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by William H. Benson

May 13, 2010


     Benjamin Franklin’s father, Josiah Franklin, was married four times, and by two of those wives, he produced seventeen children: Elizabeth, Samuel, Hannah, Josiah, Anne, Joseph I, and Joseph II, all by the first wife; and  John, Peter, Mary, James, Sarah, Ebenezer, Thomas, Benjamin, Lydia, and Jane, all by the second wife. Aside from the fact that most of those names were plucked from both the Old and New Testaments, one can deduce that Benjamin was the youngest son, and Jane the youngest daughter.

     Three weeks ago, I was invited to attend the History Club’s annual awards banquet at my alma mater, University of Northern Colorado, and the guest speaker that evening was Dr. Jill Lapore, a young professor of History at Harvard. Within twenty minutes, she had us all there that evening entranced with her simple story of the tender relationship between Benjamin Franklin and “his favorite younger sister,” Jane Franklin Mecom.

     Benjamin was born in January of 1706, and six years later, in March of 1712, Jane was born. In their native Boston, Josiah, their father, fashioned candles out of tallow and had a soap-boiling business, and he was active in his church. Benjamin hated the grimy candle / soap business as much as he detested New England’s Puritan theology. So miserable was he that when he was seventeen, he ran away to Philadelphia. There, for Benjamin the world unfolded itself.

     A life-time later Jane explained to Benjamin’s grandson her reaction to the loss of her older brother. “When Benjamin ran off to Philadelphia at seventeen, he never sent word back home to tell us he was safe. He used to call me his favorite little sister—Jenny. I was eleven when he fled—but did he ever think of my anguish when we were left without news for almost six months? I cried in bed every night.”

     Dr. Lapore explained that by the act of running away, Benjamin had escaped the poverty of the candle shop, the obscurity of colonial Boston, the crushing burden that Calvinism loaded upon Puritan believers, and the ignorance of the world that lay beyond Boston’s borders. Jane’s lot in life was that which he had escaped: poverty, obscurity, ignorance, and a doctrinally heavy religion.

     Benjamin built a successful printing business, published for decades Poor Richard’s Almanack, flew a kite and discovered electricity, constructed bifocals, lived sumptuously in London and then Paris, participated in the Revolutionary War, and then assisted in the creation of legal documents that ensured a new government. Soon, he was one of the most talked about men in the world, deeply esteemed by all.

     None of this was available to Jane, who, at the age of fifteen, married the young man next door, Edward Mecom, a maker of saddles. For Edward, she bore twelve children, eleven of whom she buried. Into her journal, that which she called her Book of Ages, she recorded the dates of their births and then one by one the dates of their deaths, until, overcome with sorrow, she tossed aside the entire project.

     Then, when her parents began failing due to poor health, she had to move back in with them and care for them until the day they too died and she buried them. She was the youngest daughter, she lived next door, and so the duty of parental care fell upon her.

     The only bright thing in her dismal life was that series of letters that she received from her brother Benjamin, for they corresponded until Benjamin died in 1790. “Dearest Jenny,” he wrote. “Genius without education is silver in the mine,” and “Remember, that modesty makes woman more lovely than an angel.”

     Late in her life, Jane, in one of her letters to Benjamin, requested a pair of spectacles because she could no longer read the printed words at a church service. He dispatched to her a pair plus different lenses to try, and said, “Look at the spectacles, Jenny, and see!”

     Where Benjamin had escaped, Jane had not. She had a single window into the larger universe and that was through her older brother, Benjamin. Dr. Lapore commented that the difference between the two siblings was due to more than just gender; it was that between the new and the old. Where Benjamin had moved into modernity, into a new and more expansive universe called the modern age, Jane had stayed behind in the old world, in colonial Boston, carrying for children and parents.

     To Benjamin’s grandson, Jane told of her family when she was a young girl growing up, and the young lad noted the bitterness in his Aunt Jane’s voice. “The girls were all kept busy,” she said, “helping mother or preparing their hope chest in view of marriage some day. No schooling for them beyond reading or writing. Once married, they had a crowd of children and hardly any time for themselves.”

     Last Sunday was Mother’s Day. Jane Franklin Mecom, the quiet Franklin, or Poor Richard’s Poor Jane.