Benjamin Franklin’s Unconventional Marriage to Deborah Read


June 28, 2022
by Nancy Rubin Stuart Also by this Author


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She was neither beautiful nor wealthy. Nor was Benjamin Franklin’s wife educated or intellectual. Nevertheless in 1724 he proposed to Deborah Read while renting a room from her father, the carpenter John Read of Philadelphia. Was it simply youthful passion that attracted him or did the eighteen-year-old printer ask for Deborah’s hand because she had a dowry?

Ben’s Autobiography glossed over key emotional moments in his life. Written more than four decades after that proposal, it offers few hints about the depth of his attraction to Deborah. “I had a great Respect and Admiration for her, and had some Reason to believe she had the same for me,” he wrote.[1] There is no mention of “love” as we perceive it today, but in the colonial era, an affectionate attraction between the partners and the man’s economic abilities were the standards by which most marriages were made.

Ben’s Autobiography adds that his marriage to Deborah was postponed because her newly-widowed mother, Sarah Read, thought it unprudent. He and Deborah were still teenagers; besides he was about to sail to England to buy printing equipment through the largesse of Sir William Keith, deputy governor of Pennsylvania. “A Marriage if it was to take place would be more convenient after my return, when I should be as I expected set up in my Business,” Ben wrote, quoting Mrs. Read. [2] Just before sailing, he “interchanged some promises with Miss Read” to marry after his return. [3]

Soon after Ben’s ship approached England he discovered Sir Keith support was non-existent. In London he found a job at Palmer’s printing house which provided funds to pay his rent and that of unemployed poet friend James Ralph. Thrilled by the city’s rich cultural offerings, the two young men gallivanted round the city with Ben paying the bills.

Ralph, meanwhile, having abandoned his wife and child in Philadelphia, soon acquired a mistress, a milliner identified only as Mrs. T.; being unable to find work, he took a job as a schoolmaster outside London. Emboldened by Ralph’s callous attitude towards women, Ben wrote Deborah “never more than one letter, and that was to let her know I was not likely to return soon.”[4]

In Ralph’s absence, Mrs. T. borrowed money from Ben who “presuming on my Importance to her attempted Familiarities (another Erratum), which she repulsed with a proper Resentment.”[5] After learning that, Ralph stormed back to town, denounced Ben and ended the friendship.

Soon afterwards, Ben landed a better job at the John Watts printing shop. After work he visited London’s coffee houses where literary and scientific men debated the intellectual issues of the day. Somewhat later in his Autobiography, Ben mentioned that his “hard-to-be-govern’d Passion of Youth had hurried me frequently into Intrigues with low Women.”[6] No dates are mentioned but they probably occurred during that trip to London.

In Philadelphia, meanwhile, the jilted Deborah spent her days weeping until her mother and friends encouraged her to allow other suitors. In August 1725 she consequently wed an English man named John Rogers, but after learning he had a wife, abruptly quit the marriage. Before long Rogers had squandered her dowry, fallen into debt and fled to the West Indies where he was allegedly killed in a brawl. That left Deborah in a strange position, neither single nor married but, since nothing could be proven, with no recourse for a divorce.

When Ben returned from England in 1726, he learned about his former sweetheart’s misfortune. “I should have been much asham’d at seeing Miss Read, had not her friends . . . persuaded her to marry another,” he recalled in his Autobiography.[7] Even so, “a friendly Correspondence as Neighbours and old Acqaintances, had continued between me and Mrs. Read’s Family . . . I was often invited there and consulted in their Affairs wherein I sometimes was of service.”[8]

Ben did not explain the nature of that “service” but it was probably financial since Mrs. Read had inherited several properties from her husband’s estate. During those visits Ben expressed pity for “poor Miss Read’s unfortunate Situation,” finding her “generaly dejected, seldom chearful and avoided Company.”[9] Yet whatever guilt he felt did not stop him from courting other young women, only to be rejected by their fathers, who thought printers were poor providers.

