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Ben Franklin rose from humble beginnings to become one of the best known figures of the 18th century. The life of his favorite sister, Jane, followed a different path. She was a passionate reader, a gifted writer, and a shrewd observer of politics. But her life was one of endless domestic duties, hardship and grief. Using long overlooked letters and Jane’s own handwritten account of family births and deaths, historian Jill Lepore sheds light on the life of Jane Franklin Mecom, her long and loving relationship with her famous brother, and the role of women in America’s colonial era.
- Jill Lepore History professor, Harvard University and staff writer, The New Yorker.
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from BOOK OF AGES by Jill Lepore. Copyright © 2013 by Jill Lepore. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Ben Franklin became one of this country's most revered founding fathers. His favorite sister, Jane, shared his passion for the written word, but her struggle to stay afloat and care for her children and her grandchildren consumed her life. In a new book, Harvard historian Jill Lepore pieces together the fragments that remain of Jane Franklin's life to offer a glimpse into her world and the lives of so many others swept aside in the passage of time.
MS. DIANE REHMThe book is titled "Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin." Author Jill Lepore joins me from a studio in Cambridge. I invite you to be part of the program. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Send us an email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or send us a Tweet. And welcome to you, Jill Lepore.
MS. JILL LEPOREHi. Thank you.
REHMGlad to have you with us. Jill Lepore, tell us about Jane Franklin and what initially drew you to her story.
LEPORESure. Well, there were 17 Franklin children and Benjamin Franklin was the youngest of 10 boys and Jane was the youngest of 7 girls. And I got interested in Jane inadvertently, really and it was an interest that I resisted for many years. But one day, I went to read Benjamin Franklin's papers, which have been published in volume after volume in this massive, wonderful edited collections that's been going on since the 1950s.
LEPOREAnd I went to the library. And you know that when you kind of come across a writer who you just enjoy so much, you kind of want to read everything the person ever wrote until you get to the end of it? That just -- it's something, you know, you carry over from childhood when you, you know, you read your first Mark Twain book and then you have to read all of Mark Twain.
LEPORESo I was in the library and I fell in love with Franklin and I just pulled one volume after another off the shelf to read all of his letters. And I was sort of slumped on the floor with my knees against my chest and I fascinated to see that almost every other letter that he wrote from the very first of his letters that he wrote that are collected was to this woman named Jane, his younger sister, whom I had never heard of before.
LEPOREAnd I was just kind of staggered at the idea that, I mean, think of the mountains of Benjamin Franklin scholarship over the decades. He was just incredibly well known. Like he was often thought of as the most famous American who had ever lived. And how come no one ever really noticed this sister? Even if you weren't interested in her, if you were interested in him, how could you not be interested in what their relationship meant to him?
REHMAnd, you know, it was so interesting that they were referred to as Benny and Jenny. I love that combination because it sort of implies the closeness that the two of them shared.
LEPOREYeah. I mean, I think you often -- you know families where there's a brother and a sister who have that kind of kinship. They're sort of the male and female versions of the same person or they're paired together in a way over the course of their lives for all kinds of reasons and it's a very strange and compelling relationship, but one we don't think about that much either, you know, say, psychologically or sociologically, but certainly not historically.
REHMDid he have as close or anything near as close as relationship to any of his other siblings?
LEPORENo, although it's hard to say that conclusively because, you know, historians talk about the survival era, right? So if there was, you know, there's this sister in between them whose name is Lydia and it's kind of a joke between them over the course of their lives 'cause they're, neither of them, close to her and they completely lose track of her and she dies in 1758. And for decades, it's just only the two of them left out of the 17 children. They're the only ones who lived for decades.
LEPORESo Franklin is, you know, near his deathbed and he's basically revising his will and thinking about, you know, the nieces and nephews he wants to leave things to and he writes to Jane, he's like, whatever happened to Lydia? It's like he could barely remember. So but there's that sort of sense of there's the more forgotten sister, Lydia, but there's also -- it could have been, you know, he was very close to, say, Mary or Sarah, these other sisters that were -- that they had the same mother 'cause there were two mothers.
LEPOREBut -- and all their letters have been lost. But it really could only be Jane that he was this close to since they're the only pair of Franklins who lived as long as they did.
REHMAnd you title your book, "The Book of Ages" on the cover, but there is no apostrophe on the cover, as there was in Jane's own book. Why did you decide to leave that apostrophe out?
LEPOREThat was a tricky question. It was difficult even to convince my editor that we should call the book "Book of Ages" because everyone said no one's going to know what that even means. And so when Jane was -- she married at 15 and she had her first child at 17 and that child died before it reached its first birthday. And some time in there, Jane started keeping this little book that she made out of pieces of foolscap and stitched together and she wrote on its cover "Book of Ages" in this incredibly lavish hand that's on the cover of my book as well.
