The wife of one of the Founding Fathers visited the Historical Society of Moorestown on October 19, 2006. Deborah Read Franklin shared with the group stories about her life in pre-Revolutionary American society. Of course, her lecture would not have been complete without some remarks about her famous husband, the beloved Founding Father, Benjamin. Mrs. Franklin illuminated a side of Philadelphia’s most famous citizen that the history books have kept in the dark all these years.
With a pining look in her eyes, Mrs. Franklin described her first encounter with the man who would become her husband. She first met Benjamin on the very day of his arrival in the City of Brotherly Love. He was a young man of just 17 at the time. He looked rather disheveled as he made his way down High Street (now Market Street). He had just completed a long, arduous journey from Boston by way of New York and looking worst for wear. “It was love at first sight,” she said smiling.
“Young Ben was carrying three large loaves of bread under his arms,” Deborah said. When she asked why young Benjamin explained that he offered a baker a few coins for “biscuits”, as his often did in Boston. The proud baker became indignant. “We only sell fine bread here!”
“Well then give me this much worth of bread!” Benjamin retorted as he thrust the coins in the man’s direction. Young Ben didn’t know that the Philadelphia economy differed from that of Boston. He didn’t want to come across as provincial so when the baker handed him the three large loaves so he gladly accepted them.
The next time that Deborah saw Ben, she asked him what he did with all the bread. It certainly would have gone bad before he had time to eat it. (Mr. Franklin didn’t add his legendary girth until he was much older.) “I saw a woman and her young child who had been ship mates of mine. They were hungry so I gave the bread to them.”
Deborah also solemnly related the story of how devastated Benjamin felt when his mother-in-law passed away. She tragically fell into an open fire pit during a fit of apoplexy. This loss affected Ben greatly. It consumed him. He couldn’t accept that he had founded the city’s first fire company, but was powerless to save someone so close to him from its dangers. But the horrible tragedy inspired Ben to “make things better.” He invented the Franklin Stove which no doubt saved countless lives from the ravages of fire. Although Ben couldn’t save his mother-in-law, his invention no-doubt saved an incalculable number of other lives. Mrs. Franklin said that prior to the invention of Mr. Franklin’s stove, the second leading cause of death among women in Colonial America was infection caused by burns.
Deborah concluded her narrative by saying that Ben was such a successful businessman that he retired at the age of 42. At the time he happily told his wife: “Now, Debbie we can do all those things we never had time for.” Very shortly afterwards, the American Revolution entered into its incipient stages. Ben heeded the call of the new nation and travelled to England to fight against “taxation without representation.” Mrs. Franklin didn’t see her husband for the final ten years of her life. Sadly, she didn’t survive long enough to witness the independence of the United States that her husband worked to hard to achieve. She passed away in 1774.
Historian and actress JoAnn Tufo brought the character of Deborah Read Franklin to life. During the question period, an audience member asked Ms. Tufo if she believed Ben Franklin truly loved his wife. After all, his legendary reputation among the ladies of France persists to this day. Ms. Tufo replied that Benjamin was a widower long before he went to Paris. In keeping with the theme of revealing elements of Franklin’s character not captured by the history books, she said that Ben also happened to be a songwriter. One of his works still extant is a tune he penned about Debbie. “What greater sign of love is there than when a man writes a drinking song about his wife?” She asked.