They gave up fine fabrics for homespun and drank herbal tea in place of imported black tea. Once war became a reality, women kept homes and businesses intact while husbands, fathers and sons answered the call of the military. Some women were employed by the army for domestic service such as cooking and sewing. Some followed their husbands, and officers’ wives, especially, tried to make a home away from home at winter headquarters, a season when armies did not engage in battle. A few women even disguised themselves as males and enlisted.
Sarah Franklin Bache participated in another way. In 1780 she joined with a friend, Esther DeBerdt Reed (the wife of Pennsylvania’s governor), to form the Ladies Association of Philadelphia. A broadside titled “Sentiments of an American Woman” was written by Reed. In it she outlined why and how women should support the revolution. Women as well as men were “born for liberty,” she claimed, and can be just as “animated by the purest patriotism” as the soldier in the field.19 Women, she claimed, realized that the army protected them and preserved their virtue, wanted to reciprocate by showing moral and material support. With the same resolution that only a few years before had prompted women to give up black tea, satin and lace, American patriots of the female sex were now being asked to donate money to support the ill-equipped Continental Army. A group of forty women canvassed the city of Philadelphia, going house to house to ask women for donations and pledges. The Philadelphia women raised $300,000—more by far than any other state that joined in the fund raising scheme. Even the Marquis de Lafayette made a contribution in his wife’s name.
As unladylike as going door to door to raise money appeared to some people, the Ladies Association did not really step outside the bounds of traditional gender roles. The “Sentiments” penned by Esther DeBerdt Reed called for traditional female sacrifice: “Shall we hesitate to wear a cloathing more simple; hair dressed less elegant….Who, amongst us, will not renounce with the highest pleasure, those vain ornaments, when she shall consider that the valiant defenders of America will be able to draw some advantage from the money which she may have laid out in these…”20 Certainly there would be no sacrifice of virtue or purity, attributes that defined womanhood in eighteenth century America. Providing material aid to the soldiers undeniably fell within the realm of feminine concerns.
By 1780 Philadelphians were well aware that George Washington’s troops suffered serious deprivation. Inadequate funding and lack of national unity created constant challenges for the army and its leaders. Insufficient clothing was just one of the many obstacles that kept the Continental Army from being all that it could be. Enter the Ladies Association. Reed and Bache had originally envisioned the money being distributed to soldiers in hard currency to do with as they wished. General Washington, however, feared the soldiers would waste the money on liquor and suggested the money be used to provide shirts for the soldiers instead.
The domestic art of sewing was shared by all women, regardless of socio-economic status. What better way to blend patriotic fervor and feminine nurture than to clothe the (almost) naked? Eventually, more than 2200 shirts were sewn and distributed to the troops. Each shirt was identified with the name of the woman who had made it. Esther DeBerdt Reed died before the project was completed, but Sarah Bache made sure that the goal was met. In September of 1780, Sally wrote to her father in France that she was “busily imploy’d in cutting out and making shirts, and giving them out to make to the good women of my acquaintance, for our Brave Soldiers.”21 No one could doubt the commitment of these patriotic and virtuous women.
When Franklin returned from Europe for the last time he joined the Bache family at the home built for him by his late wife. Attended by his daughter and her family, as well as by Polly Stevenson Hewson (his “adopted” London daughter), Franklin was still the wit as his life drew to a close in the spring of 1790. When Sally told him she hoped he would live for a long while yet, he told her “I hope not.”22
Various interpretations are offered by biographers on the true nature of the relationship between Sarah Franklin and her father. Most portray Ben Franklin as a loving if oft-absent father and Sally a typically dutiful daughter, as indicated by their affectionate epistolary address to one another. Others see him as a controlling patriarch, denying her a proper education and essentially kidnapping her seven year old son Benny when he moved to France in late 1776. However, it was her use of her inheritance that confounds those who would reconcile the selfless Sarah Bache of the Philadelphia Ladies Association with the Sarah Bache who spent lavishly on travel and clothing in the 1790s.
Sally was the main beneficiary of her father’s will. Her half-brother, William, was still alive at the time of Franklin’s death in 1790, but Franklin had never forgiven his son for remaining loyal to the British during the Revolutionary War. His share of the Franklin estate was quite small. After various bequests, the bulk of the property, real and personal, passed to Sally and her husband. This included a miniature portrait of King Louis XVI, surrounded by 408 diamonds. It came with strings attached. “The King of France’s picture set with four hundred and eight diamonds, I give to my daughter Sarah Bache,” Franklin wrote in his will, “requesting however that she would not form any of those diamonds into ornaments either for herself or daughters, and thereby introduce or countenance the expensive, vain, and useless fashion of wearing jewels in this country; and those immediately connected with the picture may be preserved with the same.”23 This injunction will be ignored.