Nevertheless, Ben’s fortunes were rising. After returning to Philadelphia, he worked briefly for a merchant, then returned to his job as a printer for the cantankerous Samuel Keimer. By 1728, he and fellow printer Hugh Meredith established their own printing establishment financed by Meredith’s father. A year later they bought the Pennsylvania Gazette from Keimer. But by July 1730, Meredith’s fondness for the bottle and his father’s sudden financial reversals led Ben to buy out his partner. A month after establishing the B. Franklin printing house, he admitted his guilt to Deborah’s mother. To his surprise Sarah Read confessed she, too felt responsible for urging Deborah to marry Rogers.

Ben’s Autobiography then simply announced, “I [took] her to wife Sept. 1, 1730.”[10] Living together was the couple’s only option. If Ben married Deborah in a church wedding and Rogers was still alive, the couple would be punished as bigamists. Even if Rogers was dead and Ben then married Deborah in church, he would be liable for Rogers’ debts. So it was that guilt and potential legal obstacles ushered the Franklins into a common-law marriage. While unconventional, their marriage was accepted by friends and family.

In retrospect Ben wrote that Deborah proved “a good and faithful Helpmate, assisted me much by attending the Shop, we throve together and have ever mutually endavour’d to make each other happy.”[11] According to his Autobiography, the marriage was a purely joyous union. Perhaps initially, it was. Soon after moving in, Deborah took over his stationary shop, added groceries and household items and transformed it into a profitable enterprise. Six weeks later Ben promoted his expectations about wedded life in a November 19, 1730 essay entitled “Rules and Maxims for Promoting Marital Happiness” in the Pennsylvania Gazette. Primarily directed to women, whom he believed were “better disposed to receive and practice” his advice than men, Ben urged the reader to be faithful, agreeable, cheerful and “take care . . . not to overlook the word obey.[12]

The first test for those expectations happened the following March when Ben arrived home with a bundle covered in blankets. Within it gurgled his infant son, William, or Billy, the result of his cohabitation with another woman. Deborah was shocked—and hurt. She had already been betrayed by her first husband: now her second one had dealt her a humiliating blow.

Initially she balked, but finally agreed to care for the child because she loved Ben. Who was the mother and why couldn’t she raise the child herself? Those questions have perplexed historians for two centuries. According to Franklin scholar J. A. Leo Lemay the mother may have been the wife of one of Ben’s acquaintances who was away for many months.[13] If Billy’s mother was a prostitute, Ben would not have claimed the infant as his son. Other historians have suggested that Ben, knowing about the child’s imminent birth and needing someone to care for him, consequently married Deborah that September. That made the Franklins’ common-law marriage even more unusual: a couple with a bastard son.

Other tensions appeared in the marriage. For all her warm heart, industriousness and thrift, Deborah had a prickly temper. Several contemporary accounts claim that she was quarrelsome; one neighbor even compared her to a “hedgehog” who shot quills at her during an argument over money.[14] Ben was well acquainted with Deborah’s willfulness. Three years after his marriage, he amended his expectations for domestic obedience. His “A Scolding Wife” published in the July 5, 1733 Pennsylvania Gazette even claimed a wife’s strong personality was an advantage. Although her outspoken ways could be an “inconvenience . . . women of that character have generally sound and healthy constitutions, produce vigorous offspring are active in the business of the family, special good housewives, and very careful of their husband’s interests.”[15]

Deborah seemed to exemplify that. On October 20, 1732 she had birthed Francis, or Franky, the Franklin’s first child, upon whom they both doted. By then Philadelphia had been ravaged by smallpox, prompting the scientific-minded Ben to urge residents to be inoculated. In 1736 the disease surfaced again but little Frankly was so sick with dysentery that Ben delayed inoculating him. In November the child contracted smallpox and died a few weeks after his fourth birthday. Ben was plunged into grief. Deborah was so devastated that she displayed the boy’s portrait in the house for the rest of her life.

