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July 18, 2022

The Unusual Codicil in Benjamin Franklin's Will

When Benjamin Franklin died in April 1790, his last will contained an unusual codicil, leaving 1000 pounds sterling each to Philadelphia and Boston, to be used in a very specific way that he hoped would both help tradesmen in the two cities and eventually leave the cities, and their respective states, with fortunes to spend on public works 200 years later. At a moment when it wasn’t clear whether the United States would survive at all, Franklin made a gamble on the American spirit.

To learn more about the fascinating tale of Ben Franklin’s will, I’m joined by Michael Meyer, Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, and author of Benjamin Franklin's Last Bet: The Favorite Founder's Divisive Death, Enduring Afterlife, and Blueprint for American Prosperity.

Our theme song is Frogs Legs Rag, composed by James Scott and performed by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons. The episode image is a painting of Benjamin Franklin, by Joseph-Siffred Duplessis. It is available in the Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.


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Kelly Therese Pollock  0:00  
This is Unsung History, the podcast where we discuss people and events in American history that haven't always received a lot of attention. I'm your host, Kelly Therese Pollock. I'll start each episode with a brief introduction to the topic, and then talk to someone who knows a lot more than I do. Be sure to subscribe to Unsung History on your favorite podcasting app, so you never miss an episode. And please, tell your friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, maybe even strangers to listen too.

Today's episode is about Benjamin Franklin, but since Franklin is hardly unsung, it's really about what happened after Franklin died. To set the stage for that though, let's talk briefly about Franklin's early life. Benjamin Franklin was born on Milk Street in Boston on January 17, 1706. He was the 15th of 17 children for Josiah Franklin, a candle and soap maker who emigrated from England. Ben's mother, Josiah's second wife, Abiah Folger, was born in Nantucket, and descended from reformist Flemish Protestants, who fled to Massachusetts in search of religious freedom. Benjamin attended school for only a couple of years, and at age 10, he started working at his father's candle shop, reading in his spare time. At age 12, he became an apprentice to his older brother James, who taught him the printing trade. A few years later, James founded one of the first American newspapers, the New England Current, which Ben secretly wrote for, under the pseudonym of middle-aged widow, Silence Dogood. James was not happy when he discovered the ruse despite the popularity of the columns. In 1723, when Franklin was 17 years old, he ran away from Boston, and from his brother, becoming a fugitive in Philadelphia, where he found work as a printer, and lodging with John Read, father of Deborah Read, who would later become Franklin's wife. Franklin first proposed to Deborah when he was just 17 and she 15, but her mother rejected the proposal. In 1725, Deborah married a man named John Rodgers, but Rodgers took her dowry and fled to Barbados to avoid his debts. With his fate unknown, Deborah wasn't legally able to remarry, but in 1730, she and Franklin entered into a common law marriage that lasted until her death in 1774. In 1728, when he was 22 years old, Franklin set up a printing shop in partnership with Hugh Meredith, who had been his coworker at another print shop. Meredith's father lent them the money to get started, and Franklin never forgot the importance of that loan. The rest of Franklin's life is probably familiar to you. Among other things, he published the Pennsylvania Gazette and later Poor Richard's Almanac, in addition to printing money for Pennsylvania and New Jersey. He invented the Franklin stove and bifocals, and conducted important research in electricity. He founded Pennsylvania Hospital, the Library Company of Philadelphia, and the University of Pennsylvania. And he served as Postmaster of Philadelphia, Ambassador to France, President of Pennsylvania, and of course, a founding father of the United States. On April 17, 1790, Benjamin Franklin died at home in Philadelphia, at age 84. He was buried in Christ Church Cemetery in Philadelphia, next to Deborah, and their gravestone reads simply, "Benjamin and Deborah Franklin." Each year, tens of thousands of people throw pennies on the gravestone in honor of Franklin's adage, "A penny saved is a penny earned." Unfortunately, this practice is costly as the impact of all those pennies cracked the marble of the gravestone, necessitating expensive repair work. Shortly before Franklin died, he added an unusual codicil to His will. In it, he left 1000 pounds sterling to the city of Boston, and 1000 pounds sterling to the city of Philadelphia. The dollar didn't become the national currency in the United States until two years after Benjamin Franklin's death.

