9 Things You Didn’t Know about Ben Franklin’s Wife, Deborah Read

Historians have largely neglected the life of Deborah Read, but Ben Franklin’s wife has her own fascinating story.

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Traditionally, historians have praised scientist-statesman Benjamin Franklin for his contributions to civic, scientific, and political issues, but ignored or belittled his wife’s accomplishments.

Like most colonial-era women, Deborah Read was poorly educated, but recent feminist scholarship reveals that Ben’s wife was not only a devoted wife and mother, but also an entrepreneurial shopkeeper, bookkeeper, financial manager, and assistant postmistress.

Here are a few surprising facts about Ben’s spirited wife.

  1. She and Ben were never legally married. She moved into his house on September 1, 1730, in a common law marriage.
  2. After living together for six months, Ben brought home his illegitimate son, William, whom Deborah was forced to raise.
  3. Deborah was a skilled bookkeeper to whom Ben assigned power of attorney during his travels – an unusual position for colonial women whose duties typically centered around home and hearth.
  4. In early 1756, during the French and Indian War, Ben traveled to the Pennsylvania frontier near the Ohio River Valley. Despite the distance and turmoil, Deborah managed to send him roast beef and minced pies.
  5. Deborah refused to travel with Ben to England when the Pennsylvania Assembly appointed him as agent to protest the Penn family’s exemption from paying taxes for the colony. Consequently, Deborah and Ben were separated for 15 of the 43 years of their marriage; first for five years and later, for another decade.
  6. During Ben’s overseas travels Deborah not only sent him dried venison, beef, and rashers of bacon, but at his request, two live squirrels for one of his friends.
  7. After the Pennsylvania Assembly recalled Ben to England in 1765, he left behind a house only half constructed. Deborah, like other colonial women, knew little about construction, but supervised its completion and even purchased an adjacent lot.
  8. From England, Ben objected to the marriage of his daughter Sarah, or Sally, to the debtor Richard Bache. Even so, Deborah allowed the wedding, which infuriated her husband.
  9. During the Stamp Act riots of 1765, rowdies threatened to tear down the Franklin home, but Deborah stood watch with a gun, determined to defend her husband’s innocence.

From Nancy Rubin Stuart’s new book, Poor Richard’s Women: Deborah Read Franklin and the Other Women Behind the Founding Father

Nancy Rubin Stuart is an award-winning author and journalist who specializes in women, biography and social history. Here most recent book is Poor Richard’s Women: Deborah Read Franklin and the Other Women Behind the Founding Father. Find out more at nancyrubinstuart.com.

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  1. Thankyou I found the background on Ben Franklins wife very interesting … and amazing. Deborah was a strong woman and much smarter than many who even today are formally educated. We can learn from everyone intelligence is not confinef to a classroom… or only a “certified” teacher.

  2. Thank you Ms. Stuart, for this fascinating look at Ben Franklin’s wife. I too find it insulting and demeaning Ms. Read was considered ‘poorly educated’ for starters. That may have been true in terms of ‘formal’ education only, which was not her fault.

    Furthermore, if everyone running our country today (both men and women) have so many degrees, why is our nation being destroyed from within, by them, with such rampant stupidity in every way imaginable? One would think simply by default that this could not be, but yes, that’s what we’re living with now. Corrupt toddlers.

    How many of the them could be an entrepreneurial shopkeeper, bookkeeper, financial manager or an assistant postmistress/master? Maybe a few, or one; most likely none. This woman was very intelligent with common sense to match. Far beyond regurgitating information to pass tests. Not knocking formal education, but it’s only part of a much larger life picture. Education is a word that too often is used as an unfair weapon against people, when it has no right to be, obviously.

    Hopefully Deborah forged a positive relationship with Ben’s son, William. He never would have entrusted her with bookkeeping and power of attorney if she wasn’t totally capable and then some. On number 5 here, she must have had good reasons for not travelling with him to England.

    Number 6 seems a little out there, but we shan’t retro-judge something from the mid 18th century. I’m thinking of the live squirrels here, to be specific. She was a good sport, my goodness! Numbers 7 through 9 in 1765 showed she was also one tough woman, not to messed with–at all.

    Thanks for including the link to your new book, Nancy. I’m looking forward to buying and reading it soon!


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