Benjamin Franklin’s World: The Women Behind Benjamin Franklin

“Behind every great man stands a great woman.”

This podcast was with Vivian Bruce Conger, a professor of the Humanities at Ithaca College, who is interested in Early American History and Women’s History. She is in the midst of writing a book about Deborah Reed Franklin and Sally Franklin Bache. Conger discusses Deborah Reed Franklin’s life, saying that her parents were born in England and met Benjamin Franklin in 1723. Deborah’s mother disapproved of the match, even though they were both enamored with each other. Conger had a great sense of their relationship together; they seemed to have a great, strong, loving, marriage. Their correspondence from letters was Conger’s source base for this claim; saying that they quarreled sometimes through letters just as a married couple would do. Conger called Franklin very controlling about making Deborah being frugal and hardworking. Deborah Franklin was a property mogul, renting it out to people. Sally Franklin Bache had a pretty good relationship with her father but he did not want her to marry Richard Bache; however Deborah really believed in this marriage. It took Benjamin several years before he would write to Richard Bache. Sally Franklin Bache was much more political than her mother, since the Revolution impacted her in a different way. Something interesting said towards the end of the podcast was when Conger said that when Benjamin Franklin was gone, these two women were the faces of Benjamin.

Conger discussed her research about understanding the relationship between Benjamin Franklin and Deborah Reed Franklin. The best way to understand the relationship, according to Conger was reading a medium that we have discussed in class this semester. Conger was able to dissect the letters between the spouses which allowed her to understand the relationship. Just from reading letters, Conger was able to tell that these two were in a very loving relationship that had the spats that most marriages go through, mostly because Benjamin Franklin was a tad over-controlling to put it nicely. I found it fascinating that by reading the letters, Conger was able to understand that aspect of the relationship as well as a few other facts, mainly how independent Deborah Reed Franklin was for that time period. Understanding the importance of letters and their influence on Early American History is quite important for the study of this time period. Since letters were one of the most popular mediums of this time period, it is important for historians, such as ourselves, to delve into them in order to understand and interpret the past.  Letters are one of the most important mediums to understand as historians because they give us a personal look into the past.

A couple of other interesting topics that Conger brought up was the fact that she was studying Deborah Reed Franklin because she lived the life of a normal woman of this time period. I agree with the importance that Conger puts on understanding the ordinary people of every time period because historians put so much emphasis on the extraordinary people, most likely because that is where the source-base is, but there needs to be a movement to understand the lives of ordinary people, as that is the majority of the population at that time. The historiography of this idea needs to start with people such as Deborah Reed Franklin, ordinary people whom we can gain access to documents relating to them due to their important relationships they garnered.  By doing this, historians will be able to get a better understanding of Early American History as a whole, from every social standing. These two ideas were not the only ideas discussed during this podcast, but they were the ones that sparked my interest the most. Vivian Bruce Conger is a brilliant historian and her insight into the women behind Benjamin Franklin was a fascinating case study and should prove to be a great book.

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5 thoughts on “Benjamin Franklin’s World: The Women Behind Benjamin Franklin

  1. I loved how you pointed out what Conger had said about Deborah and Sally being the face of Franklin after he had died. I also love how you really made a point about the letters. I know this is a media and communications course but it really shows other people listening to these podcasts who are not historians and don’t know a lot about media during the early years of America.

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  2. Something that has been brought up at times, in my classes with Dr. Adelman, is that there has been a “bottom up” approach to history that has developed, in which history is looked at through the lives of ordinary people. But you could still make the argument that there should be more work done with this kind of history.

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    • I agree with your point about the “bottom up” approach in history, but the point that Vivian Bruce Conger was making in this podcast (which I was trying to convey as her idea) was that most of the primary sources available to us come from the wealthier classes. Personally, I believe this is because of the wealthier classes had more leisure time to write letters, books, and other sorts of sources that historians analyze today to come to conclusions about the past.

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      • You’ve landed on something by linking the issue of “bottom up” history to the problem of sources. One of the things that characterizes that approach, in fact, is a turn to different kinds of sources, and in particular sources that lend themselves to quantitative analysis (church records, town records, census data, etc.). We don’t get the literal voices of the poor, but we can find out much about their lives. And it’s an ongoing debate in the historical profession.

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  3. I didn’t listen to the podcast, but your breakdown of the argument made it very clear what the point of the podcast was. I just wanted to touch upon what you said about the letters being important from a history standpoint. As you said early on almost everything was communicated through letters so that is where history is embedded. But you also noted the fact that Conger was able to pick up on the emotions within the letters from Franklin. There is a difference between reading letters as substance, and reading them and being able to pick up all the feelings within them. Reading the Hancock letter at AAS was difficult, because it was a different form of English than we use now, so I can totally relate as to why someone like Conger and their work is important in gaining knowledge of history.

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