Yale Bulletin and Calendar

June 23, 2000Volume 28, Number 34

Claude-Ann Lopez has highlighted the human side of Benjamin Franklin by focusing her research on his personal life.

Editor Claude-Anne Lopez describes
her 'life with Benjamin Franklin'

Claude-Anne Lopez knows Benjamin Franklin intimately, having spent half a century getting to know the Founding Father, his friends, family and associates.

As an editor at Yale's Papers of Benjamin Franklin project, Lopez has shined a light on the historic figure's personal affairs through close interpretation of his correspondence. She describes her work in "My Life with Benjamin Franklin," a collection of essays released earlier this year by Yale University Press.

The volume opens with a chronology of Franklin's life and a personal essay that explains how Franklin became Lopez's "passport to America."

A refugee from Hitler's Europe, she settled in the United States and married a scholar who joined the Yale faculty soon after World War II. Lopez was originally hired by the Franklin Papers, a massive publishing project based in Sterling Memorial Library, to transcribe the handwritten letters to and from Franklin in French, using a trusty Olivetti typewriter that remains her instrument of choice. Now a senior research scholar in the Department of History, Lopez also teased out the human side of Franklin's life in three previous books: "Mon Cher Papa: Franklin and the Ladies of Paris," "The Private Franklin: The Man and his Family" (with Eugenia Herbert) and "Le Sceptre et la Foudre: Franklin en France (1776-1785)."

In "My Life with Benjamin Franklin," Lopez refutes a current Internet rumor that Franklin was an anti-Semite. Her other chapters touch on matters both light (swimming, matchmaking, choosing a dinner set) and serious (outfitting the Revolutionary army, espionage and slavery).

The final chapter describes an imaginary dinner party at which the guests reflect on their friend Franklin, a year after his death. "I loved writing it," says Lopez, "because it brought in so many people of the French Enlightenment that Franklin had known. ... Since I have all their letters to him, I could quote from them. I had them talk around the dinner table, but what I had them say is taken from their letters."

The Yale Bulletin & Calendar talked with Lopez recently about the multifaceted Franklin and her work on the Yale publishing project. The following is an edited version of that conversation.

In your book, Benjamin Franklin comes across as a living, breathing person -- someone that you knew personally. What do you think he was like?

After all the years of working with his papers and writing and giving talks about him, he came to be like an uncle to me. He was full of contradictions, which is what made him interesting. The general view is that he was benign, smart, a patriot, good to his fellow-man -- but there was another side to him. For instance, he was very harsh toward his son, William, governor of New Jersey. His son took the opposite side in the American Revolution. At the end of the Revolution, already an exile in London, William wrote to make peace, but Franklin wouldn't forgive him, and, as a matter of fact, disinherited him. His son didn't get one dollar. Franklin was often kinder to strangers than to his own family.

How did you first get involved with the Franklin papers?

I was in my early 30s. I had a son who was five or six and a new baby, also a boy. The honest truth is that I was looking for a part-time job that I could do, preferably at home, while keeping an eye on the children. That's exactly what this was. It was a job that I was delighted to get. And so, for my 65 cents an hour, which is what I was paid in those days, I transcribed from French, Italian and Latin.

At what point did you discover that you had a special understanding of Franklin?

It took a long time. First, I just transcribed letters and documents in French, my native language. I didn't know what anything was about, and I felt rather lost. Then I began to see that some people appeared regularly. So instead of going day by day, I thought: Why don't I take out the entire correspondence with one person? You transcribe better when you do it that way. I began to realize that the most interesting and lively letters were written to women. I decided to write my first book, "Mon Cher Papa: Franklin and the Ladies of Paris." After the book was done, I was invited to lectures and talk shows, and I realized there was tremendous interest in Franklin's family life. That's a topic nobody had addressed.

How did you begin exploring Franklin's private life?

When I first began to work on the Ben Franklin papers, I found that people had already written about Franklin and science, about diplomacy, about every facet of his life -- and I thought I would never be able to contribute anything.

But I noticed one day, that one episode in his life had been, to my mind, misinterpreted completely. After five years in London with his son, Franklin decided to go home to Philadelphia. He set out just two weeks before his son was about to get married in England. Why didn't he stay? I went to the editor-in-chief, who was a man, and said, "You know, something must have been going wrong, for him to leave at that time."

"Oh," said the editor. "His mission was accomplished. It was finished and he had nothing more to do."

"Yes," I said, "but his son was getting married!"

We clearly had an enormous gender gap between us.

