Reviewed by Robert Rosenberger
Poor Richard’s Women:
Deborah Read Franklin and the Other Women Behind the Founding Father
by Nancy Rubin Stuart
ISBN: 978-080701130-0, March 2022, $26.95
The hardest I ever laughed at a book about American revolutionary history had to do with Benjamin Franklin’s relationships with women. I got into the hobby of reading histories and biographies of America’s founders the way that many do: through the gateway of Franklin. As Jill Lepore aptly observes, “People who fall for Franklin fall hard.” (Lepore herself would go on to write an excellent biography of Franklin’s sister, Jane.) A few years ago, I stumbled across his Autobiography in a used bookstore and soon found myself reading through a stack of other biographies and accounts. One fascinating figure that emerges is Madame Helvétius. Franklin meets her late in life, by then a widower and the American ambassador to France during the revolution. A wealthy widow herself, sharp-witted and charismatic, Helévtius oversaw a lively salon whose guests included luminaries from Voltaire, to Hume, to Diderot. Franklin became a regular visitor and fell head over heels for her. Across a series of Franklin biographies, it is easy to come away with the assumption that Helvétius must have charmed everyone she met.
The laugh came when I later encountered Abigail and John Adams’s reaction to her: they were appalled. Abigail Adams writes, “I own I was highly disgusted and never wish for an acquaintance with any Ladies of this cast.” Abigail and John were arriving as part of John Adams’s assignment to join Franklin in the negotiation of the treaty to end the Revolutionary War. The couple were astonished by Helvétius’s “careless, jaunty air,” the way she hung on Franklin and casually put her hand on the back of men’s chairs, her untidy manner of dress, the way she carried on and led the conversation, that she used her smock to clean up after her dog, and that she showed “more than her feet.” The contrast is revealing. For Franklin, Helvétius was a delight, someone to whom he would even propose marriage. For the comparably stuffy Adams couple, she was gross. Everything about this is just the best.
Madame Helvétius is one of several figures explored in detail in Poor Richard’s Women: Deborah Read Franklin and the Other Women Behind the Founding Father by Nancy Rubin Stuart. This book will be of interest perhaps most to Franklin fans who will appreciate the spotlight shifting from him to the multiple women who play secondary characters in his biographies. It must be noted that Stuart does more than simply tell the stories of these players that usually otherwise merely populate the background of the US colonial and revolutionary drama; she offers several insightful and challenging reappraisals. In the book’s best moments, these reappraisals function as explicit criticisms of American history making. As such, the book will be of interest as well to those concerned with the lives of women in this time period.
The central figure of the first two thirds is Deborah Read Franklin, and perhaps the book’s main accomplishment is an effective rehabilitation of her reputation. Poor Richard’s Women serves as a not-often-told biography of Benjamin Franklin’s wife, and she emerges as reliable, industrious, and competent. This depiction of Deborah Read Franklin is notable especially in contrast to her portrayal in many other histories of Benjamin Franklin’s life. As Stuart writes, “Perhaps her behind-the-scenes role explains the picture several historians drew of Deborah as ignorant, only modestly intelligent, and provincial” (p. 44).
In what is my favorite part of the book, Stuart names names, listing out quotations of past Franklin biographers’ belittling, dismissive, and sexist coverage of Deborah Read Franklin. In contrast, Stuart reveals her to be both an adept Philadelphia socialite and also a woman of modesty. Far from being smallminded or ignorant, as she has so often been portrayed, Poor Richard’s Women puts Deborah Read Franklin on display as the country’s assistant postmistress, a hostess for events with the most important people in Philadelphia, an overseer of the contractors expanding their home, someone to whom her husband assigned power of attorney multiple times, and someone that he trusted implicitly with the management of their businesses. Stuart writes, “Deborah was not brilliant like Ben but, as her later letters reveal, she was a socially savvy and capable woman far more instrumental to her husband’s success than scholars and historians have traditionally described her” (p. 44).
While thoughtful and easy to read throughout, some things are left unclear in Poor Richard’s Women. For example, why isn’t the book simply a Deborah Read Franklin biography? It is not always obvious why a particular amount of time is spent exploring the life of each woman and their relationship with Benjamin Franklin. And more than once in this otherwise jargon-free book Stuart refers to her analytical perspective as postfeminist, but it is not perfectly clear what that means (e.g., what’s “post” about it?).
In addition to Deborah Read Franklin, the book touches upon many of the other important female figures in Benjamin Franklin’s life, from Margaret Stevenson, his landlord and close friend during his long years in London who served as wife-life stand-in, to Madame Brillion, his neighbor in France with whom he shared an ongoing intense flirtation, among others. However, the portrayal I found the most surprising was exactly the one that in the past I had found so hilarious: Anne-Catherine De Ligniville, a.k.a., Madame Helvétius. In Stuart’s exploration, the relationship between Franklin and Helvétius was not merely a fun and innocently flirtatious friendship; it was additionally something that caused Helvétius considerable distress. As Stuart writes, Franklin “continued to pursue her relentlessly” despite her rebuffs. “Superficially Madame Helvétius seemed to ‘forgive’ him, but privately she was disquieted by Ben’s insistence. To her it seemed an exploitation of her warmth toward Ben and an assault upon her usual good humor” (p. 152).
My own surprise at this account aligns with Stuart’s observation that the historical record has tended to downplay Helvétius’s distress, or omit it entirely. “In the past,” she writes, “historians and biographers have ignored Madame Helvétius’s reaction and the depth of despair it revealed” (p. 153). Again Stuart names names, and this time the culprits include some of the most well-known and influential accounts of Benjamin Franklin’s life, including those by Carl Van Doren, Gordon Wood, and Walter Isaacson. “The result,” Stuart concludes, “has been a less than fully human portrait of the founding father.”
In the end, Poor Richard’s Women provides a thoughtful way to spend more time in the ceaselessly interesting world of Benjamin Franklin. And along the way it provides further evidence for the importance of historical work that widens the usual conception of whose lives are crucial for understanding American history.
About the reviewer: Robert Rosenberger is an associate professor of philosophy at Georgia Tech, and President of the Society for Philosophy and Technology. His books include Callous Objects: Designs Against the Homeless, and the forthcoming Distracted: A Philosophy of Cars and Phones.