Tuesday, October 18, 2016

American Biography - Jane Franklin Mecom 1712-1794 - Sister to Ben Franklin


Jane Franklin Mecom (1712-1794), favorite sister of Benjamin Franklin, was born in Boston, the youngest of the 17 children of Josiah Franklin, tallow chandler, and of the 10 children of his second wife, Abiah Folger.


From Poor Jane's Almanac 2011 The New York Times by Gregory Nemec

Her father had moved to Boston from Northamptonshire, England in 1683; her mother was born in Nantucket, the youngest child of one of the island’s first settlers. Nothing is known of Jane’s schooling, but it must have been limited at best. Six years younger than Benjamin (1706-1790), she was 11, when he ran away to Philadelphia. Although they saw each other only occasionally during the rest of their lives, their mutual affection transcended time and distance. Their surviving correspondence is more extensive than that between Franklin and almost any other private person.

On July 27, 1727, at the age of fifteen, Jane was married to Edward Mecom (1704-1765), a Boston saddler. He was poor in heath and in pocket. His major contribution to the family was the fathering of 12 children: Josiah, born in 1729, Edward, (1731), Benjamin (1732), Ebenezer (1735), Sarah (1737), Peter (1739), John (1741), a second Josiah (1743), Jane (1745), James (1746), Mary (1748), and Abiah (1751).

Until the outbreak of the Revolution, Jane Mecom’s life was almost wholly that of a housewife in a tradesman’s family of low income, preoccupied with the births, marriages, and deaths of children and grandchildren, with the struggle to provide food and clothing, and with her sons’ efforts to find careers. The family lived with or close to her parents, who owned a group of houses at Hanover and Union streets. Here she cared for her father and mother until they died, and here she continued to live for several years, taking in boarders to supplement her husband’s slender income.

Three of their children died in infancy; and others seem to have inherited, apparently from their father, physical and mental defects that brought their mother deep distress. Only 3 lived beyond their 33rd birthdays and 2 of these died insane. None of her sons was really successful in his trade, and her daughters were not much luckier in the men they married. “Sorrows roll upon me like the waves of the sea,” she wrote after the death of a daughter in 1767, but “God is sovereign, and I submit.”

When the siege of Boston began in the spring of 1775, Jane Mecom, for 10 years a widow, managed to leave the city with a few clothes and household effects and took refuge with friends in Rhode Island. That autumn her brother, returning from a mission to Washington’s army at Cambridge, escorted her to Philadelphia, where she remained in his home until the British advanced on the city in September 1777. Then she returned to Rhode Island and lived with a married granddaughter. In 1784, she re-established her home in Boston. There, until her death, she lived in a house her brother owned, sharing it with her one surviving daughter, Jane, and the latter’s husband, Peter Collas, a rather inept ship’s captain.

Through all these troubled years Benjamin Franklin had helped her financially, sometimes with money, sometimes with goods she and her daughters could turn into profit,. In her later years he settled on her an annual income, and in his will be bequeathed to her the Boston house and a life income of 50 pounds. She adored her brother, but stood a little in awe of him and of his fame. She never tried to understand all his scientific or political activities, but liked to read anything he had published. Like some other members of her family, she was sensitive to slights and criticisms -and sometimes was hurt at what he said about he behavior toward other relatives. Yet his conversation when they were together, his letters when they were apart, and his constant affection appeared to be the great joys in her life. And she in turn was the one member of his family to whom he could talk and write without restraint. Judging by their surviving letters, more than his mother, his wife Deborah Reed Franklin, or his daughter Sarah Franklin Bache, his sister Jane gave him the feminine intimacy and understanding of a family member, that his nature seemed to crave. Franklin's 1st known letter to his sister was upon her marriage...
Philadelphia, January 6, 1727
Dear Sister,
I am highly pleased with the account captain Freeman gives me of you. I always judged by your behavior when a child that you would make a good, agreeable woman, and you know you were ever my peculiar favorite.

I have been thinking what would be a suitable present for me to make, and for you to receive, as I hear you are grown a celebrated beauty. I had almost determined on a tea table, but when I considered that the character of a good housewife was far preferable to that of being only a pretty gentlewoman, I concluded to send you a spinning wheel, which I hope you will accept as a small token of my sincere love and affection.

Sister, farewell, and remember that modesty, as it makes the most homely virgin amiable and charming, so the want of it infallibly renders the most perfect beauty disagreeable and odious. But when that brightest of female virtues shines among other perfections of body and mind in the same person, it makes the woman more lovely than an angel. Excuse this freedom, and use the same with me.

