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Myth: Benjamin Franklin had thirteen to eighty illegitimate children!

This myth has been around for a long while, and is even, apparently, perpetuated by tour guides in Philadelphia. In my experience as a professor lecturing students, the image of the balding, portly Franklin as the consummate ladies man incites giggles from women and shocked astonishment from men. Those reactions are justified because the image is based on a myth, or at least an enormous exaggeration.


Franklin never married in a religious ceremony, and this fact might have contributed to the myth that he fathered numerous illegitimate children. Franklin courted young Deborah Reed of Philadelphia when he was only seventeen. Because Franklin was being sent to London by the Pennsylvania governor’s request and would not be back for some time, Reed’s mother refused to allow her daughter to marry. Reed married John Rogers, a notorious debtor who soon fled to Barbados to avoid possible incarceration. Franklin, meanwhile, had returned to Philadelphia and fathered an illegitimate son named William, but was also eager to rekindle the relationship with his lost love, Deborah. Reed never obtained a legal divorce from her husband, and John Rogers was never heard from again. Therefore, without a divorce or a death certificate, Franklin and Reed were forced to marry through a common-law union in 1730.

Shortly thereafter, Deborah Reed took the infant William Franklin (who had been born earlier that year) into her home. It has been speculated that William Franklin’s mother was a servant in the Franklin household. This might help explain the apparently strained relationship between Deborah and William. Some historians have claimed that Franklin fathered another illegitimate child, a girl, who later married John Fox croft of Philadelphia. Details of this child are difficult to find, and it might be nothing more than speculation or hearsay, but it also could have fueled the wild imaginations of Franklin detractors. Benjamin and Deborah Franklin did have two children together, a son named Francis Folger who died of smallpox at the age of four, and a daughter, Sarah, who married Franklin’s successor to the office of postmaster general, Richard Bache.

Deborah Franklin died in 1774 when Benjamin Franklin was approaching seventy. This is when the story becomes more interesting and possibly salacious. Franklin was a man of fine taste who loved European court life, particularly in France. Franklin drew considerable attention from French women, and he, in turn, enjoyed their company. He was sent to France in 1776 to act as a special envoy on behalf of the American cause of independence. While in Paris, he became close with Anne-Catherine de Ligniville, the widow of the French philosopher Helvetius. Franklin apparently proposed marriage, but she declined in deference to her deceased husband. Franklin and Madame Helvetius were both in advanced age, and it would be highly unlikely that she could have produced children even if they sustained an intimate relationship. She did organize one of the more popular salons in France and enjoyed the company of many notable men and, of course, many ladies of society, women. Franklin frequently charmed.

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June 12, 2024 <https://www.historyonthenet.com/fact-check-benjamin-franklin-had-dozens-of-illegitimate-children>
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