The amount he chose was the amount he had earned as President of Pennsylvania. Franklin wrote, "It having long been a fixed political opinion of mine that in a democratical state, there ought to be no offices of profit, it was my intention when I accepted the office of president to devote the appointed salary to some public uses." But he didn't intend just any public use. Instead, he left very clear instructions for these funds. Remembering the loan that he'd received to start his first print shop, Franklin said that for the first 100 years after his death, each of the 1000 pounds sterling should be used to fund loans for young tradesmen. The idea was that the loans no less than 15 pounds, and no more than 60 pounds per person, be lent at 5% interest per annum, to "young married artificers under the age of 25 years, as have served an apprenticeship in the said town and faithfully fulfilled the duties required in their indentures so as to obtain a good moral character from at least two respectable citizens." As each borrower repaid the loan with interest, it would then be reloaned to another tradesmen. Franklin predicted that at the end of 100 years, each city would have 131,000 pounds available, of which they should use 100,000 pounds for public works, and keep loaning the remaining 31,000 pounds. Franklin of course had suggestions for what these public works might be. At the end of the second 100 years, Franklin expected each fund to total 4,061,000 pounds, which would be split between city and state for public use, with the state getting the larger portion. Franklin understood that this was a risky bet. And he noted in his will, "Considering the accidents to which all human affairs and projects are subject in such a length of time, I have perhaps too much flattered myself with vain fancy that these dispositions, if carried into execution, will be continued without interruption and have the effects proposed. I hope perhaps, that if the inhabitants of the two cities should not think fit to undertake the execution, they will at least accept the offer of these donations, as a mark of my goodwill, a token of my gratitude, and a testimony of my earnest desire to be useful to them after my departure." The funds were indeed loaned out as Franklin requested, although they were not always repaid in full, and the pace wasn't as quick as would have been needed to match Franklin's optimistic calculations. Franklin set aside no money for the administration of the trusts, instead expecting that in Boston, it,"shall be managed under the direction of the Selectmen, united with the ministers of the old Episcopalian, Congregational and Presbyterian churches in that town."  And as for Philadelphia, "As Philadelphia is incorporated, I request the corporation of that city to undertake the management agreeably to the said directions." It was never quite that simple. In addition, although apprenticeships were common in Franklin's day, they became less common as the 200 years progressed. And over time, trustees of the funds had to change the eligibility requirements to match the needs of the time. After 100 years, Philadelphia used its available funds to open a museum named the Franklin Institute. In Boston, which had more funds available because of a different management style, arguments ensued over the best use of the funds. But finally, they opened a trade school, the Franklin Union, which was later renamed the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology, supplemented by funds donated for the purpose by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.

At the end of the second 100 years, Philadelphia chose to fund grants for high school students interested in the trades, and Pennsylvania gave its funds to the Franklin Institute. The funds available to both Boston and Massachusetts were awarded after a lengthy court battle to the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology. Joining me now to help us dig in to the fascinating story of Benjamin Franklin's will is Michael Meyer, a professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, and author of the 2022 book, "Benjamin Franklin's Last Bet: the Favorite Founder's Divisive Death, Enduring Afterlife, and Blueprint for American Prosperity." Hi, Michael, thank you so much for joining me.

Michael Meyer  11:29  
It's an honor to be here, Kelly. Thanks for having me.

Kelly Therese Pollock  11:32  
Yeah. So you know, since I do Unsung History, hadn't done anything yet on Ben Franklin, but this isn't really totally about Ben Franklin. It's about this whole other forgotten story that happens after he dies. So I'm delighted to be able to talk about this with you and we'll get some Ben Franklin stuff in there, too. So I guess the first question is just, you know, your your previous books are about China. You know, how did you get onto this topic of tracing Ben Franklin and his will and his legacy?