REHMIt's beautiful, absolutely beautiful.
LEPOREAnd she clearly worked so hard to make these letters 'cause she had never really -- girls did not typically learn how to write and they certainly did not learn this kind of handwriting, which she would have had to study out of a book.
REHMI was confused because they're taught how to write, but not to read.
LEPOREThey're taught how to read, but not to write and people are confused by that because we learn those things at the same time now, you know. When my kids are in kindergarten or whatever, you learn to read and to write, as if they're the same skill. But at the time, in the 18th century and for centuries really, they were considered completely different skills and were taught in sequence.
LEPOREAnd you'd learn to read first and all children, (word?) to New England had to learn to read so they could read the Bible and to be saved, you know, as a Protestant, you needed to read the Bible so that you could understand God, be close to God and submit to God's will and pray through reading. But only boys needed to learn how to write since only boys would have that more active role in society where they might conduct business, for instance so they, you know, might sign a promissory note, an IOU to exchange goods, for instance or, you know, to sign a legal document.
REHMBut you say it was her brother Ben who really encouraged her to learn to both read and write.
LEPOREYeah, so when they were kids, there was a lot of debate -- I mean, this obviously changed, right? Like, by the end of the 18th century, girls were taught to write and at the beginning, they were not and so Benjamin and Jane Franklin were growing up during years when there was a quite lively debate about this because a lot of people said and wrote treatises saying, you know, it's actually wrong to not teach girls to write.
LEPOREIt leaves them stunted and deficient. And some people said, you know, even if we only want them to be better wives, we should teach them how to write so they can be better companions for their husbands and some people said, no, we should teach them 'cause it's, you know, it's just unfair not to teach them. Franklin was very involved in those debates. In fact, as a kid, he staged a debate on this question with a friend of his and I think that he sort of, you know, in this kind of playful intellectual play way, as a young boy, decided he would kind of make an experiment of her sister and teach her to write the way he had taught himself, you know, much that he learned.
REHMHistorian Jill Lepore, her new book is titled "Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin." Benjamin Franklin ran away when he was 17. She was just 11. Did they ever see each other again?
LEPOREThey did. Not for a long time and not very often. And they were very precious moments to Jane and I think important to Franklin, but differently so. Franklin came back briefly in every year that ended with a 3. It was like a family joke between them. He came back to Boston in 1723, 1733, 1743, 1753 and 1763 and then he stopped and they never saw each other until the Revolution when Franklin came to rescue Jane who had had to leave her house when Boston was occupied by the British.
LEPORESo they saw each other about once every 10 years and it's really the correspondence that's just fascinating level of complexity, kind of for that attachment 'cause I mean, Franklin, especially the further he travelled, not just, you know, geographically, but economically, from the family of his origins, in a way, the more he needed Jane. And you know this in, like, you know, people that you know and you were like -- the people that run away kind of need their family to stay put.
LEPOREAnd, like, the people that you leave behind are your anchor to your past. They're kind of, in a sense, your own archive of your history and that was kind of the role that she played for him.
REHMBut here's the problem. You had so little to go on because she saved his letters, but apparently, he did not save her letters. So you had very few of those, isn't that correct?
LEPOREYeah. So the very first letter he writes home after he runs away, he writes to her on his 21st birthday, which is a very big important day when you're a young man in the 18th century. It's the day you become legally a man. He wrote this letter to her when she was 14 and he was 21 and then he writes to her the whole of his life so their correspondence lasts 63 years. I think it's like the second to last letter he writes on his deathbed is to her.
LEPORESo he's devoted in writing to her and she's equally devoted in writing to him and yet, the first 30 years of that 63 year-long correspondence for the first 30 years, her end of the correspondence is missing. And it may be that he just threw those letters away. Franklin had, you know, hundreds of correspondents and Jane really just had a handful. Or it may be that one of his earlier biographers threw them away on purpose because there's stuff in them that was troubling to Franklin's legacy.
LEPOREIt's hard to know, but from a historian's vantage, that's an interesting question, but it's a bigger problem. There's just -- it's like having one shoe. Like, how are you gonna walk down the street when you've just got Franklin's letters and now hers?
REHMSo how did proceed?
LEPOREWell, for a long time, I just kept giving up. You know, the idea that you could write a book about someone whose side of the correspondence didn't survive seemed so preposterous to me. But then, it also seemed so important because if you think about it, you know, the most urgent problem that we face or a chief problem we face today is the nature and persistence of inequality, right?
LEPORELike, just think about the ways in which inequality is important to -- it's something that we understand better and yet we have a very impoverished history of inequality because the historical record is so a-symmetrical, right? Like, we have thousands of letters written by Benjamin Franklin, but only a handful written by his sister whose experience was quite ordinary.
