Meet Dr Franklin

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The married Franklin’s literary allusions to women could be both amicable and patronizing; he could treat them as equals but show downright hostility at times. He stuffed his Almanack with female stereotypes, perhaps charging off his own grievances to the sex in general. He frequently jabbed at “domineering women,” with Richard Saunders the prototype of all hen-pecked husbands. A woman’s role in life, he tells us, is to be a wife and have babies, but a man has a more versatile role and therefore commands a higher value.

With the sexual revolution of the twentieth century and the modern penchant for pornographic vocabulary, Franklin’s letter on marriages and mistresses has attained respectability and wide circulation. In essence, Franklin, in a letter dated June 25, 1745, commended marriage as the state in which a man was “most likely to find solid happiness.” However, those wishing to avoid matrimony without forgoing sex were advised to prefer “old women to young ones.” Among the virtues of older women he listed their more agreeable conversation, their continued amiability to counteract the “diminution of beauty,” the absence of a “hazard of children,” their greater prudence and discretion in conducting extramarital affairs, and the superiority of their techniques. “As in the dark all cats are gray, the pleasure of corporal enjoyment with an old woman is at least equal, and frequently superior, every knack being by practice capable of improvement.” Furthermore, who could doubt the advantages of making an old woman “happy” over debauching a virgin and contributing to her ruin. Finally, old women are “so grateful!!”

How much this advice reflected Franklin’s own marriage of convenience remains for speculation. Poor Richard is constantly chiding cuck olds, scolding wives, and suggesting that marital infidelity is the course of things: “Let thy maidservant be faithful, strong, and homely"; “She that paints her face, thinks of her tail"; “Three things are men most liable to be cheated in, a horse, a wig, and a wife.” Or consider poor Lub lying on his deathbed, both he and his wife despairing, he fearing death, she “that he may live.” Or the metaphor of women as books and men the readers: “Are Women Books? says Hodge, then would mine were an Almanack, to change her every year.”

Enough examples, perhaps, have been chosen to show that Franklin’s early view of women was based on a combination of gross and illicit sexual experiences and a less than satisfying marriage with a wife neither glamorous nor intellectually compatible.

Abruptly, at the age of forty-two, Franklin retired from active participation in his printing business. He explained the action quite simply: “I flattered myself that, by the sufficient tho’ modest fortune I had acquir’d, I had secured leisure during the rest of my life for philosophical studies and amusements.” These words masked the middle-age identity crisis that he was now undergoing. Seeking to project himself on a larger stage, he did not completely cut his ties to a less glamorous past—including a wife who was a social liability—but conveniently evaded it. Now he could lay aside the tools of his trade and the garments of a petit bourgeois and enter the circles of gentility. Gone were the days when he would sup on an anchovy, a slice of bread and butter, and a half pint of ale shared with a companion. His long bouts with the gout in later life attest to his penchant for high living—Madeira, champagne, Parmesan cheese, and other continental delicacies. Sage, philanthropist, statesman, he became, as one critic has remarked, “an intellectual transvestite,” affecting a personality switch that was virtually completed before he left on his first mission (second trip) to England in 1757. Not that Franklin was a purely parochial figure at the time of his retirement from business. Already he had shown that passion for improvement that was to mark his entire career. Already he had achieved some local reputation in public office, notably in the Pennsylvania assembly. Already he had displayed his inventive techniques, most notably with his invention of the “Pennsylvania Fireplace,” and had begun his inquiries into the natural sciences.

Now, on retirement from private affairs, he stood on the threshold of fame. In the subsequent decade he plunged into his scientific investigations and into provincial politics with equal zest. Dispatched to England in 175710 present the case of the Pennsylvania assembly against the proprietor, he spent five of the happiest years of his life residing at the Craven Street residence of the widowed Margaret Stevenson. Mrs. Stevenson, and especially her daughter Mary, provided for him a pleasant and stimulating home away from home. Reluctantly he returned to Philadelphia at the end of his five-year stay, so enraptured by England that he even contemplated settling there, “provided we can persuade the good woman to cross the seas.” Once more, in 1764, he was sent abroad, where he stayed to participate in all the agitation associated with the Grenville revenue measures. Snugly content in the Stevenson ménage, Franklin corresponded perfunctorily with his wife back in Philadelphia. Knowing that Deborah was unwilling to risk a sea voyage to join him in London, Franklin did not insist. And though he wrote his wife affectionate letters and sent her gifts, he never saw her again. She died of a stroke in December, 1774, without benefit of Franklin’s presence.