I am, dear Jenny, your loving brother, B. Franklin

A few months after her brother's death, Jane wrote to his daughter Sarah Franklin Bache,
Dear Niece,

He while living was to me every enjoyment. Whatever other pleasures were, as they mostly took their rise from him, they passed like little streams from a beautiful fountain… To make society agreeable there must be a similarity of circumstances and sentiments, as well as age. I have no such near me; my dear brother supplied all...

We learn a bit more about Jane from the April 23, 2011 of The New York Times Opinion Pages, Poor Jane’s Almanac, written by Jill Leport, a professor of American history at Harvard.

"Franklin, who’s on the $100 bill, was the youngest of 10 sons. Nowhere on any legal tender is his sister Jane, the youngest of seven daughters; she never traveled the way to wealth. He was born in 1706, she in 1712. Their father was a Boston candle-maker, scraping by. Massachusetts’ Poor Law required teaching boys to write; the mandate for girls ended at reading. Benny went to school for just two years; Jenny never went at all. Their lives tell an 18th-century tale of two Americas. Against poverty & ignorance, Franklin prevailed; his sister did not.

"At 17, he ran away from home. At 15, she married: she was probably pregnant, as were, at the time, a third of all brides. She & her brother wrote to each other all their lives: they were each other’s dearest friends. (He wrote more letters to her than to anyone.) His letters are learned, warm, funny, delightful; hers are misspelled, fretful & full of sorrow. “Nothing but trroble can you her from me,” she warned. It’s extraordinary that she could write at all. “I have such a Poor Fackulty at making Leters,” she confessed. He would have none of it. “Is there not a little Affectation in your Apology for the Incorrectness of your Writing?” he teased. “Perhaps it is rather fishing for commendation. You write better, in my Opinion, than most American Women.” He was, sadly, right.


"She had one child after another; her husband, a saddler named Edward Mecom, grew ill, & may have lost his mind, as, most certainly, did two of her sons. She struggled, & failed, to keep them out of debtors’ prison, the almshouse, asylums. She took in boarders; she sewed bonnets. She had not a moment’s rest. And still, she thirsted for knowledge. “I Read as much as I Dare,” she confided to her brother. She once asked him for a copy of “all the Political pieces” he had ever written. “I could as easily make a collection for you of all the past parings of my nails,” he joked. He sent her what he could; she read it all. But there was no way out.


"They left very different paper trails. He wrote the story of his life, stirring & wry — the most important autobiography ever written. She wrote 14 pages of what she called her “Book of Ages.” It isn’t an autobiography; it is, instead, a litany of grief, a history, in brief, of a life lived rags to rags. It begins: “Josiah Mecom their first Born on Wednesday June the 4: 1729 & Died May the 18-1730.” Each page records another heartbreak. “Died my Dear & Beloved Daughter Polly Mecom,” she wrote one dreadful day, adding, “The Lord giveth & the Lord taketh away oh may I never be so Rebelious as to Refuse Acquesing & saying from my hart Blessed be the Name of the Lord.” Jane Mecom had 12 children; she buried 11. And then, she put down her pen...


"On July 4, 1786, when Jane Mecom was 74, she thought about the path to prosperity. It was the nation’s 10th birthday. She had been reading a book by the Englishman Richard Price. “Dr Price,” she wrote to her brother, “thinks Thousands of Boyles Clarks & Newtons have Probably been lost to the world, & lived & died in Ignorance & meanness, merely for want of being Placed in favourable Situations, & Injoying Proper Advantages.” And then she reminded her brother, gently, of something that he knew, & she knew, about the world in which they lived: “Very few is able to beat thro all Impedements & Arive to any Grat Degre of superiority in Understanding.”


"That world was changing. In 1789, Boston for the first time, allowed girls to attend public schools. The fertility rate began declining. The American Revolution made possible a new world, a world of fewer obstacles, a world with a promise of equality. That required — and still requires — sympathy. Benjamin Franklin died in Philadelphia in 1790, at the age of 84. In his will, he left Jane the house in which she lived. And then he made another bequest, more lasting: he gave one hundred pounds to the public schools of Boston. Jane Mecom died in that house in 1794. Later, during a political moment much like this one, when American politics was animated by self-serving invocations of the founders, her house was demolished to make room for a memorial to Paul Revere."


Parts of this posting based on information from Notable American Women edited by Edward T James, Janet Wilson James, Paul S Boyer, The Belknap Press of Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1971

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