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Benjamin Franklin on Sex, Marriage, & Family


Norman Rockwell, “The Marriage License,” 1955

3,006 words

“Keep your eyes wide open before marriage, half shut afterwards.” — Poor Richard’s Almanac (June 1738)

Benjamin Franklin had a remarkable mind, perhaps the most powerful among the founding fathers. Reading his papers, and accounts of his life, quickly persuades one that his IQ was very high.

I checked some websites on the Internet, and found estimates ranging from 160 to 175. Unfortunately, none of the sites adequately established the basis for their famous-people IQ estimates, or otherwise cited sources or described the methodologies used to calculate their numbers.

It is instructive in our confused age to examine Franklin’s own background and family life, and revisit what he had to say about sex, marriage, and family, because together these practices and institutions form the taproot of race. If whites are to survive and prosper, many essentials need to be rediscovered.

Franklin was writing within the framework of a white society and people that no longer exist. Today, normal sexual and family relationships have been completely disrupted and overturned.

So, although Franklin’s views aren’t always directly applicable to present-day problems, they at least provide a framework for reference.

Franklin‘s Roots

Franklin’s father, Josiah Franklin, an English-born immigrant, was a soap and candle maker.

Like his famous son he lived to a ripe old age, and was still intellectually acute at 86, writing letters to Franklins in England and elsewhere in an attempt to trace lost relatives, having left home 60 years before.

Son Benjamin likewise displayed an interest in genealogy at a time when the study of family history, or at least ordinary family history, was virtually unknown.

While living in England he visited his ancestral home at Ecton in Northamptonshire [2], where the modest family freehold—30 acres and a blacksmith shop—had passed from father to oldest son for generations. There he sought out and became acquainted with his still-living relatives.

The family land had by that time been joined to another farm, and the house, a decayed old stone building known as Franklin House, was being used as a school.

The rector showed Franklin the parish registers listing the births, marriages, and deaths of his ancestors 200 years into the past—to the time when the registers first began. (In rural Norway, too, parish registers of the same type appear in the late 1500s to early 1600s, and provide the basis for Norwegian genealogical study.)

Franklin and his son William were also shown the family gravestones in the churchyard, so overgrown with moss that they could not be read until they had been scoured clean with water and a brush. William wrote the names down for his father.

Josiah Franklin, born in 1658 (Benjamin never knew the exact year of his father’s birth, or the date of his arrival in America [October 1683]) had 17 children by two wives. He married his first wife, Anne Child, in England while still very young and had a daughter when he was barely 20. Two more children were born in England.

At 25 Josiah migrated with his family to Boston, where he had four more children, two of whom died in infancy. His first wife died at age 34 while giving birth to their 7th child in 1689.

Before the end of that year, Josiah, 31, married Abiah Folger, 22, the daughter of a Nantucket miller and teacher. Josiah had 10 more children with Abiah. The family attended Old South Church [3] in Boston, a Puritan (Congregationalist) church.

By the time the last child was born, the oldest children from the first marriage had grown up and left home. Still, Benjamin remembered 13 children sitting around the family table.

Josiah made a comfortable middle-class living, and his children also did well. When Benjamin was a boy, Josiah took him to tradesman in a methodical effort to identify an occupation that might interest him and to which he could become apprenticed. Josiah no doubt did the same for his other sons, and evaluated suitable marriage partners for his daughters.

Benjamin, the 15th child, maintained a close relationship with his parents and siblings as long as they lived. When the oldest of the siblings, Benjamin’s half-sister Elizabeth (Franklin) Dowse, was 80, he corresponded with his youngest sister, Jane, about whether she should be permitted to continue living in her own home. They agreed that she should. Franklin wrote,

As having their own way is one of the greatest comforts of life to old people, I think their friends should endeavour to accommodate them in that as well as in anything else. When they have lived long in a house it becomes natural to them; they are almost as closely connected with it as a tortoise with its shell; old folks and old trees, if you remove them, it is ten to one that you kill them.

Own Family & Relationships

As a young man, Franklin engaged in premarital sex.

His oldest son, William Franklin, later the royal Governor of New Jersey and a leading Loyalist, was born out of wedlock when Franklin was about 22 to 24 years old, shortly before his marriage to Deborah (née Read) Rogers.

At age 24 Franklin entered into a common law marriage with Deborah because it was unclear whether her absconded first husband, Rogers, was dead. Franklin had first proposed to her when she was 15 years old and he was 17. But the girl’s mother had vetoed the marriage proposal.

Nowhere in his Autobiography or surviving papers does Franklin reveal who William’s mother was. It seems probable, however, that she was a “low woman.”

Franklin doted on William, and was proud of his accomplishments—until the Revolution caused a rift between the two men that, despite his son’s later attempts to reconcile, Benjamin refused to bridge.

Franklin and Deborah raised William, who told people that Deborah was his mother. However, there was coldness between the two.