Seven years after Franky’s death in 1743 Deborah delivered the Franklin’s second child, Sarah, known as Sally. In an era of unreliable contraception most married colonial women delivered eight children on average, as Ben noted in a subsequent essay titled “Observations Concerning the Increase In Mankind.”[16] Deborah’s inability to produce children for those years thus seems notable. Theories again abound, among them that the Franklins were no longer intimate or happy or that Deborah’s duties assisting Ben as saleswoman, bookkeeper, and hostess left little time for childbearing. Possibly Deborah had suffered miscarriages and stillbirths during the eleven years between the births of Franky and Sally.

The theory that the Franklins were neither happy nor intimate seems unlikely given Ben’s poem of 1742, “I sing my plain country Joan.” Presented during a Masons’ meeting, Ben celebrated his wife, “the Joy of my life” for her thrift, dependability and removal of several of his duties. “She could not be a better Wife . . . so I’d stick to my Joggy alone / My dear Friends / I’d cling to my lovely ould Joan.”[17]

By then, Ben’s achievements were already remarkable. Among them was establishment of the successful B. Franklin printing house, the Pennsylvania Gazette, Poor Richard’s Almanack, an intercolonial publishing empire, an appointment as clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly, and the postmastership of Pennsylvania. In addition were Ben’s civic improvements: a lending library, fire company, the American Philosophical Society, sidewalks, streetlights, and an academy of higher learning. Deborah, too, worked hard, running the store, collecting rags for paper for Ben’s print shop, assisting in the post office, keeping accounts, hosting relatives, nursing the sick, and raising Billy, Franky and Sally.

By the late 1740s Ben was wealthy enough to retire but in 1753 the Crown appointed him the co-deputy postmaster general of North America. Deborah, in contrast to wives of other affluent men, kept working by assisting Ben in the intercolonial post office. She became so skilled that later when her husband was training his replacement William Dunlap, he insisted “I depend on your paying considerable attention to her advice” since she had “a great deal of experience” running it.[18]

Another unusual feature of their marriage was Ben’s electrical experiments. During his early efforts he borrowed some of Deborah’s household products, among them a salt cellar, a vinegar cruet, a cake of wax, and a pump handle. After his famous kite experiment, he placed an experimental lightning rod on the roof of the Franklin home. Despite its success he continued experimenting by rigging the rod to a wire inside the house attached to bells which rang when electricity gathered in passing clouds. For years Ben retained the bells in the house creating shrill ringing which gave Deborah headaches.

Another even more serious headache was the legal status of Pennsylvania which, unlike most other American colonies owned by the Crown, was a proprietorship whose heirs had inherited it from its founder, William Penn through a 1681 charter from Charles II. For years Penn’s heirs had refused to pay taxes on their western lands and when hostilities broke out during the French and Indian War and even threatened Philadelphia, the citizens became alarmed. After the Penns repeatedly rejected pleas to pay taxes, the colony’s Assembly elected Ben to settle the disagreement with the heirs in London. Naturally he expected Deborah to accompany him but to his surprise, she refused.

Much ink has again been spilled over her decision to remain in Philadelphia. One theory was that Deboarh was traumatized by childhood memories of a 1711 voyage with her parents from England. Another held that Deborah, knowing she was a plain, provincial women, felt intimidated by the thought of meeting the urbane scientists, writers and intellectuals Ben would befriend.

Figure 6. No. 36 Craven Street. (Photo courtesy of David Ross,

Soon after his 1757 arrival in London Ben rented rooms in a townhouse on London’s Craven Street owned by the widowed Margaret Stevenson. Her attentions to Ben soon went beyond her role as landlady. When he fell ill Margaret nursed him back to health. Then she outfitted Ben in English clothes, introduced him to friends, and socialized with him so often that others considered them a couple. Soon after he began rooming at Craven Street, Ben’s friend, the printer William Strahan, became so concerned that wrote to Deborah.

