Friday, March 6, 2009

The Good and Faithful Helpmate


Just who is this elegant lady you might well be asking yourself right about now. Isn't she rather pretty?

Well, this lady is DEBORAH READ FRANKLIN. I put her name in bold print for a reason. Let me explain.

Not too long ago, I heard a historian interviewed on National Public Radio about a book he had recently written about the life of Benjamin Franklin – you all know who he is, I'm sure. Okay...let me say this first – I have the utmost respect for the very honorable Doctor Franklin and everything he did. He was a remarkable man who led a remarkable life.

Now, this historian on NPR whose name I did not get because I came into the interview a few minutes after it started began talking about Doctor Franklin's wife...and referred to her as REBECCA FRANKLIN and continued to do so throughout the interview. It was not a “call-in” show where I could call in and correct this grievous error. The thought that an educated historian and writer of a biography of Benjamin could do this has been a small fury burning inside my head for a while now. It is one thing for school children to not know something about our history, but it is quite another thing when a noted historian makes an error like this!

I ask, please, sir, correct this mistake!

She deserves to be remembered along with Martha -Washington and Jefferson, Abigail Adams, Mercy Otis Warren, and as the mother of Sally Franklin Bache – a strong woman of the American Revolution in her own right!

It is said that Deborah Read was one of the first people to take note of the young Benjamin Franklin the very day of his arrival in Philadelphia in 1723.

You can certainly pick up several books giving good accounts of the relationship and marriage of Deborah Read and Benjamin Franklin. A search on a good book store's website will provide you with plenty of titles. You can also “Google” this fine lady and read some interesting insight into her life right here on the web. I am not going to bore you with the day to day details of this excellent partnership except to say, it was that...quite excellent.

I would like to let the man sing his wife's praises and speak of his clear affections to her and the deep debt he owed her for keeping his life in order while he pursued many areas of the scientific and philosophical life.

In 1732, Franklin began publishing the “Poor Richard's Almanack. In one edition, he included a poem written by “Richard Saunders” describing his wife, it, I see the clear if practical

affection Benjamin had for Deborah.

From Poor Richard's Almanack:


1. Of their Chloes and Phyllises Poets may prate,
I will sing my plain COUNTRY JOAN;
Twice twelve Years my Wife, still the Joy of my Life:
Bless'd Day that I made her my own,
My dear Friends.
Bless'd Day that I made her my own.

2. Not a Word of her Shape, or her Face, or her Eyes,
Of Flames or of Darts shall you hear:
Though I BEAUTY admire, 'tis VIRTUE I prize,
Which fades not in seventy Years.

3. In Health a Companion delightful and gay,
Still easy, engaging, and free;
In Sickness no less than the faithfullest Nurse,
As tender as tender can be.

4. In Peace and good Order my Houshold she guides,
Right careful to save what I gain;
Yet chearfully spends, and smiles on the Friends
I've the Pleasure to entertain.

5. Am I laden with Care, she takes off a large Share,
That the Burden ne'er makes me to reel;
Does good Fortune arrive, the Joy of my Wife
Quite doubles the Pleasure I feel.

6. She defends my good Name, even when I'm to blame,
Friend firmer to Man ne'er was given:
Her compassionate Breast feels for all the distress'd,
Which draws down the Blessings of Heaven.

7. In Raptures the giddy Rake talks of his Fair,
Enjoyment will make him despise.
I speak my cool Sense, which long Exper'ence
And Acquaintance has chang'd in no Wise.

8. The Best have some Faults, and so has My JOAN,
But then they're exceedingly small,
And, now I'm us'd to 'em, they're so like my own,
I scarcely can feel them at all.

9. Was the fairest young Princess, with Millions in Purse,
To be had in Exchange for My JOAN,
She could not be a better Wife, might be a worse,
So I'll stick to My JUGGY alone.

Okay, you may say it ain't exactly Lennon and McCartney in romantic lyrics but it does convey a point and it certainly is complimentary toward “Plain Joan”!

Deborah referred to her husband as her “dear Child” or “Pappy.” I somehow imagine her having a great deal of patience and a good sense of humor when it came to her “Pappy.”

Another legend has it that she was not at all amused when Ben suggested their son William accompany him while he performed his famous “kite and key” experiment and rightly feared for the boy's safety. (A sensible woman, indeed!)

Deborah endured long separation from her husband while he attended to his duty to Pennsylvania and several other colonies in England in the 1760s until her death after a debilitating stroke in December of 1774. During that time, they wrote lengthy letters back and forth as she oversaw the building of a larger home for the Franklins. She also saw to the day to day business at home in Philadelphia. Passages from these letters were used when archaeologists and historians designed what is now a historical landmark called Franklin Court at 318 Market Street. This is a “ghost structure” of the house built beginning in 1763. Every detail of the house was discussed in these letters.

Concerned that he had not heard from her in quite sometime – he not being aware of her illness – Ben wrote her a letter in 1774 in which he used the tender term “my dear Love.” According to most historians, this is the first time such an endearment was used by Franklin in writing to his wife. Sadly, he had no way of knowing of her grave illness. Whether she was aware that the endearment was used in that final letter or not, we will never know.

His tender feeling toward her is evident in letters he wrote to friends and family after he received a letter from their son informing him of her passing. He immediately made plans to return from England.

In one letter, he wrote, “She prov'd a good and faithful Helpmate, assisted me much by attending the Shop, we throve together, and have ever tried to make each other happy.”

In another letter, he sounded truly grieved saying, “I have lately lost my old and faithful Companion; and I every day become more sensible of the greatness of the Loss; which cannot now be reapair'd.”

Benjamin Franklin outlived his wife by some sixteen years and some of his greatest achievements came after the passing of his dear Deborah. I would like to think that she would have been very proud and supportive of these accomplishments.

They are buried side by side in their beloved hometown of Philadelphia at the Christ Church Annex Burial Ground at 5th and Arch Street. A large slab covers their graves and their names appear side by side. You may have heard it is tradition to pitch pennies at Franklin's grave. A rather silly notion considering that this is the man who gave us the advice that “a penny saved is penny earned”!

I want to suggest something a small bouquet for his “good and faithful helpmate” - his “Plain Joan” - you can enter into the cemetery and leave it right there for her. After all – I think you will agree when you've learned more about this incredible lady, you will definitely want to thank her for taking such good care of such a great man...and doesn't she deserve it?

No comments:

Post a Comment