Benjamin Franklin Papers

From Benjamin Franklin to Abiah Franklin, 12 April 1750

To Abiah Franklin

ALS: Boston Athenaeum

Philada. April 12. 1750

Honoured Mother

We received your kind Letter of the 2d Instant,7 and are glad to hear you still enjoy such a Measure of Health, notwithstanding your great Age. We read your Writing very easily; I never met with a Word in your Letters but what I could readily understand; for tho’ the Hand is not always the best, the Sense makes every thing plain.

My Leg, which you enquire after, is now quite well.8 I still keep those Servants, but the Man not in my own House: I have hired him out to the Man that takes Care of my Dutch Printing Office,9 who agrees to keep him in Victuals and Clothes, and to pay me a Dollar a Week for his Work. His Wife since that Affair behaves exceeding well: But we conclude to sell them both the first good Opportunity; for we do not like Negro Servants. We got again about half what we lost.

As to your Grandchildren, Will. is now 19 Years of Age, a tall proper Youth, and much of a Beau.1 He acquir’d a Habit of Idleness on the Expedition, but begins of late to apply himself to Business, and I hope will become an industrious Man. He imagin’d his Father had got enough for him: But I have assur’d him that I intend to spend what little I have, my self; if it please God that I live long enough: And as he by no means wants Sense, he can see by my going on, that I am like to be as good as my Word.

Sally grows a fine Girl, and is extreamly industrious with her Needle, and delights in her Book.2 She is of a most affectionate Temper, and perfectly Dutiful and obliging, to her Parents and to all. Perhaps I flatter my self too much; but I have Hopes that she will prove an ingenious sensible notable and worthy Woman, like her Aunt Jenney.3 She goes now to the Dancing School.

For my own Part, at present I pass my time agreably enough. I enjoy (thro’ Mercy) a tolerable Share of Health; I read a great deal, ride a little, do a little Business for my self, more for others; retire when I can, and go [into] Company when I please; so the Years roll round, and the last will come; when I would rather have it said, He lived usefully, than, He died rich.

Cousins Josiah and Sally4 are well, and I believe will do well, for they are an industrious saving young Couple: But they want a little more Stock to go on smoothly with their Business.

My Love to Brother and Sister Mecom and their Children, and to all my Relations in general. I am Your dutiful Son

B Franklin

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

7Not found.

8BF told James Logan on Feb. 17 (see above, p. 466) he had been lame two weeks.

9Johann Boehm was BF’s partner for printing German almanacs and the Philadelphier Teutsche Fama, 1749–51. Oswald Seidensticker, The First Century of German Printing in America, 1728–1830 (Phila., 1893), pp. 35–8. Nothing more is known about the servants’ misconduct.

1The general belief that William Franklin (D.1) was born in 1731, or very close to it, is based primarily on this statement of his father’s in April 1750. It is possible, however, that BF deliberately understated the youth’s age by one, two, or even three, years in order to leave with his mother an impression (perhaps first conveyed by earlier letters now missing) that William was BF’s child by Deborah, whom he took to wife, Sept. 1, 1730, just as Francis Folger and Sarah undoubtedly were. If indeed William was the son of an earlier liaison with an unknown woman, BF may well have wished to conceal the matter from his mother in far-off Boston. This suggestion that William was actually born some time before 1731 is supported by the fact that he received an ensign’s commission in the Pennsylvania troops raised for the Canada expedition in 1746, when, according to BF’s present statement, he could have been only 15, unusually young for an officer, even in eighteenth-century America. Whether or not he himself ever knew the actual date of his birth, William was responsible for the belief that he was 82 when he died in 1813. Gent. Mag. LXXXIII (1813), 510.

Two further observations can be made: If, on the one hand, William’s mother was not Deborah and he was born about 1731, the liaison was timed with extraordinary awkwardness, occurring as it must have done at just about the same time that Deborah became BF’s wife. If, on the other hand, Deborah was William’s mother, as Charles Henry Hart has argued, and the boy was indeed born about 1731, it is curious that even in his own lifetime he was often described as illegitimate, though “Franky” and Sarah never were. Their status as children of the same common-law wife would have been identical with his. Both these puzzles would be explained if William were significantly older than 19 in April 1750, whoever his mother may have been. For extended and contradictory discussions of William Franklin’s parentage, see Paul L. Ford, Who was the Mother of Franklin’s Son? An Historical Conundrum hitherto Given Up—Now Partly Answered (Brooklyn, 1889); reprinted with an afterword by John C. Oswald (New Rochelle, N.Y., 1932); and Charles H. Hart, “Who was the Mother of Franklin’s Son. An Inquiry demonstrating that she was Deborah Read, wife of Benjamin Franklin,” PMHB, XXXV (1911), 309–14.

2Sarah Franklin (D.3) was seven years old.

3Jane Franklin Mecom (C.17).

4Josiah Davenport (C.12.4), a baker, and his wife Sarah settled in Philadelphia, 1749. See above, p. 388.

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