For my own part, I never saw a man who was, in every respect, so perfectly agreeable to me . . . Now madam as I know the ladies here consider him in exactly the same light I do. I think you should come over, with all convenient speed to look after your interest; not but that I think him as faithful to his Joan, as any man breathing, but who knows what repeated and strong temptation, may in time . . . accomplish.[19]

Strahan then became more blunt:

I cannot take leave of you without informing you that Mr. F. has the good fortune to lodge with a very discreet good gentlewoman, who is particularly careful of him, who attended him during a very severe cold . . . with an assiduity, concern, and tenderness, which perhaps only yourself could equal.”[20]

Still Deborah refused. Only gradually did Ben mention Margaret by name in his letters rather than merely as his landlady. He finally did so while sending Deborah gifts—fine china, salt ladles, candle snuffers, upholstery fabrics, yards of blue cotton and fancy flowered “tissue” for a formal gown. The last of these, Ben gingerly explained, was a favorite of “Mrs. Stevenson,” who sent her “compliments” to Deborah.[21]

Deborah in turn sent her husband apples, buckwheat, cranberries and nuts to remind him of home. Although her letters from this period are lost, Ben’s replies indicate she sent similarly polite replies to Margaret and her young adult daughter, Polly.

To Deborah’s distress, Ben’s journey turned into five years during which little was settled with the Penns. While his letters to Deborah always began with “My dear child” (the eighteenth century equivalent of “sweetheart?”) and often concluded with “Your loving husband,” they became less frequent. In contrast she wrote regularly, often rushing to meet the next departure of the packet boats. Increasingly Ben became attached to Margaret and her intellectually curious daughter Polly, to whom he wrote more affectionately than to his own daughter, Sally.

How much Deborah understood about Ben’s relationship with Margaret is unclear. By 1760 she may have suspected something, for one of her letters apparently questioned rumors that arrived from London. In response, Ben chastised his wife for believing “idle reports concerning me. Be satisfied, my dear . . . I shall do nothing unworthy the character of an honest man, and one that loves his family.”[22] No less disturbing were Ben’s promises to return to Philadelphia that were invariably postponed. Was this, then, an eighteenth century version of a legal separation—one begun amiably enough but sealed by the formation of new personal attachments?

When Ben finally returned to Philadelphia in November 1763 Deborah was ecstatic and assumed he was home to stay. Not Ben, however, who wrote to Strahan, other friends and even Polly about wanting to return to England. Added to his restlessness were messages from Margaret, to whom Ben sent presents and letters of which he suspiciously did not keep copies in his letter book. One of Margaret’s letters invited Ben to return to England and bring his “better half and dear girlie” with him.[23] Margaret’s comment captures the cordial, if paradoxical, relationship she maintained with Ben.

Within the first few weeks of Ben’s return home, Deborah unhappily discovered he wanted to return to London. To placate her, Ben promised to build them a new house. Located on Market Street between Third and Fourth, the new three-story brick home seemed proof of Ben’s permanence in Philadelphia. According to his son Billy, the plans momentarily ended his parents’ quarrels. “My mother is so entirely averse to going to sea, that I believe my father never be induced to see England again. He is now building a house,” he reported to Strahan.[24]

Still, Ben intended to return to England. “It is however impossible for me to execute the resolution this ensuing summer, having many affairs to arrange, but I trust I shall see you before you look much older,” he assured Strahan.”[25] One of those “many affairs” was Ben’s duties as the co-deputy postmaster general of North America. In April, after five months at home, he traveled to Virginia to meet his co-deputy postmaster partner, John Foxcroft, and to initiate postal reforms. Once home, he asked Deborah to accompany him on a northern postal tour, possibly to “train” her to the idea of future travel. But again Deborah refused. For all her spirit, she was reluctant to leave Philadelphia. There she felt most comfortable, the place where she was surrounded by family and friends and where, as a businesswoman, assistant postmistress and Ben’s representative, she was admired as a prominent woman.

