Benjamin Franklin's Forgotten Sister

Benjamin Franklin is one of our best-known and most beloved founders. His sister, not so much.

As historian Jill Lepore observes in the New York Times, by looking at the divergent paths of these two siblings, we can learn a lot about history, about gender disparity, and about luck. The two had a similarly modest background, but he, alone, transcended it.

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 and 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 and full of sorrow. "Nothing but troble can you her from me," she warned. It's extraordinary that she could write at all.

Her life was beset with her family's mental illness and a constant battle against poverty. But she, too, had the itch to write — or at least, document; like her famous brother, she wrote a sort of autobiography.

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It begins: "Josiah Mecom their first Born on Wednesday June the 4: 1729 and 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 and 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.

Lepore uses the story of Jane to make an interesting argument about the current invocation of Founding Fathers to justify political movements — and points up the inherent complexity and irony of this. But the story does more, even, than that: as she points out, the Poor Law educated Ben Franklin and not his sister. It's a fine line between greatness and obscurity, and often that line is education.

Poor Jane's Almanac [NY Times]