Jane Franklin was born in 1712, in a dirty, smelly colonial city clinging to the edge of the continent. Louis XIV, the Sun King, was still on the throne of France. Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift both published books, Peter The Great declared war on the Ottoman Empire, and, in England, John Shore invented the tuning fork.
America was muddling along, skirmishing with Indians and fretting about taxation. But it was 60 years before the famous Tea Party; Boston was content and placid as a colonial backwater.
Jane Franklin did nothing that made history. She did not sew a flag, spy on the British or write even one Federalist paper. Like every woman of her time, she was shut out of politics (and philosophy, medicine, the law, religion, etc.) by social rules that have been immutable for most of human history.
But Jane Franklin was not exactly idle. She cleaned, she cooked, she planted, she butchered, she washed, she chopped, she repaired. She made soap, a two-day process, and sold the extra to make money for the household.
She gave birth to 12 children, most of whom she outlived. Her husband was a wastrel and a fool; she was often close to debtor’s prison and had to take in boarders. Yet she complained little and meditated on Christian theology.
Her story was much like the stories of women everywhere, in the 18th century but also in the 4th century and the 20th century. Men make history and think great thoughts; women do the chores, raise the children, behave piously. Their ideas are not recorded; their triumphs are not commemorated. They are lost to history.
But Jane Franklin was different in one way; she was the beloved younger sister of Benjamin Franklin. She saved his letters to her, all of them. After a while, Ben kept his sister’s letters too, so we have some record of her thoughts, her sorrows, and her preoccupations.
From these and many other sources, Jill Lepore fashioned a biography, “Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin,” from which I have lifted most of the data in this post. (All errors mine). The book is an attempt (one of many) to bring the stories of women into the common historical record. It’s a swift and satisfying read, cleverly written and seriously intended.
Jane Franklin loved to read. The books considered suitable for women were mostly dry tracts about moral improvement. Her Boston church was relatively liberal; her brother was even more so. She debated religion with him (he was a newspaperman by training; a skeptic by inclination), and he sent her books filled with new ideas. She read them avidly.
She loved to talk politics; visitors to her house recall being quizzed about the events of the day and asked about the conversations on the street and in the taverns. Which was useful, because the talk on the street was “We’re thinking of starting a new country. Just floating the idea. Thoughts?”
She chided her brother for not answering her questions. but she knew what she knew: Ben approved of independence, and his writings (wry, modest, aphoristic) helped push the country into war.
At the start of the war, the British occupied Boston. There were shortages of almost everything; arrests were common; dying in jail was also common. When winter came, there was little wood for heat. The British eventually decamped, but the war raged on. Families were fractured over political allegiances. Jane hung on somehow; the whole country hung on somehow.
Things got better when the British left. Jane rejoiced in her grandchildren (who seemed a lot saner than her children, many of whom seemed to have inherited their father’s troubled mental state) and traveled to see her relatives in other states. She even went to Philadelphia and lived with Ben for a time.
Finally she had time to read, time to think. She began being bolder in her letters to her brother, arguing (decorously) with the most famous and admired man in America. Their bond remained strong. During Franklin’s tenure as ambassador to France, he gave away samples of the “crown soap” she made as an example of homespun American pluck and ingenuity. So popular was it that he had to keep importuning his sister to send more.
(Franklin was a great manipulator of public opinion. He published a newspaper in which he humble-bragged his way to the top of colonial society. In France, he wore simple clothes and talked in provincial aphorisms, all to reinforce the idea that Americans were a simple people — and thus no threat to France.)
Ben was 81 when the Constitutional Convention happened. He was in pain from a variety of ailments, but he wasn’t about to miss the convention. It was a raucous business, as merchants, farmers, rum-runners, soldiers and other unlikely candidates attempted to make an imaginary country a little less imaginary.
The American Revolution put everything up for discussion. Everything. They knew they didn’t want a king; beyond that, it was open ocean. In the end, they decided voting might be a good idea. Voting!
They also liked freedom of speech quite a bit. That was sorta new.
Jane Franklin was busy writing letters to her brother, urging him to see the world as she saw it, to acknowledge the suffering of war. Here’s a little of what she wrote. I am keeping the original spelling because, as Lepore says, spelling is part of the story. Jane was self-taught; there were gaps in her knowledge, although not in the mind behind it. This is from a letter she wrote as the convention was about to start:
“I hope with the Asistance of Such a Nmber of wise men as you are connected with in the Convention you will Gloriously Accomplish, and put a Stop to the nesesity of Dragooning, & Haltering, they are odious means; I had Rather hear of the Swords being beat into Plow-shares, & the Halters used for Cart Roops, if any of that means we may be brought to live Peaceably with won a nother.”
Peace was not inevitable; the colonies were riven by factionalism. The only way peace could be achieved was by compromise, which depended on reason and good faith. I just want you to consider that for a moment: A political meeting dominated by reason and good faith.
And they got it done. They invented a country. No one was completely happy, but they invented a country.
Benjamin Franklin was the first to speak when the deal was finally done. It was a time of surging nationalism, a time of bunting and conspicuous patriotism. It was a time, in other words, ripe for demagoguery and triumphalism. But here is what Benjamin Franklin said:
“I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall ever approve them. For having lived so long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I had once thought right, but found to be otherwise.”
So the most influential American of his age announced the beginning of the new nation by reminding his colleagues — by reminding everybody — that human error was inevitable, and that no one person held a monopoly on the truth.
He and Jane both came from humble beginnings. Social rules allowed one to rise while the other remained indentured by custom. She didn’t blame immigrants or criminals or the British. She didn’t even blame men, although she certainly could have. She stayed cheerful; she stayed alive to new ideas. She cherished peace; she loved reason.