Another symbol of Ben’s promised permanence in Philadelphia was his election to the Assembly and subsequent role as Speaker. In that role, he renewed his earlier idea of removing the Penns and converting Pennsylvania into a Crown colony. That, in turn, sparked hostility from those loyal to the Penns as well as Germans and Scot-Irish settlers whom he had critiqued for their hostility to the native Americans. Political cartoons, newspaper notices, and handbills soon appeared, portraying Ben as a lecherous, corrupt figure who had duped the public through diplomatic chicanery while living luxuriously as Pennsylvania’s colonial agent in England.

Damaging too were attacks upon his marriage. The pamphlet What Is Sauce for the Goose Is Sauce for the Gander accused Ben of having exploited Billy’s mother as a “most valuable slave” for the “foster mother of his latest offspring who did his dirty work.”[26] That “foster mother” was Deborah, and her “dirty work” was her duties to Ben as his devoted wife. The pamphlet also accused Ben of having “piously withheld” from the mother the means to survive and had starved her to death.”[27]

To those scurrilous insults, neither Deborah nor Ben publicly responded. Still, they cut deep. Even deeper was Ben’s defeat for re-election. Nevertheless, with peace still threatened on Pennsylvania’s frontier and the Penns’ continued refusal to pay taxes for defense, Ben’s allies in the Assembly again elected him their overseas agent. Once again Ben asked Deborah to join him in England. And once again she refused. An argument followed after which Ben demanded that Deborah write him only cheerful letters. If she would not travel to England with him, she had no right to complain.

After his 1764 return to England, Ben resumed living with Margaret at her Craven Street townhouse. As earlier, he wrote Deborah occasionally and sent on more English presents. In contrast Deborah’s correspondence (which was preserved) reveal a dutiful wife who kept Ben informed about local news, managed his business affairs, sent him requested goods and rarely complained. Deborah also supervised completion of their unfinished house—a highly unusual task for a colonial woman.

Once again she mentioned worrisome rumors from abroad. In reply, Ben wrote “Let no one make you uneasy with their idle or malicious stories or scribblings, but enjoy yourself and friends and the comforts of life that God has bestowed on you, with a cheerful heart.”[28] Was he referring to political rumors about his efforts to petition the Crown—or to talk stirred by his renewed relationship with Margaret? To console Deborah he added, “A few months, I hope, will finish affairs here . . . and bring me to retirement and repose with my little family, so suitable to my years, and which I have so long set my heart upon.”[29]

Deborah, in turn, assured Ben she was avoiding any behavior that might provoke his enemies. The day of her letter, she wrote that neighbors had invited her to attend an ox roast on the river, but she had declined. “I have never said or done anything or any of our family, you may depend on it . . . I partake of none of the diversions. I stay at home and flatter myself that the next packet will bring me a letter from you.”[30]

Instead of socializing with others, Ben’s wife focused upon completing details of their new house. “This day the man is putting up the fireplaces that came from London. The plasterer is finishing the lathing of the staircases and I am getting the lower part of the house cleaned out ready for the laying of the kitchen floor.”[31] Even so, she felt insecure making decisions traditionally left to husbands. “O my child [as she also addressed Ben], there is a great odds between a man’s being at home and abroad as everybody is afraid they shall do wrong so everything is left undone.”[32]

Despite her lament, Deborah sensed that if the house was ever to be completed, she would have to do it. With the independence that became a necessity she purchased the empty lot next to the house, to create what was called Franklin Court. Despite the steep price of nine hundred pounds, Ben agreed it was a sensible decision. “I am very glad you do approve of my purchase and when it will please God to restore you to your [own] house I think you will be very much pleased” she replied.[33]

The following September as colonial opposition to British tyranny rose, Ben’s enemies in Philadelphia accused him of supporting the Stamp Act. On Wednesday the 16th an angry mob began forming and was heading to Franklin Court with the intent of demolishing it. Deborah soon sent for a cousin who was joined by her brother carrying a gun. “We made one room into a magazine. I ordered some sort of defense upstairs such as I could manage myself,” she wrote Ben nine days later.[34] Throughout that night she stood watch with a gun, determined to defend her husband’s innocence. “I was very sure you had done nothing to hurt anybody nor would I stir or show the least uneasiness, but if anyone came to disturb me I would show a proper resentment.”[35] By morning eight hundred Franklin supporters had gathered and threatened the mob which soon disbanded.

