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Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Printer’s Valentine: Printer Benjamin Franklin immortalized his wife in a song but they lived apart for their last 10 years of marriage

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790, pictured at left on an American $100 bill) worked as a printer from the age of 12 until he retired from business in 1748.  Even after he achieved fame for his numerous other stellar accomplishments, he continued to sign his letters “B. Franklin, Printer”.

In Benjamin’s Autobiography he describes his early courtship of an anonymous girl: 
“The old folks encouraged me by continual invitations to supper, and by leaving us together.”  When Benjamin popped the question, he told the girl’s parents that he expected as a dowry “as much money with their daughter as would pay off my remaining debt for the printing-house.”  When the parents replied that they did not have that much money, he suggested “they might mortgage their house in the loan office.”  In the end, when the parents finally declined Benjamin’s proposal, he “declared absolutely my resolution to have nothing more to do with that family.”
In 1724, at age 17, Benjamin again attempted matrimony by proposing to his then 15-year-old future partner, Deborah Read, while he was lodging at her home in Philadelphia.  Her mother prohibited the marriage because of Benjamin’s financial instability and the fact that he was planning a trip to England. By the time Benjamin returned from England in 1726, Deborah had married someone else, a potter named John Rogers, who soon afterwards stole Deborah’s dowry and deserted her.
Benjamin’s Autobiography records: 
" Our mutual affection was revived, but there were now great objections to our union. The match was indeed looked upon as invalid, a preceding wife being said to be living in England; but this could not easily be proved, because of the distance; and tho' there was a report of his death, it was not certain. Then, tho' it should be true, he had left many debts, which his successor might be called upon to pay. We ventured, however, over all these difficulties, and I took her to wife September 1, 1730. None of the inconveniences happened that we had apprehended; she proved a good and faithful helpmate, assisted me much by attending the shop; we throve together, and have ever mutually endeavored to make each other happy. Thus I corrected that great erratum as well as I could."
Without proof of Rogers’s death, Deborah was not free to remarry formally, so her marriage to Benjamin was common-law.  Besides raising William, Franklin’s illegitimate son from a previous liaison, they had two children together, a son, Francis (born 1732, who died four years later), and a daughter, Sally (born 1743, who lived to marry, bear eight children of her own, and care for her father in his old age.)
Between 1757 and 1775 Benjamin spent most of his time working in London as the agent of the Pennsylvania Assembly, while Deborah stayed in America because of her fear of ocean travel. Although the two exchanged letters and gifts, Deborah and Benjamin reportedly did not see each other whatsoever during the last 10 years of their 44-year marriage.  Deborah died in 1774.
The following are just a few of the verses of “My Plain Country Joan”, a song Benjamin wrote in tribute to her.  (In fact, it wasn’t actually a Valentine but an anniversary gift.)
Of their Chloes and Phyllises poets may prate,
I sing my plain country Joan,
These twelve years my wife, still the joy of my life,
Blest day that I made her my own.

Not a word of her face, of her shape, or her air,
Or of flames, or of darts, you shall hear;
I beauty admire, but virtue I prize,
That fades not in seventy year.

Am I loaded 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.

She defends my good name, even when I’m to blame,
Firm friend as to man e’er were given;
Her compassionate breast feels for all the distressed,
Which draws down more blessings from heaven.