Michael Meyer  12:03  
Total carelessness. Just pure accident. Because I think like you, if you said the name Ben Franklin, I probably thought like, "Oh, yeah, I know that guy. I get it. Right. There's the kite and there's the face on the $100 bill. And there's the sort of gnomic American Yoda-esque, you know, sayings that we've all heard." And I'd probably never really thought much more beyond that. And I was one of the first Peace Corps volunteers to China. And unbeknownst to me, Franklin was fascinated by China. He, he scored the margins of a traveler's account to China with calculating costs of what it would take for him to get there. He sent North America's first recorded description of a bean curd, bean curd-like cheese, which he called tofu. And I, you know, came back from China after many years living there having been sent there as a Peace Corps volunteer, and I got invited to a State Department luncheon for then-Chinese President Hu Jintao. And I walked into the State Department and immediately felt completely out of place, completely embarrassed. It's these gorgeous diplomatic reception rooms, you know, Chippendale sofas and Paul Revere silver, and I sidled out of a room, I was like, "Okay, well, there's Colin Powell and Barbra Streisand and Yo-Yo, Ma, and I don't belong here." So I went into a side adjoining room, and I kind of exhaled and put my hand on a piece of furniture. And from behind me, a voice said, "Please don't touch that." And I flinched and said, "I'm sorry, is it old?" And he said, "That's the table where Benjamin Franklin signed the Treaty of Paris." And this was a Marine guard standing there. And my first thought was, "I don't remember that Benjamin signed the Treaty of Paris." And my next thought really was, "What's the Treaty of Paris?" And so this Marine guard and I started talking about Franklin, he was really enthusiastic about Franklin and I spent the rest of this luncheon feeling really stupid thinking I know a lot about Chinese dynasties. And I know a lot about Chinese geography and history. But I don't know the foundations of my own country. And so later that day, as one does, I started googling. And that led me to read Franklin's last will and testament and I was shocked, gobsmacked that I didn't know A.) that you know how amazing this last will and testament is because it's really a story in and of itself, which is why we have a book, but B.) that I think the image I had of Franklin in my head was completely wrong.

Kelly Therese Pollock  14:18  
So you read the will and it is this remarkable document. How did you even figure out sort of where to go from there, because you end up sort of searching all over the place for documents and things? You know, what, how did you even start this this journey of figuring out you know what this legacy was?

Michael Meyer  14:38  
So just some backstory for listeners, you know, Franklin, I didn't realize that when Franklin died, he wasn't a very popular person. There was no state funeral, for example. That didn't happen until George Washington's funeral nine years later. Congress was divided on even whether to wear badges of mourning, a black armband on their arms, to remember Franklin. The House of Representatives said they would do it. The Senate, presided over by John Adams, said, "No way, we're not doing it." Franklin's American eulogy was not given till nearly 11 months after his passing, and only then by his mortal enemy, a man who loathed Franklin. And so once those pieces started falling into place, and that okay, there's a story here because not only is is, you know, is his death different than what I thought it would have been. Not only is his family incredibly fractured and he's making sure that they know that he's settling these scores, you know, after he dies because his bequest to each of his family members also came with a rebuke or a moral attached to them. And then at the end of all this, you know, he adds this amazing codicil to his will where he says, "I'm going to put a bet for the next 200 years that I can stake working class trades people to start their own businesses and get them involved in politics." So to go back to your question, you know, where did I start? I started with his letters. There's an amazing repository of digitized letters. 8000 pieces of correspondence survived between Franklin and his family and his colleagues. And you know, through those letters, I started getting really, really attracted to Deborah, his wife. I started thinking, "Here's someone that needs more ink," you know, and oftentimes, in when you read these massive Franklin biographies, she's sort of assigned a walk-on role in this blockbuster production that's his life. And sort of thinking, okay, this is interesting. You know, Franklin is often depicted as a self-made man. He was anything but self made. And his wife, Deborah certainly played a role in that. So you know, I started with his letters, digitized letters, and then went on to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, which is this, the library that Franklin had founded in the 1740s. They have a lot of his papers, and the wills and bequests of his own heirs and what they did with things. I ended up at the Library of Congress in DC. I didn't realize that Franklin's bust crowns the entrance, the central entrance, when you walk into the Library of Congress, the Boston city archives, the Philadelphia city archives. I went to London and north to Franklin's ancestral village. I mean, this was a 10-year journey from that State Department luncheon to publication, really picking up these popcorn pieces, you know, following the trail.