LEPORESo if we just say, oh, that's too bad. We don't have any of her letters, then we're really stuck.
REHMJill Lepore, her new book is titled "Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin." We'll take your calls, your email, when we come back.
REHMWelcome back. Jill Lepore, a historian at Harvard University and writer for The New Yorker magazine, is with me. She has just completed a book titled "Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin." One person wants to know, very importantly, how did Ben and Jane send the letters? There was no Postal Service. How did they reach each other?
LEPOREWell, there had been a Postal Service from the beginning of the founding of the colonies in New England. This was really important to the Puritans in New England in particular. They were more interested in getting letters across the ocean than getting them up and down the colonies.
LEPOREBut there were lots of different ways you could send letters. You could just, you know, find someone who was going, traveling the route that you were headed to.
LEPOREBut -- or you could pay someone to bring a letter. There was -- you know, Franklin was the deputy Postmaster General for all of North America beginning in the 1740s, so he rode the post roads and inspected the post roads. Franklin could actually send letters for free. And Jane often resented this because she had to pay the cost to send it.
REHMShe had to pay.
LEPOREAnd she'd say couldn't you Frank my mail -- you know, that was the expression.
LEPOREAnd he'd say, you know, that would be a violation of my trust as a public servant. I can't actually Frank your mail. But it was tricky, and their letters miscarried often. People's letters miscarried all the time. Franklin was a meticulous record keeper about mail 'cause he was curious to see who was trying to improve the efficiency of the Postal Service, right? So he would always say, tell me -- you know, when you write to me, tell me what date of my letter you got and what date you received 'cause he wanted to know.
REHMI see. I see.
LEPOREBut people would often include, like, you'd basically you'd bring your letters to the printer in town who ran the local Post Office as well. Whoever was the official government printer was also the Postmaster for the city. And that person would, you know, pay a rider to bring mail and bring the newspapers from city to city.
REHMSure. Now, Jill, you mentioned that Jane Franklin was married at 15. She gave birth to a child. There is some question as to her marriage to Edward Mecom and whether, in fact, she had been raped. Is there any indication of that in any of the letters that she wrote or that her brother wrote back to her?
LEPORENo. And that's also the part of her life for which her correspondence doesn't survive. And, you know, you might say, well, that's interesting then that her correspondence for those years doesn't survive and maybe leads to a different set of ideas about whether those letters were destroyed purposefully by someone. You know, historians have to make decisions about when to speculate and when not to speculate. It was illegal to marry at the age of 15, and in Massachusetts at the time, you had to have your parents' approval.
LEPOREThe man she married lived next door, was very poor. He also turned out to be a drunk and later to be a madman. He went to debtor's prison, and he died insane, as did two of their children. So there seems to have been something wrong with him. He was also quite a bit older than she was.
LEPORESo you sort of wonder, why would her parents give her...
LEPOREHer parents would have had to give their -- why would they give permission for her to marry such an unpromising person whom they knew well? He was so poor that when they married, he just moved into their house, so saddling her family with this man. Again, one wonders about that. If she had been -- if she was pregnant when she got married, which totally possible -- about one-third of brides at the time were pregnant when they got married -- and she had been raped, she would not have been able to say that she was raped because if you are pregnant, you could not claim rape legally at the time.
REHMI see. I see.
LEPORE'Cause if you were -- if was understood you couldn't get pregnant if you had not had not had an orgasm. So if you were pregnant, then you were not raped.
LEPORESo the best thing for many women was to actually marry the guy.
REHMSo many of her children died when they were so young and others when they were young adults. You mention that Mecom may had been a madman. Two of his sons apparently went mad?
LEPOREYeah. So Jane once writes this quite powerful thing to Franklin, which is that I had some children who were doing so well until they were carried away by death.
LEPOREShe -- it's a sort of interesting pattern. She had a number of children who died as infants. And then the rest all reached adulthood, then most of them to die in their mid-20s, the women usually in childbirth or right after childbirth, as a consequence of childbirth. And then, you know, one of her sons died at the Battle of -- you know, from a wound from the Battle of Bunker Hill, you know, kind of incidences relating to their adulthood.
LEPOREBut two of her sons went mad around that time. So she ended up raising the children at first that she raised to adulthood, but then for her daughters who died in childbirth, she then raised their children.
REHMTheir children, her own grandchildren.
LEPORETheir children, yeah. And then for one of her daughters who -- her daughter Sarah died with four young children. Jane raised the four of them. Two of them died as children, but two grew to adulthood. One of those daughters -- or Jane's granddaughter -- grew to adulthood, married, had four very young children and then died right after giving birth to the fourth.
