Franklin, Deborah Read

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Deborah Read Franklin

Born c. 1707
Died December 19, 1774
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


Deborah Read Franklin played an important role in the founding of the United States simply by taking on the management of her family business. By doing so she allowed her husband, founding father Benjamin Franklin see entry, the opportunity to actively pursue his role in state and national politics in the decades before and after the American Revolution.

Deborah Read was born about 1707 to John Read, a carpenter from London, England, and Sarah White Read of Birmingham, England. Whether the child was born while her parents still lived in Birmingham, or after they moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, remains uncertain. The second of seven children, Read received little formal education; almost nothing else is known about her childhood.

In his biographical writings, Benjamin Franklin described Deborah Read's first glimpse of him when he was seventeen. Read watched the tall, husky youth pass her father's shop on Philadelphia's Market Street, chomping on a roll of bread. His pockets bulged with extra pairs of socks, and he carried two more rolls, one under each arm. As she watched, Deborah giggled out loud.

Franklin soon became a lodger at the Read house in Philadelphia. The two young people grew to have affectionate feelings for one another, and Franklin asked Deborah Read to marry him. Her recently widowed mother objected to the match, however, because she thought that the couple was too young.

Franklin soon left on a two-year trip to England. He rarely wrote while he was gone, and in 1725 Deborah Read's mother persuaded her to marry John Rogers, a local potter, but the unhappy union soon ended when she left her husband. There were rumors that Rogers already had a wife in England. He disappeared to the West Indies, where it was said he died in a fistfight.

Manages family and business

By 1730 Benjamin Franklin had returned to Philadelphia. He visited Deborah Read and again asked her to marry him. Although the young woman had grown fond of him, she said that a new marriage was out of the question as long as

there was any chance that Rogers might reappear. Had she and Franklin married, they could have been charged with bigamy (the crime of marrying another person when one is already married). On September 1, 1730, Deborah Read and Franklin entered into a common-law marriage, agreeing to live together as husband and wife without formal approval by religious or civil authorities. The couple's relatives and friends seemed to accept the unusual arrangement without objection.

The Franklins had two children (or possibly three; see box). Their first, Francis Folger Franklin, died in 1736 at age four of smallpox, a contagious disease that causes fever, vomiting, skin eruptions, and sometimes death. Their daughter, Sarah Franklin Bache, was born in 1743.

Deborah Franklin enjoyed being a homemaker and had a good head for business. While her husband ran their printing business, she was in charge of the couple's book and stationery shop as well as a general store. When Benjamin Franklin began his frequent absences on government business, she managed all the businesses and sold such items as soap, medicines, chocolate, tea, cloth, feathers, and lottery tickets.

Spends life apart from husband

Deborah Franklin did not share many of Benjamin Franklin's intellectual, scientific, or political interests, and, unlike him, she was uncomfortable in social situations. She often referred to her husband as her "dear Child" or "Pappy." When Franklin spent the years of 1757 to 1762 and 1764 to 1775 in Europe as a representative of the government of Pennsylvania, Deborah Franklin stayed in Philadelphia. She had no wish to cross the ocean. Some say she feared that her plain appearance and simple ways would embarrass her husband in front of his elegant European companions.

In 1765 the British government, in an effort to raise money to pay off its war debts, imposed the Stamp Act on the American colonists, forcing them to pay a tax on each paper item they used. On September 17, 1765, a number of Philadelphia citizens threatened to attack Deborah Franklin's house, protesting that her politician husband had not fought against the Stamp Act vigorously enough. With the help of some armed relatives, she told the crowd she would not allow herself to be forced from her own home. Soon the angry mob retreated, leaving the house in peace.

Because of the great assistance Deborah provided him, Benjamin Franklin had the luxury of retiring from business early and devoting himself to a career in public life. But it also allowed him to spend many years in Europe without her. The couple sent frequent letters back and forth that mostly focused on personal matters. Only in their later years did the letters become quite brief and businesslike, reflecting their growing lack of closeness.

Death of Franklin

Around 1773 Deborah Read Franklin began experiencing health problems. Benjamin Franklin was in England, trying to help keep peace between America and England, and he was unable to return to the colonies. In 1774 he wrote her a letter in which, for the first time, he used the tender term "my dear Love," but she was too ill to respond or even acknowledge it. She died in Philadelphia in December 1774.