Kelly Therese Pollock  17:09  
Yeah, yeah. It's remarkable. And so I wanted to ask to a little bit about your, your writing style in constructing this because, you know, it is sort of a chronological progression. But there's a fair amount for lots of really super interesting reasons, there's a, you know, a fair amount of sort of side journeys along the way, and a lot of Franklin quotes.

Michael Meyer  17:33  
Yeah, I wanted to make him alive. Exactly. Right. There's a lot of digressions and I try to stay on topic, because I'm trying to make those you know, it's funny, every time I would say something, when I started writing about like, well, when the 1800s, you know, a group of people that were managing Franklin's loan scheme decided it would be better to invest the money. And all of a sudden, you realize, like, this was brand new, you know, there was no such thing as a mutual fund or an investment bank until this era, the 1820s and 1830s. And the people who are starting those institutions, those things that we take for granted now, were very much cut from Franklinian cloth, and a lot of them had close connections to Franklin. And it was fascinating to me, you know, not only to write a book about Franklin's vision, and you know, all the founders wrestled with the question of what does America mean, and here's this guy that's deciding, I want to continue this conversation from beyond the grave. But as you know, as that money and as his will, is being enacted over the next 20 years, 40 years, 60 years, 80 years, you're also seeing the definition of America change. And you're also starting to see more voices come into the picture, right? There are many foundings of the United States of America. And so Franklin's codicil, you know, he had these restrictions on who could use the money. But then as America progresses and changes, you know, the those restrictions are loosened. And women are allowed to borrow the money and the definition of what a trades person is allowed to borrow the money starts changing as well. And so I felt it's important, like my, my ideal reader in mind, is a person she's running through the airport to catch a plane. It's a long flight. She sees something at the bookshelf, you know, at the airport, I'm sure we've all been there before the books, airport bookstore, that titles that are facing out, and she thinks I need something smart that's going to get me through a four hour flight. This looks perfect, right. So that really is my ideal reader. And I think like I want to just hold your attention through storytelling from the get go. But I want you to feel smarter on every page, because you're not just learning about the path of Franklin's money. But you're learning about the evolution of the United States and finance and philanthropy as you read this as well. I hope the digressions to you weren't too many.

Kelly Therese Pollock  19:39  
No, no, they were wonderful. I love them. And I think the other thing I learned a lot about was Boston and Philadelphia and sort of the different characters that those cities had and then continued to have along the way. What is that something you sort of knew going in? Is that something you learned along the way as you were writing this?

Michael Meyer  20:04  
This is one of the smartest questions I've been asked so far. Thank you for pointing this out. Because I really did. I felt like I needed an antagonist. Every book needs an antagonist, right? You have to have an obstacle for your main character to overcome to hold readers interest. And in this case, I mean, there's the people who were managing his money in both cities. But you're right, I wanted I realized, like Boston and Philadelphia are characters in and of themselves. And they are antagonists in many ways to what Franklin is trying to achieve with this vision. And he knew this, you know. He was born in Boston, apprenticed as a printer in Boston, runs away from his indenture to Philadelphia, and then makes his fortune in Philadelphia. And in the will, he seemed to, you know, realize those cities still would have a rivalry going forward, because he says, "If one of these cities doesn't accept my my 1000 pounds, that I'm putting in this pot to loan to tradespeople, the other city gets all of it." And so right from the get go, there was this like impetus from Franklin of saying, "Okay, Boston and Philly, go for it, you know, let's see what you each do with this money and how you choose to manage it." And you're right, they're so different. I mean, Boston is largely homogenous, it's the center of religion and academies, you know, of higher learning. Philadelphia, at that time was the largest port in North America. It's very diverse. And it's the center of business, of finance, and of publishing. And, you know, as you know, from reading the book, and readers are going to find out that the money that Franklin left to two very different paths in Boston and Philadelphia, and although they kept looking over each other's shoulder, like who's doing better, who's earning more, who's doing better with the money? You know, in the end, I have to say, I was surprised that who I thought was the winner, because I think one city did a better, much better job of trying to adhere to Franklin's vision, even though the other city ends up with a lot more money in the pot at the end.