Nor was that the last of Deborah’s new independent spirit. By late 1767 the Franklins’ daughter Sally fell in love with Richard Bache, an impoverished English merchant, and wanted to marry him. Observing her daughter’s determination Deborah allowed the courtship, but Ben, horrified by the thought of his daughter marrying a debtor, opposed the marriage. After months of uncertainty, Deborah agreed to Sally’s wedding on October 29 but did not mention it to Ben. After learning about it, his letters stopped for weeks. So it was that the already unconventional Franklin marriage now included a debtor son-in law.

As she did every autumn Deborah shipped new crates of local produce to London. On February 13 Ben thanked her for them but untactfully added, “I forget to tell you that a certain very great lady, the best woman in England, was graciously pleased to accept some of your nuts and to say they were excellent.”[36] A “very great lady?” The “best woman in England?” Any wife reading that would cringe at those words. Perhaps Deborah did, but she seems to have stoically accepted his admiration for Margaret as the inevitable consequence of her refusals to join him in England.

Over the next six months Ben conveyed his love to Sally but never mentioned her husband. Finally in August 1768 he sent a conciliatory letter to Richard, relieving Deborah’s worries. Several months later she rejoiced again when Sally became pregnant but that winter Deborah collapsed from a stroke. On June 3 after learning she was better, Ben congratulated her on healing from “your late indisposition.”[37]

Four days later Philadelphia’s prominent Dr. Thomas Bond warned Ben that Deborah’s health was fragile. “Your good Mrs. Franklin was affected . . . with a partial palsy in the tongue and a sudden loss of memory, but she soon recovered . . . though her constitution in general appears impaired. These are bad symptoms in advanced life and auger further injury on the nervous system.”[38] Anxiously, Ben relayed that information to Dr. John Pringle, physician to the queen, then sent Deborah his advice.

Simultaneously the relentless series of tyrannical acts the British had imposed upon the colonies—The Sugar Act, the Stamp Act the Townshend Duties—had enraged colonists who wrote petitions and held boycotts and protests. In London, Ben, whose role as agent for Pennsylvania now included other colonies, worked diplomatically to win support from sympathetic members of Parliament. Despite Deborah’s waning health his return to Philadelphia in that tense political climate thus seemed unfeasible.

Even so, Deborah’s one repeated wish was Ben’s return. “When will it be in your power to come home? How I long to see you, “she wrote. Then mindful of the gravity of his political duties, she backed off, assuring him, “I would not say one word that would give you one moment’s trouble.”[39]

The long years of separation had taught Deborah to expect little more from her husband than sympathetic letters. Political duties had always come before personal ones. Now since Ben’s travels to England, his attachments were divided between Craven Street and Philadelphia. A muted competition for his loyalties ensued, becoming especially obvious in 1771 when Polly, who had wed a year earlier, delivered her first son. Deborah’s letters had continually praised Sally’s first child, Benny, whom she dubbed “kingbird.” Typically they contained messages like “This morning would [have] afforded you much pleasure with my kingbird . . . as soon as he ate his breakfast he said he would go to school.”[40]

By early 1773 Ben matched Deborah’s praise with reports about Polly’s first son. “In return for our history of your grandson, I must give you a little of the history of my godson. He is now 21 months old, very strong and healthy, begins to speak a little and even to sing. He . . . grew fond of me, and would not be contented to sit down to breakfast without coming to call, Pa,rejoicing when he had got me into my place.” Then, fearing he sounded too fond, he added, “It makes me long to be at home to play with Benny.”[41]

