Franklin and Deborah

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Franklin has received a great deal of criticism about his relationship to his wife Deborah. Many have brought into question if he even really loved her. Isaacson states that Franklin set out to find a wife because "bachelorhood was frowned on in the colonial America and Franklin had a sexual desire that required appetite." [i] So what was she exactly to him? In his biography of Benjamin Franklin, he paints Franklin and Deborah's relationship as Franklin's solution to a problematic situation.  He calls Franklin "a man of the head rather than the heart".[ii]  The notion that Franklin did not love his wife or that she was simply a "good and faithful helpmate" is ludicrous. Especially since Franklin states "my engagement with Miss Read, to whom I never wrote more than one letter, and that was to let her know I was not likely soon return. This was another of the great Errata of my life." Franklin wrote this in regard to his first engagement to Deborah before he left for London. This situation led Deborah to move on and marry another man (who letter disappeared and died).  I bring this up to show that one would not say his greatest Errata was causing a "frivolous" relationship to end and then seeks to correct this by finally marrying the woman. In 1780's Franklin wrote a song for a song to celebrate Deborah as his wife. J.A. Leo Lemay refers to the song as "The wedding Song."[iii] So now that we put this idea of Franklin not ever loving Deborah, let's look at what really happen in their relationship.

Hello London!

In the summer of 1757, Franklin went to London on diplomatic mission. His stay in London was supposed to be for five months , but ended up staying for five years, and then ,after he went home briefly , and then return to stay another ten years. While in London, Franklin stayed at a lodging.  Of course we cannot talk about London without talking about his landlady Margaret Stevenson. Stevenson is significant in this story because she was the widowed landlady that was accused by many to play Franklin's replica wife while in London. She is often described as being everything Deborah was and more. Deborah was seen to have "plain tastes, willingness to work, and a desire to please her spouse"[iv]; whereas Stevenson is seen to be elegant and intellectual in comparison to Deborah. This woman was accredited for Franklin's development for a taste for fine crystal, china, and silver.[v] Deborah was aware of her presence in Franklin's life, it was not a secret. Stevenson even went as far to "undertake the long-distance redecorating of Franklin household, but she also shopped for Debbie [Deborah] herself."[vi] Franklin's Friend Strahan sent Deborah a letter warning her about this new "friendship" and encouraged her to go to London and accompany her husband but Deborah refused. Whether Franklin and Stevenson were more than friends is possible, but there is not evidence to support that notion. However, the problem that was starting to take root with Franklins new found life in London was that his contact with Deborah became fewer and fewer.  When Franklin did write to Deborah, he wrote little of his mission and the political climate. "Neither did he say one word about the plays he saw, the concerts he attended, nor the interesting people he was meeting."[vii] Their communication began to deteriorate slowly. When he sent letters to his friends, he wrote about scientific topic, to William (his son) he sent lengthy letters of political musing, but to his wife it was kept simple. He sent mechanical messages like "all's well..." or "no time to write more..."But was it his entire fault? While he was in London a lot of people believe that he packed his bags and never looked back, but that's not completely true. Franklin did ask Deborah and Sarah (his daughter) to come and join him in London, but she refused because she was afraid to sail at sea. When Strahan sent her letters warning about Franklins alleged relationship with Stevenson she refused, giving the same reason. Also when Franklin fell ill just shortly arriving to London, he asked her once again, she refused, which left Stevenson to take the role as the wife--once again.  In a letter to her he wrote: "There is a great difference in the sickness between being nursed with that tender attention which proceeds from sincere love". [viii] If we look at this in retrospect, Franklin had to work overseas in London and Deborah did not really have to stay in Philadelphia. So who is at fault?  Is Franklin guilty for making a potentially lonely situation into a bearable situation? Was Deborah being stubborn about leaving her comfort zone? In light of the facts, the beginning of the fall of their relationship is mutual. They both have fault in the manner.

From Bad to Worst

Unfortunately the plot thickens! While Deborah is home having such "Christian Spirits,"[ix]the strain on her marriage continued. The gravity of the state of their marriage becomes apparent when Deborah's mother dies in a kitchen fire in 1760. Shortly after Deborah emotional state shifted and began writing Franklin letters about her loneliness, he did not see fit return to the states to console his wife. In The Private Franklin: Man and His Family, the question is poses whether "he was simply incapable of feeling strongly for people from whom he was separated?"[x]  It is even believed that Franklin could of sailed home early as 1760, but he tarried in England for two years more.  In the spring of 1769, Deborah experienced a stroke and her doctors wrote to Franklin that her symptoms were bad and dangerous; Deborah said that it was due to "dissatisfied distress" brought on by his absence.  It was said that she could not eat, sleep, and lost "resolution".[xi]  Meanwhile, Franklin continued to make promises of his return, but did not.  As her health exacerbate she wrote less. It's unsure if she purposely chooses not to write back to Franklin or she was not lucid enough to responded.  By the 1774, she began to lose her memory and was no longer able to walk--Franklin still did not come back.  In May of 1774 he wrote her a letter saying: "It's is now a very long time indeed since I have had the pleasure of a line from you. I hope that you are as well as I am, thanks to God"[xii]  Finally, Deborah died and Franklin never got to see her. Franklin received word about his wife's death a month later, February 1775. Was Franklin selfish in his marriage? In all fairness, we must keep in mind that a trip to London from Pennsylvania in the 1770's would have taken months of traveling. But could have Franklin taken the time off to see his wife? I could argue that when she was alive he should have gone to see her? Or I could argue that it would be useless to go to Pennsylvania after learning about her death a month later? But would the situation change if we assume by judging from the whole situation that Franklin fell out of love with Deborah? In this case, I don't think absence makes the heart grow founder, but detached.

Image: Portrait of Deborah Franklin

[i] Isaacson, Walter. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003. Print. 72.

[ii] Isaacson, 75.

[iii] Lemay, J. A. Leo. The Life of Benjamin Franklin, Volume 2: Printer and Publisher, 1730-1747. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2005. Print. 272.

[iv] Isaacson, 81.

[v] Lopez, Claude-Anne, and Eugenia W. Herbert. The Private Franklin: The Man and His Family. New York: Norton, 1975. Print. 84.

[vi] Lopez, Claude-Anne, and Eugenia W. Herbert, 86.

[vii] Lopez, Claude-Anne, and Eugenia W. Herbert, 87.

[viii] Isaacson, 180.

[ix] Lopez, Claude-Anne, and Eugenia W. Herbert, 91.

[x] Lopez, Claude-Anne, and Eugenia W. Herbert, 91.

[xi] Lopez, Claude-Anne, and Eugenia W. Herbert, 169.

[xii] Lopez, Claude-Anne, and Eugenia W. Herbert, 171.

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