Kelly Therese Pollock  21:54  
Yeah. So you, you say several times in the book that each generation discovers Ben Franklin again, for themselves. So I wonder, you know, sort of at as you were reading, that's obviously the case, and you know, just had a big documentary come out, like the next generation now is is discovering Ben Franklin again. Why, what do you think it is about Franklin or about the way Franklin shaped his own legacy or whatever, that that makes that the case that people keep rediscovering him that he was unpopular when he died, and then obviously is wildly popular now?

Michael Meyer  22:30  
Yeah, I, you know, I thought of this is sort of like, I just saw I, you probably know this story, but I was reading about how the Mona Lisa wasn't considered a masterpiece until it was stolen in the early 20th century. And then the clamor went out, you know, and it struck me that Franklin really is like a piece of art, like the art doesn't change. But as every generation looks at it, their perspective on that art changes, and you see things that are amazing about it, and you see things that are flawed about it. Franklin, when he died, you know, was was seen as sort of a traitor to the constitutional cause, because even though he owned slaves and benefited from publishing notices in newspapers for runaway slaves throughout his life, you know, at the end of his life, he has this big conversion and becomes president of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery, presents the first petition to Congress to abolish the slave trade, and is, you know, excoriated by southern and northern congresspeople alike saying, "You know, you just went through the Constitutional Convention, claiming states rights, etc, etc. And now you're betraying  this this cause." The Federalists were in ascendance when he died. You know, he was seen as someone who argued for a unicameral legislature, he believe strongly in direct democracy. Pennsylvania's constitution that he drafted had a unicameral body. He was seen when he died as someone supporting the French over the British, you know, the Federalists were very much in favor of returning close ties to Great Britain. And the French Revolution is ongoing too, understand, look, this is Franklin's mobs, this is Franklin's masses here. So when he dies, he is he's not revered. And then these changes start to occur in the 19th century, where people started looking back at him and saying, "Wow, you know, he foresook  all claims on his inventions." You know, now we'd say he's the father of the open source movement, because he could have had exclusive commercial licenses for his inventions. Here we are in the Industrial Revolution, look at how much we're benefiting from Franklin's technology. And he was selfless about this, right? So as the rise of monopolies and trade and trusts are happening, he's revered for that. And then, you know, we go through these stages with him where people revere his statesmanship, his diplomacy, they revere his science experiments. When we get into the Great Depression era, people are discovering him as this master of thrift, you know, and all of a sudden he becomes this sort of this badge or for conservatism which is odd because he has an illegitimate son and never, you know, proclaimed that he was a Christian. He was a deist, like a lot of Enlightenment thinkers. But he came to symbolize something very different all of a sudden in the Depression, and then the last generation looks at him as a symbol of sort of lost opportunities. You know, here you are in the new world and all the things you could have done, and you sort of built this fort around yourself and just wanted to save money. And at the end of The Great Gatsby, Gatsby's Father shows Nick the notes that Gatsby made as a child. He kept to a really Franklinian schedule: wake up early in the morning, study needed inventions. And Nick is sort of looking at this going, "How strange. You're comparing him to Benjamin Franklin." And then in the 50s, and 60s, he's brought up again, during the space race and diplomacy again, and so on, and so on. So you're right, like, the funny thing about it, though, I have to say, and I don't want to do a soliloquy here about this. But we mentioned the Burns series is that throughout all of this, I have to say that these depictions of Franklin, or how we look at Franklin, or how we write books about Franklin, I think have sort of missed a really crucial point, which is what this book is about. He was the life of the party, he wasn't someone who talked like this and pronounced everything with gravitas. He plagiarized wildly, and he admits that with his sayings, and so forth. He's someone I think, today who would always be on Wikipedia, on Twitter, finding things out and following the clicks, coming up with new ideas. But again, you know, to bring this back to the will, he identified himself first and foremost as a tradesperson, as a working class person. And the first line of his will is, "I Benjamin Franklin, printer." You know, for all of his achievements, and all of his great things he did, he wanted to be known for his tradesmanship. And then this will, you know, this codicil he leaves in his will was to support the working class. And so when I look at his statue, you know, in Philadelphia at the National Memorial, when I see the depictions of him, when I read books about him, I'm always struck by, you know, Poor Richard said that historians don't recount so much what was done, as they'd like to believe happened. And often that history is written in their own image. And I'm, you know, there hasn't been, I think this depiction of Franklin looking at him through work and labor, and what it means for working class people to have a voice in our democracy and why that's important to him and to our country.