Soon after that note, Ben was swept into an ugly political intrigue. That spring he sent copies of six letters to Thomas Cushing, Speaker of the Massachusetts House, insisting on confidentiality. Written by Governor Thomas Hutchinson and colonial secretary, Andrew Oliver, to Thomas Whately, commissioner of the royal Board of Trade, the letters disguised the governor’s role provoking British hostilities in Massachusetts. Simultaneously, Hutchinson feigned sympathy for his constituents and escaped blame for the subsequent protests in Boston.

The so-called Whately letters, as Ben had warned the Speaker, must be shared with only a few political leaders. Nevertheless, Cushing and the Adamses leaked them to the newspapers, inciting riots, the burning of Hutchinson and Oliver effigies on Boston Common, and protests in other colonies. Once reports of the upheavals reached London, Ben was blamed as an “incendiary” and “the papers . . . filled with invectives against me.”[42]

 In early January 1774 he was summoned to the “Cockpit,” an octagonal inner room of the Privy Council once favored by Henry VIII for cock fights. On the 29th Ben stood calmly on the stand before a hostile audience of courtiers, Members of Parliament, dignitaries, and others who came and “seemed to enjoy highly the entertainment, and frequently burst out in loud adpplauses” when thecaustic Solicitor General Alexander Wedderburn accuse him of inciting colonial hostility.[43] The next day Franklin was dismissed from his royal appointment as deputy general postmaster of North America.

After that Ben became a fervent supporter for American independence. Although publicly humiliated, rarely seen in public, and knowing he could best serve the colonies by returning home, Ben remained in England where he penned treatises in defense of the colonies. To Deborah, he again hedged about returning to Philadelphia. “I hoped to have been on the sea in my return by this time, but find I must stay a few weeks longer, perhaps for the summer ships. Thanks to God I continue well and hearty and hope to find you so when I have the happiness once more of seeing you,” he wrote that April.[44]

A week later, tragedy struck the Stevensons. “Our family here is in great distress. Poor Mrs. Hewson [Polly] has lost her husband and Mrs. Stevenson, her son-in-law. He died last Sunday morning of a fever. . . . She is left with two young children and a third soon expected. . . . All their schemes of life are now overthrown!” Ben lamented to Deborah on May 5.[45]

Two days later he realized Deborah had not written in months. “It is now a very long time indeed since I have had the pleasure of a line from you. I hope, however, that you are well as I am.”[46] Ten weeks later he nervously penned, “I have had no line from you. I flatter myself it is owning not to indisposition but to the opinion of my having left England, which indeed I hope soon to do.”[47] Still Ben remained in London.

By September Deborah’s long silence alarmed him. “It is now nine long months since I received a letter from my dear Debby. I have supposed it owing to your continual expectation of my return. I have feared that some indisposition had rendered you unable to write. I have imagined anything rather than admit . . . your kind attention towards me was abated. . . . you who used to be so diligent and faithful a correspondent.”[48]

Ten years had passed since Deborah had seen Ben. On December 14, 1774 the sixty-six-year-old suffered another stroke. On Christmas Eve Billy wrote to Ben, “I came here on Thursday last to attend the funeral of my poor old mother who died the Monday noon . . . She told me . . . that she never expected to see you unless you returned this winter, for she was sure she would not live till next summer. I heartily wish you had happened to come over in the fall, as I think the disappointment in that respect, preyed a good deal on her spirits.”[49]

So it was that the Franklin’s marriage ended as abruptly and unconventionally as it had begun.


[1]Benjamin Franklin, The Auutobigraphy of Benjamin Franklin, Leonard W. Labaree, Ralph L. Ketcham, Helen C. Boatfield, and Helene H. Fineman, eds. (Yale Univeristy Press, New Haven, CT, and London, 1964.) 89.