LEPORESo Jane then raised those four great-grandchildren at which point she was in her 70s. She writes this incredibly powerful letter to her brother, saying, you know, I did not give my promise at her death bed that I would take care of her children, but she asked for it. And even though I didn't give it, I don't feel that I can -- you know, even though I'm not equal to this task, I don't feel that I can, you know, fail to raise these children.
LEPOREAnd, you know, just think of the tremendous love, but it's not our experience of motherhood.
REHMHow did she support herself? Where was the money coming from?
LEPOREWell, she spent most of her life -- the first decades of her marriage living with her parents. She was the youngest daughter. It was also understood -- you know, people would call the youngest daughter the daughter of our old age. You know, the youngest daughter would be the one who was supposed to take care of the aging parents.
LEPORESo she took care of her parents. She lived with her mother until, you know, 1752 when her mother died, took care of her, you know, parents, nursed them in all their long illnesses, and then she and her husband kind of limped along. He was a maker of saddles and did some business and not very much.
LEPOREBut she began taking in boarders. In 1742, she began taking in boarders. So that was a way she could contribute. Women were not allowed to own property, so anything you earned as a woman would be your husband's. So it was a tricky situation, with a husband who was a drunk and a debtor, to even take in money.
LEPOREBut he died in 1765, and then she opened a business. She was very proud of her attempt to do this. She -- stitching bonnets for the rich ladies in town. Whereupon then there was the boycott of all fancy goods, and Jane was outraged by it because, although she supported the boycott in principle, she didn't really like the idea that it was ruining the one thing she'd ever tried to do.
REHMYou say she found some consolation in religion and a Welsh minister, Richard Price. Tell us about that relationship.
LEPOREWell, she was a quite devout Christian and a great reader of sermons in addition to, you know, someone who went to church all the time, this was a source of great disagreement with her brother who was not a believer.
REHMWho had no religion, yeah, right.
LEPOREThey fought about this all the time. And it's really actually important to understanding Franklin to think about this relationship. But the thing that's so amazing to me, is so amazing about Jane Franklin, is just how much she read over the course of her lifetime. She -- just incredible thirst for knowledge. She reads pretty much everything that Franklin ever read. She makes a point of doing that.
LEPOREAnd even if you only in 18th century read what Benjamin Franklin wrote or published, that would have been an extraordinary education and the most radical ideas of the Enlightenment, right. Just the politics and philosophy of those -- or just, you know, as even a kind of marker of American literature. But then she read much more than that. She tried to get her hands on pretty much every book she could get her hands on.
LEPOREAnd one that she reads late in her life when she's finally kind of has a little bit of time to herself -- this is in the 1780s. She's in the last decade of her life. She reads a book by Richard Price who's a friend of Franklin's and who's a radical clergyman who writes a book about Providence or a dissertation about Providence about whether we are fated to lead the lives we lead by God or whether, when there are injustices and sorrow in the world, whether we can protest them.
LEPOREAnd he makes a statement about the nature of inequality that...
LEPOREYou know, says there are thousands of Newtons -- like Isaac Newtons -- have died and been lost to the world merely for being born with uncertain advantage. And Jane is so moved by this idea that she sits and writing a letter to Franklin, copies out the passage -- not literally copying out 'cause it includes all of her spelling errors 'cause she never really learned how to spell...
LEPORE...which I love that just sort of charming defiance of that.
LEPOREI'm not going to literally copy out how Price spells these words. I'm going to spell them my own way. You know, and then she writes, you know, very few we know have been able to beat through all impediments and arrive at a superiority of understanding.
REHMHow much of her real personality comes through in the letters that have been saved?
LEPOREYou know, it really just takes an awful lot of reading. Like, there's a printed edition of their correspondence from 1950. It's amazing, put -- put together by Carl Van Doren and published after he died. And he was in love with Jane, and he felt compelled to collect her letters.
LEPOREAnd I kept it by my bedside because I was having such trouble with the book. You know, every night I would just open it up and just read her letters again and again and again and again and again.
LEPORE'Cause I -- there's so many obstacles to her coming through 'cause of the spelling and her lack of education. And then Franklin overshadows everything until I could finally hear her voice and really -- and I committed most of the letters more or less to memory so that when I thought about an issue, you know, the death of a child, I could know what letter to go to and what kinds of things Jane said about that.
LEPOREAnd then ultimately it really does come through, and she's really -- she's warm, and she's funny. And she's witty, and she's angry. And she's really sad. But she's got a quite a powerful voice.
REHMNow, tell us what happened when the Revolution came and she had to leave Boston. She had to leave everything behind.
