Benjamin Franklin Papers

To Benjamin Franklin from Josiah Franklin, 26 May 1739

From Josiah Franklin

MS not found; reprinted from Duane, Works, I, 4–5.

Boston, May 26, 1739

Loving Son.

As to the original of our name there is various opinions; some say that it came from a sort of title of which a book, that you bought when here, gives a lively account. Some think we are of a French extract, which was formerly called Franks; some of a free line; a line free from that vassalage which was common to subjects in days of old: some from a bird of long red legs.9 Your uncle Benjamin made inquiry of one skilled in heraldry, who told him there is two coats of armour, one belonging to the Franklins of the north, and one to the Franklins of the west.1 However our circumstances have been such as that it hath hardly been worth while to concern ourselves much about these things, any farther than to tickle the fancy a little.

The first that I can give account of, is my great grand father,2 as it was a custom in those days among young men too many times to goe to seek their fortune, and in his travels he went upon liking to a taylor; but he kept such a stingy house, that he left him and travelled farther, and came to a smith’s house, and coming on a fasting day, being in popish times, he did not like there the first day; the next morning the servant was called up at five in the morning, but after a little time came a good toast and good beer, and he found good housekeeping there; he served and learned the trade of a smith.

In queen Mary’s days, either his wife, or my grandmother, by father’s side, informed my father that they kept their bible fastened under the top of a joint-stool that they might turn up the book and read in the bible, that when any body came to the dore they turned up the stool for fear of the aparitor, for if it was discovered, they would be in hazard of their lives.3 My grandfather was a smith also,4 and settled at Eton [sic] in Northamptonshire, and he was imprisoned a year and a day on suspicion of his being the author of some poetry that touched the character of some great man. He had only one son and one daughter; my grandfather’s name was Henry, my father’s name was Thomas,5 my mother’s name was Jane. My father was born at Ecton or Eton, Northamptonshire, on the 18th of October, 1598; married to Miss Jane White, niece to Coll. White, of Banbury, and died in the 84th year of his age. There was nine children of us who were happy in our parents, who took great care by their instructions and pious example to breed us up in a religious way. My eldest brother had but one child,6 which was married to one Mr. Fisher, at Wallingborough, in Northamptonshire. The town was lately burnt down,7 and whether she was a sufferer or not I cannot tell, or whether she be living or not. Her father dyed worth fifteen hundred pounds, but what her circumstances are now I know not. She hath no child. If you by the freedom of your office, makes it more likely to convey a letter to her, it would be acceptable to me. There is also children of brother John and sister Morris,8 but I hear nothing from them, and they write not to me, so that I know not where to find them. I have been again to about seeing . . . . . . . . .9 but have mist of being informed. We received yours, and are glad to hear poor Jammy1 is recovered so well. Son John received the letter, but is so busy just now that he cannot write you an answer, but will do the best he can.

Now with hearty love to, and prayer for you all, I rest your affectionate father

Josiah Franklin

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

9Of the possible sources of the family name BF preferred to believe that it came from “franklin,” a class of landowners of free but not noble birth, next below the gentry, and was assumed by his ancestors “for a Surname, when others took Surnames all over the Kingdom.” Par. Text edit., p. 6; OED. The book that gave such a “lively account” of the Franklins’ origin may have been Edward Waterhouse, Fortescutus Illustratus. or A Commentary On that Nervous Treatise De Laudibus Legum Angliae (London, 1663), p. 388: “And the old Dames in my memory were wont to call their husbands, my Good Man: later times more gentilized, discard that name from all mouthes, but those that are plebeian, and though it be enunciative of Franklaynes, that is, free-liers and owners of Land ... yet it is now not much set by, though from this condition of them, there are many now grown into Families, now called Franklin.... For of this race of men who were and are but plain Good Man, and John, and Thomas, many in Kent, and Middlesex especially, besides sparsim in every severall County have been men of Knights estate, who could dispend many hundreds a year, and yet put up to raise Daughters portions; yea, so ambitious are many of them to be Gentlemen, that they by plentifull living obtaine the courtesie of being called Master, and written Gentlemen; and their posterities by being bred to Learning and Law, either in Universities, or Inns of Chancery and Court, turn perfect sparks, and listed gallants, companions to Knights and Esquires, and often adopted into those orders: And from this source, which is no ignoble one, have risen many of the now flourishing Gentry.”

1There were several armorial families in England with the surname Franklin or one of its variants, unrelated to each other, though some had branches in more than one county. Which of these families the person “skilled in heraldry” referred to cannot now be determined. BF continued to inquire about his family and their arms. In July 1742 he acquired a MS alphabet of arms (now in APS) listing many English families, in which the only Franklin arms described seem to be those of Franklyn of Moore Park, Hertfordshire. BF adopted arms sometime before 1751, which Anthony R. Wagner, Richmond Herald, in a letter to the editors, Dec. 30, 1958, has tentatively identified as those of the Franklin or Frankelyn family of Skipton-in-Craven, Yorkshire, with branches in Bedfordshire and London. The editors, however, have found no connection between this family and BF’s ancestors. Mr. Wagner describes these arms as: “Argent on a Bend between two lions’ heads erased Gules langued Azure a Dolphin between two Doves Or collared Azure.... The accompanying crest was a lucy’s head Or erased Gules between two Olive branches Vert.” BF’s somewhat less formal description appears in an advertisement in Pa. Gaz., June 20, 1751: “Lost ... a silver seal, with a Coat of Arms engrav’d, containing two Lions heads, two Doves and a Dolphin.” Wax impressions of BF’s arms, used in sealing his correspondence or attesting his signature on official documents, survive; some printed forms, such as passports issued during his residence in France, also carry an engraved representation. See illustration on facing page. Other members of his family also used the arms for such purposes as a bookplate and a tombstone (Paul L. Ford, The Many-Sided Franklin, N.Y., 1899, p. 2; Heraldic Jour., II, 1866, 97, III, 1867, 67), but when his nephew Peter Mecom proposed to stamp them on crown soap, BF drew the line. BF to Jane Mecom, May 30, 1757.

2Thomas Francklyne (fl. 1563–73; Genealogy: A).

3In the autobiography BF says he had this story from his uncle Benjamin. Par. Text edit., p. 14.

4Henry Franklyn (1573–1631; A.5).

5Thomas Franklin (1598–1682; A.5.2).

6Thomas Franklin (1637–1702; A.5.2.1) and Mary Franklin Fisher (1673–1758; A.

7Wellingborough was almost totally destroyed by fire, 1738. A letter from Benjamin Franklin the Elder, March 17, 1724, referring to an earlier fire that destroyed 44 houses in the town, is printed in facsimile in Ford, Many-Sided Franklin, p. 92.

8John Franklin (1643–1691; A.5.2.3) and Hannah Franklin Morris (1654–1712; A.5.2.8). Josiah Franklin, Jan. 11, 1743/4, wrote to a relative, of whom he had heard through BF, and who he believed was his brother John’s grandson Thomas (A. MS, Boston Pub. Lib. In England years later BF established direct contact with this Thomas Franklin and his daughter Sarah, who resided for some time in BF’s London home in the 1760s.

9So in Duane.

1James Franklin, Jr., BF’s nephew (c. 1730–1762; C.11.4), whom he educated and taught the printer’s trade.

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