[3]Ibid, 92.

[4]Ibid, 96.

[5]Ibid, 99.

[6]Ibid, 128.

[7]Ibid, 106-107.

[8]Ibid, 128-129.

[9]Ibid, 129.

[10]. Ibid.


[12]Benjamin Franklin, “Rules and Maxims for Promoting Matrimonial Happiness,”

[13]J. A. Leo Lemay, The Life of Benjamin Franklin (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), 2:6.

[14]Sara Broughton to Benjamin Franklin, July 3, 1766, Leonard W. Labaree et al. eds, The Papers of Benjamin Franklin (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1959 – ), 13:329.

[15]“A Scolding Wife”, July 5, 1733, ibid., 1:325-27.

[16]“Observations Concerning the Increase in Mankind, 1751,” ibid., 3:255.

[17]“I Sing My Plain Country Joan,” 1742, ibid., 2:352-54.

[18]Benjamin Franklin to William Dunlap, April 4, 1757, ibid., 7:168.

[19]William Strahan to Deborah Franklin, December 13, 1757, ibid., 7:29.


[21]Benjamin Franklin to Deborah Franklin, February 19, 1758, ibid., 7:379

[22]Benjamin Franklin to Deborah Franklin, June 17,1760, ibid., 9:173.

[23]Margaret Stevenson to Benjamin Franklin, March [1763?], ibid., 10:427.

[24]Charles Henry Hart, ed. Letters from William Franklin to William Strahan (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1911), 14.

[25]Benjamin Franklin to William Strahan, March 28, 1763, The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, 10:23.

[26]Claude-Anne Lopez and Eugenia W. Herbert, The Private Franklin: The Man and His Family, (New York: W.W. Norton, 1975), 120.


[28]Benjamin Franklin to Deborah Franklin, February 14, 1765, The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, 12:62.


[30]Deborah Franklin to Benjamin Franklin, February 10, 1765, ibid., 12:43.


[32]Deborah Franklin to Benjamin Franklin, October 6-13, 1765, ibid., 12:292.

[33]Deborah Franklin to Benjamin Franklin, August 1765, ibid., 12:250.

[34]Deborah Franklin to Benjamin Franklin, September 22, 1465, ibid., 12:270.


[36]Benjamin Franklin to Deborah Franklin, February 13, 1768, ibid., 15:45.

[37]Benjamin Franklin to Deborah Franklin, June 3, 1769, ibid., 16:144.

[38]Thomas Bond to Benjamin Franklin, June 7, 1769, ibid., 16:152.

[39]Deborah Franklin to Benjamin Franklin, August 16, 1770, ibid., 17:205.

[40]Deborah Franklin to Benjamin Franklin, June 10, 1772, ibid.,19:130.

[41]Benjamin Franklin to Deborah Franklin, February 2, 1773, ibid., 20:34.

[42]Benjamin Franklin to Thomas Cushing, February 15 [19], 1774, ibid., 21:86.


[44]Benjamin Franklin to Deborah Franklin, April 28, 1774, ibid., 21:205

[45]Benjamin Franklin to Deborah Franklin, May 5, 1774, ibid., 21:208.

[46]Benjamin Franklin to Deborah Franklin, May 7, 1774, ibid., 21:210.

[47]Benjamin Franklin to Deborah Franklin, July 22, 1774, ibid., 21:246.

[48]Benjamin Franklin to Deborah Franklin, September, 10, 1774, ibid., 21:303.

[49]William Franklin to Benjamin Franklin, December 24, 1774, ibid., 21:402.



  • A note of gratitude to Nancy Rubin Stewart for this splendid article. It tells a fascinating story, and tells it well.

  • Unconventional indeed! Possibly Deborah and Ben had different objectives in marriage. In any event, Deborah sounds like an accomplished business professional. Your article is thought-provoking about the rationale for the couple’s marriage dynamics. Well done!

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