The Viral 18th-Century Mommy Letter Ghostwritten By Ben Franklin

By Debra Kelly on Wednesday, March 30, 2016
Ben_Franklin_sculpture_(University_of_Pennsylvania)
“I think opinions should be judged of by their influences and effects; and if a man holds none that tend to make him less virtuous or more vicious, it may be concluded that he holds none that are dangerous, which I hope is the case with me.” —Ben Franklin, writing to his father

In A Nutshell

In 1747, Polly Baker made an impassioned speech, pleading with the courts to not be held criminally responsible for bearing a child out of wedlock. It was only 30 years later that the truth about her came out: The speech that had moved so many people had been entirely made up by Benjamin Franklin. Franklin had his own illegitimate child, and although they had been close all through the boy’s youth, they eventually ended up on opposite sides of the American Revolution. A year before he died, the elder Franklin officially disinherited his only son.

The Whole Bushel

On April 15, 1747, London’s General Advertiser ran a transcript of a speech given by a Miss Polly Baker. It was pretty scandalous stuff for the time, and because scandal makes for the best reading, it went 18th-century viral. Within a week, a handful of other papers in London had run the story, too, and from there it went on to spread to several monthly magazines and then to Scotland, Ireland, and finally across the Atlantic.

By midsummer, it was running in papers from New York to Maryland, quite a long way for the words of one young mother to travel.

Polly Baker had found herself in front of the courts, the story goes, and she was on trial for having a child out of wedlock. And Polly makes it clear that this is the fifth time she’s been on trial for the same offense. The first two times, she was sentenced to pay a fine. The next two times, she was forced into public punishment because she couldn’t afford the fine, and this fifth time, she had something to say about the whole process.

The law was unreasonable, she proclaimed, and she had done nothing wrong. She had given birth to five children and worked hard to raise them all herself, never asking for any support from anyone else. She never broke up a marriage, disgraced anyone else’s husband, or corrupted a boy too young to know better. She was never anti-marriage and had accepted the one proposal that had been given to her. (It fell apart when he left her, already pregnant.)

She goes on to say that the idea that she alone is punished is pretty unfair, that the would-be husband who betrayed her got away with no punishments, while she paid for trusting the man she was going to marry. God, she says, clearly was all right with her having children without being married, because God created them, after all.

She says she deserves a public statue—for raising her children without a man and in the face of condemnation from the law—instead of a public whipping.

The story goes on to say that one of the judges was so moved by Polly’s speech that he proposed to her. And they might have lived happily ever after if any of it was real.

For 30 years, Polly Baker’s brave stand was considered to be factual. Until, that is, a discussion between Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane, and the Abbe Raynal revealed the truth: The whole thing had been made up by Franklin as a comment on how ludicrous the laws were. According to Franklin, he was a little short when it came to newspaper content one day, so he made up the story of Polly Baker’s impassioned plea.

And that plea—which actually moved many people to support changing the laws regarding unwed mothers and illegitimate children—was a bit biographical. Franklin himself had one child, who was the illegitimate child of his common-law wife, Deborah Read Franklin. It’s not a happy story, though.

As William went through all the best schools money could pay for, he ended up on the opposite side of the American Revolution as his father. Originally working side-by-side in the colonies, each Franklin gradually became more and more firmly entrenched in their opposite sides. They last saw each other in 1775. In 1789, the elder Franklin officially disowned his son and wrote him out of his will.

According to Franklin, his son had committed two unforgivable sins. The first was siding with the British, but the second was even worse—turning his back on his father.

Show Me The Proof

Featured image credit: Jeffrey M. Vinocur
National Archives: The Speech of Miss Polly Baker
American Philosophical Society: William Franklin Papers
“Benjamin Franklin, Patriot, and William Franklin, Loyalist,” by Sheila L. Skemp