LEPOREYeah. So when the British occupied the city in the -- Jane and Boston could hear and people -- everyone in Boston could hear the shots being fired in Lexington and Concord, and everybody knew that war had begun. And you had to get out of the city because the British were going to keep the city. And people really scrambled. I mean, it's this unbelievable saga. The people of Boston who sided with independence or didn't want to be left behind in a besieged city trying to gather up their goods.
LEPOREYou had to get a special pass to get out of the city. She put her stuff in a cart and locked up her windows. She brought her granddaughter Jenny with her. She could not find her little grandson Josiah who was on crutches...
LEPORE...and she couldn't find him anywhere. She had to get out of the city. She managed sort of, you know, miraculously to me as a historian that she would do this really is terrific. She put -- she had kept all of Franklin's letters in this little trunk, and she managed to get the trunk onto the car. She gets out of the city. She goes to this exodus, you know, across the river. People get over by any way they can.
LEPOREPeople are, you know, ferrying people across the river in boats. She gets to Cambridge. It's kind of chaos. No one knows where to go. She makes her way to Rhode Island where she has a very good friend who lives in Rhode Island, this woman Katie Green. Franklin is in Philadelphia, has no idea what's happened to her. She keeps trying to send letters to Franklin saying, I'm safe, I'm safe, I'm safe.
LEPOREHe -- it's finally John Adams who arrives for the Continental Congress and says, don't worry, I found out your sister is safe. And then Franklin, you know, kind of immediately comes up with an excuse, a pretext why I must go to Cambridge to meet with George Washington who's just gone to take over the troops. I must go to Cambridge. I need to speak with Washington. Really, he takes a carriage all the way up to Cambridge. Really, he's gone up there to New England in order to rescue Jane and bring her back to Philadelphia with him.
REHMJill Lepore, her new book is titled "Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I wonder, Jill, if you would -- do you have your book with you?
LEPOREOh, gosh, no, I'm sorry. I don't have it with me.
REHMOh, you don't. I was going to ask you to read the letter that she wrote in November when the British soldiers were in the city and she witnessed something very awful. That must have been just terrible for her.
LEPOREYeah. And one of the things that's really illuminating when we stop and look at the life of someone like Jane is the terror of war, the opposition of war, and the consequences of that during the Revolutionary period. So Jane had seen, you know, and heard tales of, you know, soldiers raping women, brutality on the streets, just people being beaten up left and right. She had these little grandchildren she was taking care of at the time.
LEPOREAnd it comes back. It comes back again and again and again. And in 1787, when Franklin is just going to be sequestered for the Constitutional Convention. You know, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention, saying, you know, you're not allowed to send or receive mail during the convention in the summer of 1787. So, you know, the last letter Franklin writes before being sequestered is to Jane.
LEPOREAnd the first one he writes when he gets out is to Jane. She writes a letter to him in May of 1787, and she says, you know, I know that you gentlemen in Philadelphia are getting together to, you know, establish a new body of laws. And I just want you to remember -- and she's thinking about all of the horrors she's seen and endured in the war. I just want you to remember that, you know, your task ought to be to beat our sorts into plow shares. She's concerned about guns, you know.
LEPOREBecause this quite -- and think of how what it means that we don't take stock of that. Right? Like, we think about the delegates to the Constitutional Convention. We read and reread their debates to think about Constitutional law. And we read and reread through debates that concern the Bill of Rights and its ratification and, you know, the different ratifying conventions and how people understood the various amendments.
LEPOREAnd we're really only talking about those 55 guys who were the delegates of the Constitution. What about the ladies, the women like Jane, saying to them, you know, saying, don't forget about guns.
REHMAll right. Let's take a call from Silver Spring, Md. Hi there, Nelson. You're on the air.
NELSONThank you. Hello. Benjamin Franklin is certainly one of my favorite founding fathers. He was, in fact, of course, one of the few -- the only one to become an abolitionist. Did Jane and he discuss abolition in any of their letters and her views and his views on abolition? Thank you.
LEPOREThat's a great question, Nelson. Thank you for that. Yeah, Franklin comes to the antislavery cause very, very late in his life, as you know. And earlier in his life, he owned slaves and hadn't actually taken much of a position. The statement that he makes near the end of his life is of course greatly important, and it's a time when he is corresponding with Jane really frequently. But there's nothing in those letters about it.
LEPOREThe only thing that ever comes up about slavery in their letters is quite incidental, and it's much earlier in their lives in the 1740s when one of Jane's sons, who she's named after her brother, so Benjamin Mecom, is training up to be a printer. And Franklin has arranged for him to be an apprentice to a printer in New York who's a business partner of Franklin's. And Jane is very angry because her son has gotten smallpox, and she doesn't think that he's been well enough taken care of.
