By Marcia Allen, Technical Services and Collections Manager
She was not a recognized personality nor was she a Revolutionary War figure. She was not wealthy, nor was she well educated. There are no surviving paintings of her, and many details of her life are relatively sketchy. In fact, hers was an ordinary life except for one factor: she was the younger sister of Benjamin Franklin.
To be honest, many of the details we do know about her have been made available only because of her brother’s celebrity. We are well aware of his adventures because of his prolific writing, his interactions with other famous personalities, and his incredible role in American history. Fortunately for us, he was an avid writer of letters, and many of his surviving letters were sent directly to his younger sister. Many of her letters to him have also survived, and it is because of those that we have clues to Jane’s personality and day-to-day life.
In a family of seventeen children, of which twelve survived to adulthood, Benjamin was the youngest son while Jane was the youngest daughter. The two enjoyed a closeness that endured despite their very different lives. Benjamin, it seems, left home at an early age and became a self-educated man, traveling to Europe and acting as an American ambassador. Jane remained home and married at the age of fifteen. As was often true at the time, she bore children, many of whom died tragically. And her husband, who was prone to incur debts he could not repay, probably spent some time in a debtors’ prison.
“Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin” by renowned history professor Jill Lepore is a rare treasure. It is that wonderful tale that manages to piece together the details of one life through a careful scrutiny of old letters and other documentation. And what do we learn? Despite the narrow boundaries of Jane’s life, she was highly opinionated and quick to share those opinions with her famous brother. She was also energetic and deeply religious. She was fond of and teasing toward her brother, always conveying her love for him. She was an affectionate mother, ever protective of her children and grandchildren, despite the overwhelming cooking and cleaning she must have done amid near-poverty living conditions.
One of the more personal and more touching artifacts described in the book is the actual “Book of Age’s.” That was the title that Jane gave to her little handmade journal in which she recorded the milestones of her life. The opening entries read:
“Edward Mecom Senr Born in December 1704
Jane Franklin Born on March 27—1712
Edward Mecom Marryed to Jane Franklin the 27th of July 1727.
Later entries record the births of her twelve children, as well as the early deaths of all but one. Her husband’s death is also recorded in those pages, with the following phrase: “Died my husband in a Stedy hope of a happy hear after.” And her final entry, dated in the year 1767, is taken from passages of the Book of Job, those familiar lines that she penned as, “The Lord Giveth & the Lord taketh away.”
Beyond providing details about Jane’s personal life, the book is an intimate picture of 18th century American conflicts. When Jane and her daughters decided to open a millinery shop, for example, her brother helped her obtain materials with which to fashion hats. Unfortunately, just as the women began their work, Parliament passed the Townshend Acts, which levied taxes on numerous goods. Officials in Jane’s city of Boston responded by boycotting English goods, among them the cloths and ribbons that Jane desperately needed for her new business. Thus ended what may well have been a lucrative business.
When the Battle of Bunker Hill occurred, Jane’s family suffered casualties. A husband of one of Jane’s daughters, as well as one her husband’s relatives were counted among the dead. Those losses caused her to reflect bitterly in a letter to Benjamin that, “As to Sons I have nothing but misery in those that are left. Boath of them Distracted.”
Beautifully written and carefully researched, this book is a warm and personal account of one American life. Lepore’s masterful book breathes new life into Benjamin Franklin’s lively younger sister.