Benjamin Franklin: The Man Too Fond of Women - Part I: The Platonic Relationships

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Benjamin Franklin:

The Man Too Fond of Women

by Benjamin Forrest

Part I: The Platonic Relationships

            As I have stated, most of Franklin's relationships were those "in the Franklin manner." (Lopez 53) By that, there was definitely temptation, but Franklin, a married man and man older than most of these women, understood his place. This concept is best understood by understanding his platonic relationships, the ones that were intimate and affectionate but far from sexual.

            Franklin writes to Catherine Ray, one of his platonic relationships, in June 1751, "I hope you enjoy your Health... Be prudent, and beg of God to make you a Saint... Trust in God, and he will always help you... Endeavour to keep the safe middle Way, and be neither lifted up nor cast down to your hurt. Eat and drink so as to preserve your precious Health." (Franklin Papers) This is the perfect example of how Franklin enjoyed educating women on morals and ethics. It seems almost like a passion. With Georgiana Shipley, Franklin was admired and he relished her admiration. When Franklin and Shipley met, Franklin was approaching 70 and Georgiana was a teenager. Oddly enough, Franklin also had begun writing his autobiography at the time and it wasn't uncommon for Franklin to read his work to her. (Lopez 59) It could even be viewed as an obsession on Shipley's part as she once requested a picture of him and lock of his own hair, which she would occasionally kiss. (Lopez 62) The relationship seemed like that of a modern day celebrity with one of his fans. Shipley seemed to admire Franklin as a hero and an idol. "She herself was studying Socrates because he reminded her so much of Dr. Franklin. She envied William Temple Franklin for being so close to his grandfather." (Lopez 62) The relationship was simply Franklin being loved and enjoying the love. Georgiana may have felt something more for Franklin since she held him on a such a pedestal, but to Franklin it was nothing more.

            Then, there was Catherine Ray whom he met in 1754 in Boston at the age of 48, while she was 23. (Tise XXIII) Walter Isaacson describes the relationship as "the first intriguing example of his many amorous and romantic--but probably never consummated--flirtations." (Isaacson 162) The relationship was definitely a flirtatious one and this can be seen from the many letters Franklin and Ms. Ray shared. For example, in March of 1755, Franklin wrote, "Your Favours come mixd with the Snowy Fleeces which are pure as your Virgin Innocence, white as your lovely Bosom." (Franklin Papers) Reading this, and you can see the clear flirtatious language, but let us read on and decide if Franklin is flirting to woo Ms. Ray or merely to flatter her. "But let it warm towards some worthy young Man, and may Heaven bless you both with every kind of Happiness." (Franklin Papers) The relationship definitely may lead some to have their suspicions as to what was truly going on, which is interesting since Franklin acknowledges that in one of his letters to her. "I know very well that the most innocent Expressions of warm Friendship, and even those of meer Civility and Complaisance, between Persons of different Sexes, are liable to be misinterpreted by suspicious Minds." (Franklin Papers) However, it is not probable that anything more than a flirtation was happening. This was typical of Franklin to meet young women and become close with them because of his interest in women as people. He enjoyed learning from them and educating them. He simply enjoyed women as people. "I believe, in the fact that he considered each one not merely as an object of conquest but as a unique personality well worth listening to." (Lopez 52)

Shipley.jpg

            If there was one relationship that scholars believe could have possibly gone beyond platonic, it may have been the one Franklin had with Polly (Stevenson) Hewson. Franklin lived with Polly and her mother Margaret during his visits to London on Craven Street. Isaacson describes her as the English version of his own daughter, Sally, yet an English version of Catherine Ray. "His letters to her were flirtatious at times, and he flattered her with the focused attention that he lavished on women he liked." (Isaacson 190) At, like his relationship with Catherine Ray, he was flirtatious. "I have received the garters you have so kindly knit for me," he said in one letter. "Be assured that I shall think as often of you in the wearing as you did of me in the making." (Isaacson 191) There is some evidence to suggest that there could have been more between Polly and Franklin. One piece being a picture that was drawn in London in 1767 "after he stumbled on Ben and a young lady on Craven Street." The image is of Franklin kissing a woman. The identity of the woman is unknown, but it is believed to be Polly Stevenson. (History Channel)

(To see the picture, go to minute 2:35 at the video in the following link: http://www.history.com/videos/ben-franklin-the-ladies-man#ben-franklin-the-ladies-man)

Regardless, his relationship with Polly seems very similar to the one he shared with Catherine Ray. Yes, there was some flirtation, but nothing more. If anything, and again, Franklin was concerned with mentoring and educating this young woman. Interesting enough, when Polly Stevenson had suggested to Franklin she wanted to live single and forgo having a family, Franklin advised her to get married, "But why will you, by the Cultivation of your Mind, make yourself still more amiable, and a more desirable Companion for a Man of Understanding, when you are determin'd, as I hear, to live Single? If we enter, as you propose, into moral as well as natural Philosophy, I fancy, when I have fully establish'd my Authority as a Tutor, I shall take upon me to lecture you a little on that Chapter of Duty." (Franklin Papers)

polly.jpg

           

Resources:

Ben Franklin the Ladies' Man. Perf. Edward Herrmann. History Channel, 2004. DVD.

Franklin, Benjamin. "To Catharine Ray." Benjamin Franklin Papers. The American             Philosophical Society and Yale University, n.d. Web.

Franklin, Benjamin. "To Catherine Ray." Letter to Catherine Ray. 4 Mar. 1755. MS. N.p.

Franklin, Benjamin. "To Catherine Ray." Letter to Catherine Ray. Mar. 1754. MS. N.p.

Franklin, Benjamin. "To Catherine Ray." Letter to Catherine Ray. Jun. 1751. MS. N.p.

Franklin, Benjamin. "To Margaret Stevenson." Letter to Polly Stevenson. 1 May 1760. MS. N.p.

Isaacson, Walter. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2003. Print.

Isaacson, Walter. A Benjamin Franklin. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2003. Print.

Lopez, Clause-Anne. "Three Women, Three Styles: Catherine Ray, Polly Hewson, and Georgina Shipley." Benjamin Franklin and Women. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State UP, 2000. 51-64. Print.

Tise, Larry E. Benjamin Franklin and Women. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State UP, 2000. Print.

 

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