LEPOREAnd they -- and Franklin writes -- he says, don't worry. You know, the Negro woman at that house has been taking good care of him. And just clearly, you know, the printer's slave has been taking care of Jane's son. And it's, like, the only reference in any of their correspondence to the existence of slavery itself. It's not that it's, you know, been washed out of their letters or something. It's just it doesn't come up much between them.
REHMHmm. All right. To Austin in Cincinnati, Ohio. Quick question, Austin.
AUSTINHello, Diane. Hello, Jill.
AUSTINFirst I wanted to say that I just appreciate a historian who spreads more broader sense of autobiography to the field, appreciate the book.
AUSTINMy question was, I know -- or I heard that Franklin had some -- he had a lot of pen names, and he had some female characters who were his pen names. And I know that you -- that the research lacked data on Jane's letters. And I was wondering if there was any reflection of Benjamin Franklin's disposition through those letters maybe about the way -- the things he learned about women from his sister.
REHMAll right. Now, hold that thought, Jill. We've got to take a short break here. And when we come back, I'll hope you can answer that question. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. Jill Lepore joins me from Harvard University where she is an historian. She also writes for the New Yorker magazine. Her new book is titled, "Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin." Now Jill, I wonder if you've reflected on that question from our caller Austin.
LEPOREYeah, absolutely. I got this little bonus thinking time. You know, really I think you can't read much that Franklin publishes without thinking about Jane, if you spend enough time thinking about the relationship. But I guess I would think about three satires that he writes over the course of his lifetime. I mean, she always kind of gets his disguises, his pseudonyms. She knows what they're about in a way that nobody else does because she knows him better than anyone else does.
LEPOREBut the first pen name Franklin takes is Silence Dogood, of course, when he's just a teenager. And he disguises his handwriting to submit these letters to the editor for the newspaper that he's an apprentice at. His brother's newspaper. He knows his brother's not going to print everything, this pest of a little brother, you know, signs it. Silence Dogood is supposed to be a woman who has had this very unusual education because she was brought up by a country minister who made of her an experiment.
LEPOREHe thought, what would it be like if I gave this girl the education that I would give a boy? And he gives her the free use of her library and he teaches her how to write. And, you know, really Silence Dogood is about Benjamin's relationship with his little sister Jenny. You know, it's actually -- the whole Silence Dogood story is based on Jane, as far as I'm concerned. So you can't really understand even how Benjamin Franklin assumes that very first pseudonym without understanding the relationship.
LEPOREBut there are all kinds of satires Franklin writes about in equality. This very funny thing called the "Petition of the Letter Z" he writes once was about how the letter Z is angry being left at the last -- the tail end of the alphabet. He also writes this hilarious satire called "The Petition of the Left Hand." The left hand is -- like the hands are two sisters and the left hand is always left behind. It doesn't get as strong. It doesn't get to do all the interesting things.
LEPOREAnd a lot of the things he writes about, pairs or ordering or hierarchy. I think, you know, we can think about them differently when we know that he's his whole life measuring the distance he has traveled from this lowly dwelling in Boston, the poor house of a poor candle maker. How far he has gone into the world and how his sister is still in that house.
REHMAll right. To Jim in Strasberg, Penn. Hi there.
JIMHow are you, Diane? First of all, thank you for always having very, very interesting guests on your show and...
REHMI'm so glad. Thank you.
JIM...keep the dialogue going in America. Dr. Lepore, I'm a little embarrassed. Years ago, I bought "Name of War" and a little...
JIM...just a couple months ago, I read -- not even a couple months ago, I read an essay by Allen Taylor (sp?) where he sang your praises and gave me a lot of insight into what quickly became a book that was in my pile to a book that got on the top of the pile. And I just started it the other day. And I know other folks have sung your praises already. But thank you for giving voice to people that would often not be given a chance to be heard. And more importantly, to give your insight into it, a great scholar. Just thank you for the work that you do.
LEPOREOh, thanks so much, Jim.
REHMThank for calling, sir. Let's go to Jerry. He's in Marthasville, Mo. Hi there.
JERRYHi, Diane. I have an ancestor who was born on the crossing from Ireland in 1674. And he married a Sarah Franklin. So I figured that was probably around the year 1700. And I was just wondering if she's any relation to Benjamin. Maybe an older sibling, an aunt or a great aunt?
LEPORECouldn't be a sibling. There was a Sarah Franklin but she wasn't married around 1700. She was younger than that. Certainly could be a distance relative. There are a couple of members of the Franklin family of Acton in England who come over. Not one that's immediately known to me. I actually think it's slightly unlikely because there would be more family lore about it. People are so keen, and have been for centuries, to claim a connection to Benjamin Franklin that usually it's pretty well known because there are so many reunions and so many genealogists working on this stuff.
LEPOREIt's fascinating that some stuff that actually once belonged to Jane exists in museums because it's cataloged as having belonged to Benjamin because people thought it would have more value that way.