An English clerk who worked for Franklin in Philadelphia discovered that Deborah was jealous of William, who she thought her husband preferred to her and their daughter Sally (Sarah), though the clerk saw no evidence of it. He wrote in his diary:

I have often seen [William] pass to and from his father’s apartment upon business (for he does not eat, drink, or sleep in the house) without the least compliment between Mrs. Franklin and him or any sort of notice taken of each other, till one day, as I was sitting with her in the passage when the young gentleman came by, she exclaimed to me (he not hearing): “Mr. Fisher, there goes the greatest villain upon earth!” This greatly confounded and perplexed me, but did not hinder her from pursuing her invectives in the foulest terms I ever heard from a gentlewoman.

Marriage is not perfect, and inevitably involves numerous tensions and problems.

William Franklin likewise had a son out of wedlock—Benjamin’s grandson, William Temple Franklin. Benjamin serenely accepted the birth of Temple and eventually took him into his own household.

Temple later had two illegitimate children of his own. Is such behavior hereditary?

Prior to marrying Deborah Franklin had courted another young woman: “The old folks encouraged me by continual invitations to supper, and by leaving us together,” he wrote in his Autobiography.

When it came time to propose, Franklin informed the girl’s parents “that I expected as much money with their daughter as would pay off my remaining debt for the printing-house.” They replied that they did not have such money. “I said they might mortgage their house in the loan office.” The parents withdrew the proposal. “I declared absolutely my resolution to have nothing more to do with that family.”

True love was not the foundation for that proposed match.

Franklin also sired a legitimate son, Francis, who died in childhood, and a daughter, Sarah.

Benjamin Franklin’s marriage was loving and happy, although he was away from his wife for years at a time—including the last ten years of her life, when he was in England. She refused to cross the ocean, despite his desire that she join him.

Historian Edmund S. Morgan said that Benjamin and Deborah regularly exchanged affectionate letters, and were very close, but “we will never know whether he remained sexually faithful during his long absences.”

Franklin maintained warm, close, and flirtatious relationships with many women into his old age, including young and attractive ones. However, there is no strong evidence that they were sexual in nature.

He wrote of his wife that he hoped “she will live these hundred years; for we are grown old together, and if she has any faults I am so used to ’em that I don’t perceive ’em. Indeed, I begin to think she has none.”

On Being Single

Franklin frequently went out of his way to prod young people, both male and female, to marry and have children.

For example, he told his English landlady’s 21-year-old daughter, who insisted she would remain single: “I fancy when I have fully established my authority as a tutor I shall take upon me to lecture you a little on that chapter of duty.” (The girl did marry and have children.)

This is the advice he gave to another single woman:

Let me give you some fatherly advice. Be a good girl and don’t forget your catechism. Go constantly to meeting—or church—till you get a good husband; then stay at home, and nurse the children, and live like a Christian. Spend your spare hours in sober whist, prayers, or learning to cipher. You must practice addition to your husband’s estate, by industry and frugality; subtraction of all unnecessary expenses; multiplication [having children] . . . As to division, I say with Brother Paul, “Let there be no division among ye.”

He hoped that when he saw her again, “I may find you like my grapevine, surrounded with clusters, plump, juicy, blushing, pretty little rogues, like their mamma.”

Of London, England he said:

You cannot conceive how shamefully the mode here is a single life. One can scarce be in the company of a dozen men of circumstance and fortune but what it is odds you find on inquiry eleven of them are single. The great complaint is the excessive expensiveness of English wives.


Prior to Franklin’s marriage at the age of 24, according to biographer Carl Van Doren, sex was “the chief impulse he could or did not regulate. . . . Franklin was not then a gallant and he seems not to have fallen in love. He went to women hungrily, secretly, and briefly.”

In his Autobiography Franklin spoke of “this dangerous time of youth” and “the hazardous situations I was sometimes in among strangers”: “That hard-to-be-governed passion of youth hurried me frequently into intrigues with low women that fell in my way, which were attended with some expense and great inconvenience, besides a continual risk to my health by a distemper [venereal disease] which of all things I dreaded, though by great good luck I escaped it.”

In Advice to a Young Man on the Choice of a Mistress [4] (1745), the 39-year-old Franklin, after counseling his correspondent to marry and settle down rather than acquire a mistress, provided eight counterintuitive reasons why the young man should, if still determined to do so, select an older rather than a younger woman. One of them was that “There is no hazard of children”—so he must have had post-menopausal women in mind.

Several of his other reasons illustrate that times have changed.

On Marriage

In Advice to a Young Man Franklin also reiterated his oft-expressed view that being “married and settled” was the “proper remedy” for “the violent natural inclinations” (sexual desire).

Marriage “is the most natural state of man, and therefore the state in which you are most likely to find solid happiness”:

It is the man and woman united that make the complete human being. Separate, she wants his force of body and strength of reason; he, her softness, sensibility and acute discernment. Together they are more likely to succeed in the world. A single man has not nearly the value he would have in that state of union. He is an incomplete animal. He resembles the odd half of a pair of scissors. If you get a prudent healthy wife, your industry in your profession, with her good economy, will be a fortune sufficient.