Three months later Benjamin Franklin returned to America, believing that a peaceful settlement to the British-American conflict was no longer possible. He wrote to a friend about his wife of many years: "I have lately lost my old and faithful Companion; and I every day become more sensible of the greatness of that Loss; which cannot now be repair'd." After his death in 1790 he was buried beside his mate at Christ Church Cemetery in Philadelphia.

For More Information

Boatner, Mark M. "Franklin, William" in Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994, pp. 393–94.

Faragher, John Mack. "Deborah Read Franklin" in The Encyclopedia of Colonial and Revolutionary America. New York: Facts on File, 1990, p. 145.

Garraty, John A. and Marc C. Carnes, eds. "William Franklin" in American National Biography, Vol. 8. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 401–03.

LaBaree, Leonard W. "Deborah Read Franklin" in Notable American Women, 1607–1950: A Biographical Dictionary, Vol. 1, edited by Edward T. James. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University, pp. 663–64.

Lopez, Claude-Anne. "Deborah Read Franklin" in American National Biography, Vol. 8. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 396–98.

Purcell, Edward, ed. Who Was Who in the American Revolution? New York: Facts on File, 1993, p. 170.

Randall, Willard Sterne. A Little Revenge. Boston: Little, Brown, 1984.

Ben Franklin's Son

William Franklin, born in 1731, was the son of Benjamin Franklin. William always claimed that Deborah Read Franklin was his mother, but many historians question whether or not that was true, even though he was raised in his father's home.

Until around age thirty, William Franklin stayed close to his father, assisting him in his political, financial, and scientific undertakings. Because of William Franklin's proximity to his father, he was present for Ben Franklin's famous kite and key electricity experiment. Around 1750 Benjamin Franklin helped William obtain the position of clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly and later that of postmaster of Philadelphia. William accompanied his father to England, where he studied law and became a lawyer. While in England in 1762, he married Elizabeth Downes, a wealthy young Englishwoman.

William Franklin's friendship with England's Earl of Bute helped William become the royal governor of New Jersey in 1762. He held the post for thirteen years and performed his duties well. He helped bring about reforms such as the improvement of roads and the building of bridges, and he established the first Indian reservation in America. By 1775, with the beginning of the Revolutionary War, a break took place between William Franklin and his father, as each took separate sides in the conflict. William stayed loyal to England.

In June 1776 William Franklin was arrested by New Jersey patriots as an "enemy to the liberties" of America and was confined to his home. The Continental Congress soon sentenced him to a harsh prison in Connecticut. While he was in prison, his wife Elizabeth became sick and died. He was not permitted to visit her during her illness, and this left him very bitter.

William Franklin was involved in a prisoner-of-war exchange in 1778, in which the British traded the patriot governor of Delaware for him. Franklin went to live in British-held New York City. He became president of an organization he founded called the Board of Associated Loyalists, a group that protected thousands of Loyalists in camps located on Long Island, New York. Criticized by some as a gang of thugs, they obtained information for the British and helped keep local citizens under control. In 1782 a citizen soldier from New Jersey named Joshua Huddy was illegally ordered executed by members of the Board of Associated Loyalists. George Washington see entry believed William Franklin was responsible for giving the order. The complicated political affair grew to involve not only the American colonies and Britain, but France as well. As a result, in order to avoid further embarrassment, the British ordered the group to disband.

In 1782 William Franklin permanently moved to England. For the loss of his home and financial holdings in America he received only the value of his furniture and a rather small annual payment from the British government. He and Benjamin Franklin met to try to reestablish a good relationship, but in time Franklin disinherited his son, writing in his will, "The part [William] acted against me in the late war … will account for my leaving him no more of an estate [than] he [tried] to deprive me of."

In time William Franklin married a wealthy Irish widow and acted as an agent for Loyalist groups in London. William Franklin's own illegitimate son, William Temple Franklin, born in England in 1759, was raised partly by Benjamin Franklin, his grandfather. Young William served as Benjamin Franklin's secretary in Paris, France, and later edited the noted patriot's writings after his death.

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