Benjamin Franklin Papers

To Benjamin Franklin from Mary Hewson, 12 December 1775

From Mary Hewson

ALS: American Philosophical Society

Kensington Dec. 12. 1775

My dear Sir

By not being inform’d in proper time I have miss’d several opportunities of writing to you, which I regret because I wish to live in your memory, and to convince you that you are in mine. Do not sigh at the addition I make to the packet, for I ask no return, you have enough to do without scribbling to me, and my letters you may lay by till you have a few minutes to spare for relaxation.1

My mother I suppose writes by the same conveyance so you will have what she has to say from herself. What I have to say of her is not so pleasing as I could wish, the disorder she had in her leg last summer is return’d, which, as it prevents her activity, lowers her spirits. I and my little ones are well. William is grown very bookish, I cannot say he reads yet, but he is an excellent speller, the words he has learnt he does not forget, and when he attempts to spell those he is acquainted with only by sound he manages very well according to the miserable rules of the present orthography; rules that are so perpetually violated, that now my attention is call’d to it I am astonish’d at the power of memory which enables us to read and write. As I reckon you are soon to be sovereigne, and lawgiver in the Empire of America, I pray you establish your alphabet2 that my grandchildren may attain the rudiments of learning more easily.

My son Tom is a genius that steps out of the common way of learning, he takes up a book and gives names to the letters, U. he calls bell and P. he calls bottle. He begins to chatter now and has some phrases of his own, a handkerchief he call a nose kitpi. I find that by our alphabet I can convey a new sound to you with precision, which it would be impossible to do by the common rule of spelling, so my uncommon learning is useful.

As to my daughter I cannot say much of her mental qualities at present, but her personal charms improve, I fancy she grows handsome; to give you some idea of her countenance I must tell you that I trace in it a strong resemblance of my aunt Rooke, whom you us’d to call your lovely.3 She is a jolly girl, and as her shape is suffer’d to take it’s natural form I believe her waist would measure nearly equal to that of a grown up fashionable lady, in circumference I mean. I hope your countrywomen will be too wise to adopt our present preposterous modes. I long to be in America, fancying that I there may appear without distortion. Perhaps you may think our heads were come to their full size before you left our island, but I assure you their magnitude is encreas’d this winter. A stranger would suppose the women were to carry burthens upon their heads, for they wear a cushion of hair almost as large as a porter’s knot.4

My fortune is not yet settled tho’ Mr. Mure appointed a day for meeting my friends, and Mr. Henckell, Mr. Williams and Mr. Walter Blunt went and spoke for me. However Mr. M. was very polite and offer’d to settle the affair to my satisfaction, agreeing to all their demands, which he acknowledg’d to be reasonable, but referr’d them to Mr. Atkinson as he was more acquainted with the affairs than himself. Mr. A. postpon’d the looking into the affairs for a few weeks as he was much engag’d in business, which he said was a national concern, contracting with government to supply them with sheep and hogs to feed-the fish in the channel. M & A. do not contract for the arrival of the stock at Boston, the place it was destin’d for by government, so they will be paid for it, and the real destiny of the chief part is what I mention’d, and most probably the rest will go into the Atlantic.5 The fish are our friends so I may be allow’d to rejoice at their having a feast rather than our enemies.

Mr. Williams no doubt will inform you of his situation with Mr. Blunt.6 Lady Blunt has at length produc’d a boy. I have a niece.7 Dolly Blunt is still with her sister who is in a deep decline.8 So the world goes on; it is a wonderful mixture, and I think my letter resembles it. One good thing I have always found in the world that is Friendship, and amidst all my folly you will find that in my letter; nay I flatter myself that my medley may amuse you. God bless you! and prosper your undertakings. The blessing I dare to pray for, the subsequent part of the sentence I must only wish, for tho’ I believe your cause is just I am too pious to pray for prosperity. I am with sincere regard My dear Sir Your faithful and affectionate humble Servant

Mary Hewson

1The letters were laid by for more than a decade before BF saw them. They were in a packet which JW did not mail until September, 1776 (safe conveyances must have been few and far between), and which did not reach Philadelphia until after BF left for France. The packet contained two more letters from Polly, those of Sept. 5 and 8 below, along with others, and RB kept it. BF wrote her on May 7, 1786 (Morristown National Historical Park) that he had only just received her three letters, and referred to the contents of each. For the others in the packet see the note on JW to BF below, Sept. 3.

2The phonetic alphabet that he had taught Polly seven years before: above, XV, 173–8.

3About Mrs. Rooke, who has appeared with Mrs. Tickell in earlier volumes, we know virtually nothing.

4The mid-seventies were the period when waists were most tightly corseted and headdresses most extravagant. The latter were structures built over wire frames and filled out with wool and false hair, and sometimes simulated such things as ships or windmills. See Emily Ashdown, British Costume during XIX Centuries. . . (London, 1910), pp. 323–9; Iris Brooke and James Laver, English Costume from the Fourteenth through the Nineteenth Century (New York, 1937), pp. 316–21.

5The fortune was her inheritance from her aunt, Mrs. Tickell. Henckell may have been either James, the father of Dolly’s friend Elizabeth, or the T. Henckell who had been part of BF’s and Polly’s circle in 1768; Williams was JW, and Walter Blunt was Dolly’s brother (above, XIX, 152 n; XV, 237). Mure was Hutchinson Mure (1711?-95), a partner of Thomas Tickell (who we assume was Polly’s uncle) until the latter’s death in 1755, and since 1767 a member of Mure, Son & Atkinson. For Mure see the Gent. Mag., LXIV (1794), 771, and for Richard Atkinson see Namier and Brooke, House of Commons, II, 32. In the fall of 1775 the firm provided shipping and provisions for the army, but the victualing fleet was scattered by disastrous storms: R. Arthur Bowler, Logistics and the Failure of the British Army in America, 1775–1783 (Princeton, [1975]), pp. 53–5. Even if the partners were not liable for the resultant losses, paying a legacy at that moment out of assets may have given them pause. They eventually settled for £7,000 in bonds, less than Polly thought due her; see her letter below, Sept. 5. But she said years later that the inheritance brought her into easy circumstances and took care of educating her children: George Gulliver, ed., The Works of William Hewson. . . (London, 1846), p. xiv.

6He already had; see his letter above, Nov. 23.

7Charles, the son of Sir Charles and Lady Blunt, was born on Dec. 6: Burke’s Peerage, p. 330. Polly’s niece was undoubtedly born to her husband’s sister, Mrs. Magnus Falconar, the wife of a young anatomist whom William Hewson had intended to be his successor: Thomas J. Pettigrew, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of the Late John Coakley Lettsom. . . (3 vols., London, 1817), I, 146 of second pagination. Falconar married Hewson’s sister five months after the Doctor’s death; most of the Craven Street circle attended the wedding, and BF gave away the bride: Polly to Barbara Hewson, Oct. 4, 1774, APS. Falconar completed and published the final part of Hewson’s Experimental Inquiries in 1777, but died the next spring at the age of twenty-four: Gulliver, op. cit., p. xlvi.

8She died before the end of the month: Burke’s Peerage, p. 330.

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