A few weeks later, I happened to read a later document, a very, very sad letter Franklin wrote to the daughter of his landlady, Polly Stevenson, whom he liked very much. Franklin had hoped that this girl and his son would get married. I think the girl was ready to do it, but his son had fallen in love with somebody else. Franklin writes to Polly, "How terribly sad I feel. I wanted to call you by the name of 'child,' and I will always consider you my child." Obviously he was dissatisfied with his son's choice, and that's why he left England right before the wedding.

Discovering that letter gave me the idea that a woman would have a different outlook than a man reading the same material.

Later, when Franklin was on his second mission to England, he got to know the illegitimate baby that same son had left in England, a boy called Temple. Franklin saw a lot of that little boy and became very fond of him. But I noticed that in letters to his wife, Deborah, he never once mentioned Temple. He talked about little Nancy who was related to them, about the children of Polly -- by then she had children -- he talked about a lot of kids, but never about Temple. I thought: Am I dreaming this? I took all the letters a second time and read them carefully. Obviously, Franklin's wife Deborah died without knowing about the existence of Temple. Franklin had kept that to himself. Maybe he felt Deborah would react angrily.

Once again, this had not been noticed by any male editor. That's what gave me the confidence to tackle the topic of Franklin's private life and personality.

Franklin was away from home on diplomatic missions, once for five years, and once for 10 years. Did his wife Deborah ever travel with him?

She never moved from Philadelphia. In those days, travel was very hard for a woman. Conditions on ships were very austere. And she was afraid of the ocean. I think she also had the feeling that she would be out of place. In London, Franklin was going around in very high circles, and she had remained what she was -- a woman of the people, hard-working, good to her neighbors, warm hearted. She felt she wouldn't fit in, perhaps that he would even feel ashamed of her, so she decided to stay where she was. In fact, she died while he was away on his second mission. She did not see him for the last nine years of her life. He knew she was ill, that she had had a stroke or possibly several strokes, and he kept promising that he was going to come back, but he didn't. Not until after she died.

Franklin has a reputation as a ladies' man. Did he have a lot of love affairs?

I think we should distinguish between sex and love affairs. Sex is quite plausible, when you consider that he was a vigorous man, away from home for years at a time. But love affairs are another story. The best answer is that we have absolutely no proof of any. Certainly Franklin liked women. He knew how to flirt. He wrote lovely letters. But that doesn't mean he had affairs with all these women, as is often supposed. He did have one illegitimate son who was born before he was married, and Franklin raised him in his own house as one of the family. Apart from that, we don't know about any illegitimate children, about any liaisons once he married. Everybody in those days kept diaries and gossiped in them, and in all those French diaries, there isn't one mention of any kind of liaison that Franklin could have had. So there you are.

Why do people speculate so much about Franklin's sex life?

Because it makes him more human, closer to the rest of us. And then, of course, the rumor was propagated by his political enemy John Adams, who refers more than once to Franklin's love of women. Adams talks about it in a shocked way. But this was when Franklin was in his late 70s, so I think it was a tribute to his lasting power.

Setting aside his reputation as a ladies' man, what do you think Franklin would have wanted to be remembered for?

I think his favorite invention was his musical instrument, the glass [h]armonica. He was terribly proud of that. He delighted in it. He told people about it. He played it and wanted his daughter to learn to play on it. It was something that gave him great joy. I imagine that he would also want to be remembered for his invention of the lightning rod, which had such an impact in his day, and of what is currently known as "the Franklin stove," then called the Pennsylvania fireplace. Come to think of it, he also invented bifocals.

Was Franklin a religious man?

I suppose we could say he was a deist. He believed in some divinity that he called the Supreme Being, a term much used in his day. I think he was comfortable with God. He would have asked God, "How did you put electricity up there in the clouds?" He must have considered God a fellow scientist. For Franklin, religion didn't turn around prayer. He believed in the importance of good deeds. This provoked many a discussion between him and his sister, Jane. Jane was a true Puritan, the descendant of Puritans, and she felt that prayer was all-important. Franklin felt, no, be good to your fellow man.

Franklin liked to dispense wisdom and advice. What might he say to young people today?

First of all, he would advise them to get an education. He had such a hard time. He had to quit school when he was 10 years old, because his father couldn't afford to send him any longer. Everything Franklin knew he had taught himself, practically. He would push young people toward science. I think he would be fascinated by computers and would invent new software. He might give Bill Gates a run for his money. I imagine space exploration would excite him. He was thrilled by the first balloons -- he wrote about them and was really taken with them. He always was on the frontier of what was new. He wasn't afraid of novelty. He embraced it.


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