Sally and Richard Bache did not continue to live in the Philadelphia home after Franklin’s death; instead, they bought a country estate. In 1792 the Baches toured Europe, paying for the trip with proceeds from the sale of one circle of the King Louis diamonds. The trip was cut short by renewed violence in revolutionary France, and another circle of diamonds had to be sold to finance the trip home as well as pay off trip-related debts accrued by both Sally and Richard.
Her last years were spent at the estate outside Philadelphia until 1807 when she was diagnosed with cancer. At that point she returned to the family home in Philadelphia; she died the following year. Exactly what she felt about her father can never be known, but one can imagine she did feel the restraints imposed because of her sex in the realm of travel and education. Her brother William, nephew Temple, and son Benny received enormous benefit from living with Franklin in Europe. They were exposed to a level of culture way beyond even the somewhat cosmopolitan Philadelphia. So perhaps the temptation of 408 diamonds and the sting of a father’s injunction from the grave made this middle-aged woman decide to exercise a new found freedom. Perhaps she really was her rebellious father’s daughter after all.
In conclusion, the lives of these three Franklin women, covering a century from Deborah's birth in 1707 to Sally's death in 1808, present an account of colonial American women that allows contemporary Americans a glimpse into what often seems a remote time in history. Their concerns were not the great issues of state, that is true, yet the turbulent and amazing results of political realignment going on in the eighteenth century affected them deeply. Changes wrought during these revolutionary times established templates for reform in the future. Not long after the new nation was up and running, women began to formally agitate for more control over their own property, for instance, rightly arguing that if the social contract was enacted to protect natural rights then their rights as individuals should be honored equally. The fight against coverture was launched, and it was a fight rooted in the beliefs of the revolutionary generation—the freedom to be one’s own person and control property, the freedom of speech, the right to representation and the franchise. The Franklin women did not experience full relief from patriarchal control; however, succeeding generations of women owe a debt of gratitude to Deborah, Jane, and Sarah for their resiliency in the face of difficult challenges. They were, indeed, born for liberty, as are we all.
So, thank you, Deborah, for being the faithful helpmate to the early revolutionary fervor. Thank you, Jane, for making that soap and holding that wide-ranging and unpredictable family together. Thank you, Sarah, for those 2200 shirts that had to have raised the spirits of a rag-tag army. Colonial women are rightly taking their place in the narrative of the United States, and the Franklin women deserve recognition in the story of the birth of our great nation.
1 Benjamin Franklin, The Portable Benjamin Franklin (London: Penguin, 2005) 62.
2 Franklin, Portable 65.
3 Walter Isaacson, ed., A Benjamin Franklin Reader (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003) 52-6.
4 Marylynn Salmon, Women and the Law of Property in Early America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986) 42
5 Benjamin Franklin, The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 7 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963) 169-70.
Larry Tise, ed., Benjamin Franklin and Women (University Park,
Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press,
7 Van Doren, Carl, ed. The Letters of Benjamin Franklin & Jane Mecom (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950) 35.
8 Van Doren 128.
9 Van Doren 133.
10 Van Doren 199.
11 Van Doren 200-01.
12 Van Doren 262-3.
13 Van Doren 273.
14 Van Doren 341.
15 Van Doren 342.
16 Van Doren 103.
17 Franklin, Papers, vol. 13, 198-9.
18 Franklin, Papers, vol. 23, 361-2.
19 Esther DeBerdt Reed, “The Sentiments of an American Woman.” 25 September 2006 <http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/rbpe:@field(DOCID+@lit(rbpe14600300))>.
21 Franklin, Papers, vol. 33, 271-3.
22 Ronald W. Clark, Benjamin Franklin: A Biography (New York: Random House, 1983) 415.
23 Isaacson 382-7.
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Evans, Sara M. Born for Liberty. New York: The Free Press, 1989.
Franklin, Benjamin. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin. 34 vols. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963.
---. The Portable Benjamin Franklin. London: Penguin, 2005.
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Isaacson, Walter, ed. A Benjamin Franklin Reader. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.
Reed, Esther Deberdt. “The Sentiments of an American Woman.” http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/rbpe:@field(DOCID+@lit(rbpe14600300))
Salmon, Marylynn. Women and the Law of Property in Early America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.
Tise, Larry, ed. Benjamin Franklin and Women. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000.
Van Doren, Carl. Jane Mecom. New York: Viking, 1950.
---. The Letters of Benjamin Franklin & Jane Mecom. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950.