Deborah Read

Benjamin Franklin had a wife?

Yes. Her name was Deborah Read.

While still a teenager, Benjamin was a boarder in Deborah’s mother’s house, and while there fell in love with Deborah, who was then fifteen years old. He asked Deborah’s mother’s permission to marry her (her father was already deceased) but the mother said no because she wanted a husband for her daughter who was more financially secure. In The Autobiography, Franklin says Deborah’s mother thought it most prudent to prevent the young people “going too far at present,” and that if a marriage was going to take place it would be more convenient after his return from London, when he would be set up in his own business. “Perhaps too,” he says, “she thought my Expectations not so well founded as I imagined them to be.”

Ah, the wisdom of mothers! Indeed his Expectations were not so well-founded, for the man who had promised to set young Ben up in business did not come through for him, and he stayed in London longer than he had planned.

Meanwhile, Deborah’s mother talked her into marrying a local man, John Rodgers, who’s financial situation seemed secure; but he soon took off for the Caribbean with Deborah’s dowry, and left behind rumors that he had already been married in England. So much for the wisdom of the mother.

Now imagine Deborah’s problem. A teenage girl, in love with her teenage boyfriend (who is across the Atlantic in London, trying to improve his fortunes), abandoned by this loser who takes off with her money and leaves her neither married nor single!

I hate to think of my daughters dealing with that kind of embarrassment even today; it’s easy to imagine how awful it must have been in Colonial Philadelphia. Nowadays being married or not is no reflection on a young woman’s character; but for Deborah the situation must have been demoralizing. She never knew what became of John Rodgers, if he died or lived; and the laws relating to bigamy prevented her from marrying again unless and until her husband was dead.

But our young hero returns; five years later Benjamin and Deborah married under common law, meaning that their marriage wasn’t approved by any Church or State, but that they had agreed to live together as husband and wife. By this time, Ben has a printing business and the means to support a family.

Benjamin Franklin in The Autobiography brags about his wife and how fortunate he was that she was “as much dispos’d to Industry and Frugality” as he himself was. She was his cheerful assistant in his businesses, kept a simple table, lived in a house full of cheap furniture. But as fortunes increased, Deborah improved upon the furnishings and accoutrements of the house, and one day he found a porcelain bowl and silver spoon to eat his bread and milk from, instead of his old earthen and pewter.

“What’s this?” said Ben.

“I believe, sir, that it is a China bowl and silver spoon!” answered Deb.

“And what, may I ask, has this cost me?” he asked.

“Three and twenty shillings,” was her reply.

“Three and twenty shillings!” he roared. “Why on earth, woman, would you spend such a fortune on trifles?”

“Because my husband deserves a silver spoon and China bowl as well as any of his neighbors,” she said, patting him on the shoulder. “Now eat your victuals.”

That’s how I imagine the scene, anyhow. He says that this was the first time china and silver was seen in their house, but over the years their inventory of dishes increased so much that it eventually amounted to the value of several hundred pounds. This means that, if by “several hundred” he meant 300, their china and silver came to be worth the equivalent of about $72,000 in today’s economy.

Not a china cabinet to treat lightly in any age.

The story of Deborah Read is only one of many examples of Herstory being told through His-story. To imagine how Deborah grew from jilted teenager into the wife of one of the country’s Founding Fathers is fascinating and intriguing.

When are they going to perfect time travel?

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