Other than a surge of interest in Abigail Adams, wives of the American revolutionary era remain largely ignored, especially in school textbooks. How many of you have heard of Deborah Read? She was Benjamin Franklin’s wife. Their partnership contributed to Ben Franklin’s later successes, which though not always fun for his wife, led him to serve the revolutionary cause.
According to Franklin, he met Deborah Read while walking through the streets of Philadelphia with one bread roll under each arm and one in his mouth. He looked so odd that Deborah laughed aloud. Franklin may have made this part up, but he did end up lodging in her mother’s house. It was common at the time for women with little income to take in borders, and Deborah’s mother was a widow. Franklin proposed marriage to Deborah before he left for London to try and purchase a printing press. Deborah’s mother insisted that they wait until after Franklin’s trip. The idea seemed reasonable, but Deborah heard little from Franklin while he was in London and ended up married to someone else. John Rogers was a potter with a talent for running up debts. Whether they parted mutually or Rogers just left her, Deborah was alone again when Franklin returned.
He didn’t get the printing press, but he met many girls in London. Eventually he ran into Deborah again, who had news that her husband may have died—something that could never be proved. Franklin may have felt responsible for her loneliness or maybe he realized that she had the qualities he wanted in a wife. Either way, they moved in together as husband and wife. They couldn’t legally get married because Rogers might still be alive. The people of Philadelphia, including Deborah’s mother, accepted the match.
Deborah kept busy not only with housework but also with her husband’s printing business. She managed the accounts from Franklin’s business ventures for years and helped him expand printing franchises throughout the colonies. Franklin said of her, “Frugality is…a virtue I could never acquire in myself, but I was lucky enough to find it in a wife, who thereby became a fortune to me.” Thanks to Deborah’s help, Franklin retired early and focused on his inventions and politics. As Franklin became more famous, she entertained the crowds who dropped in to see him and bragged about how quickly she could make cakes for surprise visitors.
Franklin’s notoriety and love of politics led to subsequent trips to London where he represented the Pennsylvania Assembly. Deborah had no intention of coming with him. Instead she ran the postal service in his absence and bought more real estate. She even kept the family home safe from a mob that suspected Franklin of supporting the Stamp Act. Though she sent the children away, she stood her ground. She wrote Franklin, “Cousin Davenport came…Towards night I said he should fetch a gun or two as we had none. I sent to ask my brother to come and bring his gun also…I ordered some sort of defense upstairs such as I could manage myself. I said, when I was advised to remove, that I was very sure you had done nothing to hurt anybody, I had not given offense to any person at all, nor would I be made uneasy by anybody…but if anyone came to disturb me I would show proper resentment.” With the help of a few friends, Deborah saved the home, much to the pride and delight of her husband.
Both husband and wife seemed to sense that Philadelphia gave Deborah her own identity as a businesswoman and Franklin’s partner, whereas in London she would only be the wife of her famous husband. Enjoying his public life, Franklin did not return from London, even when he learned Deborah had a stroke. When she passed away Franklin came home to manage his interests and began to appreciate his “old and faithful companion.”