REHMInteresting. Thanks for calling, Jerry. Here is an email from Tom who says I was under the impression Ben Franklin believed in a god who created the world but not actively involved in the human progression. Is that true or is it, as you said, he did not believe in a god at all?
LEPOREYou know, Tom, we could have a good debate about that because Franklin couldn't have been more cagy about this thing. You know, Franklin, one of his many poor Richard's proverbs was talking about religion as like unchaining a tiger. You know, Franklin knew very well to stay clear of being nailed down on any of these matters. In fact, he's sort of most fully engaged in these disputes really with Jane because he's quite candid with her.
LEPOREAnd he's -- she is incredibly devout and berates him again and again and again for his lack of practice. He doesn't practice his religion in any way. And he, you know, says, you know, I don't -- I believe in doing good. I mean, that's what the whole Silence Dogood thing is, right. One should do one's good in silence and that much of churching is about the performance of piety rather than the doing of good in the world.
LEPOREAnd he defends himself from her accusations again and again by saying, look I do good. You know, I'm not going to talk to you about my views one way or the other. Just am I leading a good life or am I not leading a good life? That's my assessment. And she writes him, doing good is not enough. Like, I worry for your soul because doing good is not good enough. Like, doctrinally, that's not enough. So it's actually a really, really interesting debate.
LEPOREBut no, you can't and I would seriously question anyone who prefers to know finally what Franklin's views are one way or the other about any religious matter. Because he, of course, like any lively person thinks things through, changes his mind, tries out one idea, tries out another, offers up one set of ideas to his sister and another to David Hume (sp?). I mean, he's difficult to pin down for good reason.
REHMTo Miami, Fla. Hi, Harry. Harry, you're on the air. All right. Maybe he's not. It's my understanding that what Harry wanted to ask is, what did Jane think about Ben's son, William, a loyalist who lived in England?
LEPOREYeah, it's really -- it's an interesting story. It's such a family mess. You know, it's interesting because you think about Frank -- Jane getting married so young, probably pregnant. Franklin, of course, had a child out of wedlock and not much older than Jane was. And he managed to recover from it by marrying a woman who was willing to claim that this child was hers and he was not. William Franklin, Franklin's illegitimate son then became the governor of New Jersey, was a royalist and later a loyalist. And he and Franklin completely parted ways during the course of the war.
LEPOREJane was incredibly fond of William and could not believe that he was taking sides against her brother. So she writes this kind of hilarious letter in 1774. She's like, I've heard this wicked rumor and cannot possibly be true that William has in fact sided with the king and with parliament, which had just berated Franklin -- you know, repeatedly berated Franklin. Franklin had been publicly humiliated in London by parliament.
LEPOREAnd of course the rumor is completely true. So she then kind of doesn't really know what to do about that because she's quite close to him. I mean, he's her closest nephew by far. She, as far as I know, does not stay in touch with him, although she becomes quite close to his illegitimate son.
REHMOh, I see. But Ben does not keep in touch with his son?
LEPOREFranklin pretty much washes his hands of her. When Franklin is later in life in Paris and William Franklin is, you know, in exile essentially London, he spends the rest of his life in London...
LEPORE...will there -- his son wants them to effect a kind of reconciliation. And Franklin refuses.
REHMTo John in Cleveland, Ohio. You're on the air.
JOHNGood morning. Thanks for taking my call.
JOHNI wanted to -- first of all to congratulate the author on another book that she wrote. And that -- which I really enjoyed.
REHMI'm sorry, I didn't hear that.
JOHNI say I wanted to congratulate the author on another of her books which I enjoyed called "The Mansion of Happiness."
LEPOREYeah, thanks, John.
JOHNAnd I also wanted to make a comment about a previous caller saying that Franklin took up the cause of abolitionism. But I think that John and Abigail Adams were much stronger in their opposition to slavery. And so that was -- that point was kind of overlooked. They were more vocal about it and never owned slaves and things like that. So I think that point needed to be made.
LEPOREYeah, thanks, John. I mean, Franklin's advocacy, as I said, is late in life and of limited use. But, of course, the greatest antislavery activist of the 18th century were slaves themselves and freed blacks who presented petition after petition after petition to local assemblies and to local legislatures insisting on their natural rights as free men.
REHMAll right. And to John in Baltimore. John, you're on the air.
JOHNHi, thanks for taking my call.
JOHNI -- my intellectual and academic training -- and I use the word training intentionally -- is as a philosopher. And Benjamin Franklin is obviously someone who has been studied by people in many, many disciplines, you know, across the academic spectrum. So, you know, philosophers and historians and biographers, etcetera. One of the tendencies that I had seen as a philosopher was this sense of trying to get at someone's ideas and someone's thoughts. And the implications of those in trying to, to some degree, remove oneself personally from this subject.