He commented at least once on arranged marriages.

During the French and Indian War, Franklin had an opportunity to study the customs of a Moravian community, later noting in his Autobiography that Moravian marriages were occasionally determined by lot:

I objected, if the matches were not made by the mutual choice of the parties, some of them may chance to be very unhappy. “And so they may,” answered my informer, “if you let the parties choose for themselves”: which, indeed, I could not deny.

As far as I can tell, Franklin did not provide much guidance about how to evaluate the character, personality, or long-term compatibility of a prospective mate, although he did say that “friendship” (suggestive of some type of personal compatibility distinct from sex) was the only sound basis for marriage.

Unfortunately, the supply of unsavory or intolerable men and women, and of unhappy marriages, has always been high.

Illustrative of the potential pitfalls, Franklin described the following appalling conversation he had with an 11-year-old girl, Catherine “Kitty” Shipley, during a carriage ride in England. He wrote about it in a letter to her mother, so he was not criticizing the upper-class child, who was the daughter of one of Franklin’s close friends, an Anglican bishop.

First, the girl selected prospective husbands for her sisters: a country gentleman for one, a rich city merchant for another, a duke for the next, and an earl for the last.

It is easy to see the track her young mind, whether due to nature or nurture, was working along.

Franklin suggested that she herself might choose a soldier, perhaps a general. Not unless he was very old, she insisted.

“I like an old man, indeed I do, and somehow or other all the old men take to me; all that come to our house like me better than my sisters. I go to ’em and ask ’em how they do, and they like it mightily.”

Franklin: “But then, as you like an old general, hadn’t you better take him while he’s a young officer, and let him grow old upon your hands, because then you’ll like him better and better every year as he grows older and older?”

Kitty: “No, that won’t do. He must be an old man of seventy or eighty, and take me when I am about thirty. And then, you know, I may be a rich young widow.”

Many things have changed since Franklin’s day; others haven’t.

In a case where Franklin did object to a particular relationship, his reason was based upon ethnicity, not character.

When a young Anglo-American woman was being courted by a Spanish beau, Franklin at her request translated one of her suitor’s letters into English, taking the opportunity to gently dissuade the girl from pursing the relationship: “I honour that honest Spaniard for loving you. It showed the goodness of his taste and judgment. But you must forget him, and bless some worthy young Englishman.”

Franklin somehow instinctively grasped the principle that like should marry—and engender—like.


The key role of marriage in population dynamics recurs again and again throughout Franklin’s major paper on demography [5].

Franklin was mathematically minded, and associated marriage and procreation with population growth (or decline). His concept of population was dynamic, both in terms of absolute growth, stasis, or decline of a single population over time, or of changes in different populations relative to one another.

Before the Revolution Franklin was an English patriot, and desired the expansion of the English population in North America.

“People increase in proportion to the number of marriages,” he wrote, “and that is greater in proportion to the ease and convenience of supporting a family. When families can be easily supported, more persons marry, and earlier in life.”

Marriages in America are more general, and more generally early, than in Europe. And if it is reckoned there, that there is but one marriage per annum among 100 persons, perhaps we may here reckon two; and if in Europe they have but 4 births to a marriage (many of their marriages being late) we may here reckon 8, of which if one half grow up, and our marriages are made, reckoning one with another 20 years of age, our people must at least be doubled every 20 years.

Franklin called laws generative if they encouraged rather than discouraged family formation and population growth. For example: “by increasing subsistence [the ability to financially support a family] they encourage marriage. Such laws likewise strengthen a country, doubly, by increasing its own people and diminishing its neighbours.”

A striking philosophical formulation appeared in Franklin’s Plan for Settling Two Western Colonies in North America (1754), in which he condemned the French for setting “the Indians on to harass our frontiers, [and] kill and scalp our people.” By thus cutting down subsistence for the English, they “discourage our marriages and keep our people from increasing; thus (if the expression may be allowed) killing thousands of our children before they are born.” (Emphasis added.)

A similar thought occurred in The Speech of Polly Baker (1747), in which Franklin defended against public denunciation and prosecution a fictional floozy who gave birth to 5 children out of wedlock.

Noting that “The duty of the first and great command of nature and nature’s God [is] increase and multiply,” he condemned “the great and growing number of bachelors” who “by their manner of living leave unproduced (which is little better than murder) hundreds of their posterity to the thousandth generation.”  (Emphasis added.)

Applying Franklin’s reasoning to white populations today, it might be said that policies like replacement migration, abortion, contraception, feminism, sex as entertainment, the promotion of miscegenation, and net transfer payments  from whites to nonwhites (if that is what is occurring) kill thousands—indeed, millions—of white children before they are born.

“What maintains one vice would bring up two children.” Poor Richard’s Almanac (1747)