A collection of Benjamin Franklin tidbits that relate Philadelphia's revolutionary prelate to his moving around the city, the colonies, and the world.
Franklin Inn Club
Hidden in a back alley near the theaters, this little club is the center of the City's literary circle. It enjoys outstanding food in surroundings which suggest Samuel Johnson's club in London.
Benjamin Franklin for whom we are named, was after all a club man. In his London years every Thursday he attended the Club of Honest Whigs, and every Monday a coffeehouse called the George and Vulture. His conviviality is part of my theme, but especially his congeniality with women.
Scientist and statesman, of course. We nod to bifocals, lightning rod, storage batteries, daylight savings time, less smoky stoves, and a flexible urinary catheter (which he commissioned for his ailing brother from a Philadelphia silversmith). We bow to lending libraries, fire brigades, insurance associations, planned giving, philosophical society, and legislatures. Above all, he helped to design and invent the United States of America, and by example, to inspire the free and mobile society that inhabits our states.
But tonight I celebrate his relationships with and his treatment of women. Let me dispose at once of an image of him as young playboy or old lecher. He was always responsible in his relationships. He acknowledged and raised his illegitimate son William (who as royal governor of New Jersey, loyal to the Crown, split with his father). He helped to raise and educate Temple Franklin, the bastard son of his bastard son, who stayed loyal to him as grandfather.
His 44-year common law marriage with Deborah Read (an abandoned wife of another man) was a tender and practical bond. She bore two children and managed his print house and bookkeeping. She was half-literate and afraid of the ocean, and so may be thought to have been spared the high politics and intellectual life of England and France. In his duties overseas, Franklin was absent fifteen of the last seventeen years of her life. When she wrote him about rumors of other women, he answered, ".while I have my senses, and God vouchsafe me his protection, I shall do nothing unworthy the character of an honest man, and one that loves his family." His best biographers find nothing to stain his promise to Deborah.
That is not to say that he lacked interesting friendships with other women. Four long and intense ones are worth special mention: one American, one English, and two French.
Katie Ray was the first of his romantic "but probably never consummated flirtations." When they met, he was 48, she 28. Over the course of their lives, they exchanged more than 40 letters. He "made a few playful advances that [she] gently deflated." Claude-Anne Lopez describes the kind of bond he established, first with Katie, as "somewhat risque, somewhat avuncular, taking a bold step forward and an ironic step backward, implying that he is tempted as a man but respectful as a friend." She uses a French term for this --amitie amoureuse-- a little beyond the platonic, but short of the grand passion."
Such a loving friendship he also had with Polly Stevenson. He was 51 when he met her; she, 18. Her intellectual quotient was high, like Katie, and he talked science with her. They exchanged 130 letters. She, as a widow, was at his deathbed 33 years later. Charles Wilson Peale came upon Franklin one day in London, and later sketched what he saw: sitting with a young lady on his knee. She is thought to be Polly. But we should not treat that as a tabloid photo. He was sincere in urging Polly to raise a family rather than pursue more learning. There is nothing as important "as being a good parent, a good child, a good husband, or wife."
In Paris, as Ambassador to France, 1776-85, Franklin found two more mistresses of mind and soul. Mme. Anne-Louise Brillon was a famous harpsichordist and a supporter of the American Revolution. When they met, she was 33 and married; he 71 and a widower. In an eight-year relationship, he sent her 29 letters; she to him, 103. She finally turned aside his inquiries about a more corporeal relationship. But she wrote with affection that he demonstrated "a droll roguishness which shows that the wisest of men allows his wisdom to be perpetually broken against the rocks of femininity."
Mme. Anne-Catherine Helvetius was a lively and beautiful widow near 60 when she met Franklin at age 73. He eventually went beyond the bounds of his usual dance between sincerity and self-deprecating playfulness. He ardently proposed marriage to her. She found this entreaty a bit wearying. But when in the winter of 1785 he finally departed France, she was there, visiting his home. So was Mme. Brillon; as well as Polly Stevenson and her three children; altogether a splendid "network of good will" with himself at the center.
Jefferson, his friend, and successor in Paris noted on his last day before sailing that the ladies were smothering him with embraces. He told Franklin that as well as the duties transferred to him, he wished to have those privileges as well.
But Franklin answered: "You are too young a man."
Sisters and brothers of the Franklin Inn'let us toast Benjamin Franklin: his constancy with his wife, his well-contained passion, his well-expressed wit, his amitie amoureuse. May his example of loving friendship enfold and inspire the members of our club named for him.
-- Theodore Friend
At the Annual Dinner of the Franklin Inn Club
Philadelphia, 18 January 2008---
Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (New York, 2003)
Edmund S. Morgan, Benjamin Franklin (New Haven, 2002)
Claude-Anne Lopez, Mon Cher Papa: Franklin and the Ladies of Paris (2nd ed., New Haven, 1990; 1st ed., 1966)
Originally published: Wednesday, January 23, 2008; most-recently modified: Friday, September 20, 2019
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