JOHNAnd I guess we get that in modern day America when we hear, you know, discussions about the constitution and about, you know, originalism. Let's look at what the founders wrote versus what they meant. I've always been under the impression that you can't really separate the person from their ideas. And you have to look at it as a whole. And I'm just wondering, I guess as a biographer or a historian looking at this seemingly irrelevant probably to a lot of people that maybe study Franklin's politics or his ideas, this relationship with his sister.
JOHNIs that how you approached this? Did you try to approach this from a personal -- from, you know, looking at him as the person versus the philosopher, versus the statesman? Or did you take like a wholehearted approach?
LEPOREYeah, thanks for that question, John. I do think one could easily write a reinterpretation of Franklin' world of ideas through the lens of his relationship to his sister, as I think it is that fundamental to how he understands inequality and problems involving a relationship between the people and their rulers. That's not what I decided to do. Franklin is obviously deeply fascinating. I'm passionate about my interest in Franklin as a thinker and as a politician.
LEPOREBut what is, of course, far more urgent -- I mean, even just signaled here by these fantastic calls that people have made all by men, where this is a story that asks us to think about what it means to think about women as philosophers and to think about women as having a political life in the 18th century. What's so fascinating to me about Jane Franklin is that as poorly educated as she was and as politically powerless as she was -- I mean, she was not legally a person, right. Once you're married you can't make a contract. You don't legally exist. She certainly had no political voice whatsoever.
LEPOREWhat she reads chiefly are books of politics and philosophy. She writes this letter to Franklin, I keep your books of politics and philosophy by me and I pick them up and read them and it's as if I'm conversing with you. You know, what does it mean to our whole notion of the enlightenment and to our understanding of what was a very common philosophical thought experiment with the 18th century.
LEPOREImagine, what if there were a boy and a girl, twins born together? If we followed their lives how would they -- what would befall them in their feats and what would that tell us about the nature of inequality? Here's this, you know, actual story. These living people who is not a thought experiment. They really lived. We can follow out what happens to that boy and the girl, these twins over the course of their lifetimes. And then we can see how rich was her intellectual life as well.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Jill Lepore, what does Jane Franklin's experience tell you about how women are regarded even now?
LEPOREI am fascinated by how women readers respond to this book. I've gotten just the loveliest mail from men and women both. But, you know, or if I give a talk in public, women might come up to me and talk about the women in their lives who have given up things for them in order to take care of them. You know, my mother who gave up X and so, you know, never went to college because she raised these children. And when I think about the story, I think about what that meant to her to sacrifice her education for the sake of taking care of other people.
LEPOREThat kind of personal connection that even 21st century readers have with this 18th century woman is really staggering to me because here's -- you know, I was giving a talk at a college and, you know, a tenure track chemistry professor came up to me and said, I have two kids. And, you know, I'm obviously not living in the 18th century as an uneducated woman with 12 children. But I really -- on account of I feel like I completely relate to her -- you know, to Jane's particular frustrations and how hard it is to find a way to both take good care of the people that you love and do good work in the world at large.
REHMBut at the end of her life Franklin did give her a house to live in in Boston. She finally had a room of her own. But she really hungered for intellectual stimulation.
LEPOREYeah, it's lovely at the end of their lives how much they kind of get even closer really, I think. And it's so sweet, the gifts they send one another. When Franklin is ill she sends him -- she asks, what do you want and he says, I would like some cod. She sends him a kettle of cod. You know, he still loves his New England fish. So he takes very good care of her and she takes very good care of him. And it's a sweet and loving thing. But she also really dedicates herself to remedying the defects of her education.
LEPORESo he sends a set of books called the Franklin Library to the first town named Franklin in -- Franklin, Mass., is founded in 1778. And he -- they asked him for a gift and they want money for a church bell -- for a bell for their church steeple. And he says, you know, I don't think that you need that. I think you need a library. And she's made about that because it's an impious thing of him to do. But she says, okay, well, if you're going to do send them these -- could you send me a list of the books because I'd like to read them all, you know.
LEPOREAnd he's -- Franklin has sent -- from England he has sent, you know, Loch and Montesquieu and, you know, Newton. And she sits down and tries to read all the books that he has decided that, you know, a New England town ought to have in its town library.
REHMWho died first, Jill?
LEPOREHe dies first in 1790 and she dies in 1794.
REHMWhat a story. I'm so glad you've written about her and this wonderful series of letters. I wish we had more of hers to read. Jill Lepore is an historian at Harvard University. She also writes for the New Yorker magazine. Her new book is titled "Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin." Thank you, Jill, for joining us. Good luck.
LEPOREThank you so much.
REHMAnd thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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