Kelly Therese Pollock  27:12  
Yeah. So thinking about it from that lens, do you think that Franklin would have been happy with how the experiment turned out? I mean, obviously, it's a really complicated way it turned out. There's lots of things that happened in 200 years, but do you think at the end, he would have thought, yeah, this was worth it?

Michael Meyer  27:33  
I think he'd be elated that the United States of America still exists. You know, when he died, it was the its demise seemed much more certain than its survival. The dollar wasn't even official currency yet. That happened two years after he died. The stock exchange hadn't opened. That happened two years after he died. So I think first and foremost, he'd be amazed that we're still here, and that his money was carried forward. I mean, he put conditions in his will that his loan scheme had to be managed for free. I think he'd be elated that there were, in fact, people in both of these cities that stepped forward and said, "I'll have a go at this, we'll try to make it work." I think he'd be pleased to see that Boston and Philadelphia did, in fact, at the centennial and bicentennial marks of his death, did what he requested, which take a portion of the money, the principle that had accumulated from repayments on the loans, and did in fact get together and democratically decide on what to do with the money to benefit the common good. He probably wouldn't be surprised that it took them decades to figure it out. It wasn't one meeting in 1891 that said, "Okay, let's build this." In Boston's case, you know, it took an entire generation, it took 13 years. In Philadelphia's case, it took three generations, it took almost four decades to come up with what to build. And at the bicentennial, they repeated the process. And, you know, I think he'd be tickled at the fact that his money still lives. You know, listeners, you can go on the Philadelphia Foundation website, and you can click on the Benjamin Franklin Fund, and you can donate $5 if you want or $20, or even more, and put money in a pot that says money is still going on to fund kids that don't want to get a four year degree, but instead want to go to a trade school or they expanded this now to artisans, and crafts as well. So if you want to do you know, high intensity knitting, or you want to do craft beer, or you want to do whatever, that that's considered a craft and an artist and an artisanship and trade as well. So he'd be really happy about that. The things he wouldn't be happy about, I think would be shocked is that, well, this is maybe not I mean, America now has more people working in nonprofit organizations than in manufacturing. As a founder of philanthropy, he might like that, but I think the thing that would really shock him is that over half of Americans identify as working class, and less than 2% of congress people have ever held a working class job, by their own admission, in the latest survey. And I think he'd be shocked that he did say, you know, in the will he wrote that, in his view, good apprentices make the best citizens because people who work in shops at the ground level see the effect of policy and taxation every day. They interact with people of all creeds and classes and origins every day. They're not removed from the people. And Franklin was really worried when he died that an aristocracy would come to rule the United States. And he said that, you know, "I found that in England and France, people willingly accept a king, rather than having an aristocracy ruling over them. But because we're not having a king in the United States, I'm worried that this aristocracy is going to rise." And, you know, he wrote too, that one of the biggest dangers to the survival of a republic is an enormously wealthy, upper tier of people who are controlling the media, and controlling in our case today, philanthropy and not having a democratic voice in the decisions that are being made. So I think you'd be shocked at that, that we have that condition in the States today.

Kelly Therese Pollock  30:56  
Yeah. So there's a lot of really interesting characters, people, historical figures in this book. Do you have one besides Franklin who's sort of your your favorite?

Michael Meyer  31:10  
Well, Debbie, Debbie, for sure, because again, like I said, she she always gets kind of consigned this thankless task in his books where, you know, that she comes on stage and you know, that people actually write a quote, how she's treated by biographers, all of them, men, almost, you know, like she trapped him in marriage, or she was sturdy and plain. And I'm thinking, no one ever describes Debbie as beautiful, as intelligent, as witty. And in the book, I really applaud her. She's the second chapter because she really was the foundation of his fortune. And he, you know, he fell in love with her at first sight, when he got off the boat in Philadelphia and walked up Market Street. It was a harder sell for Debbie and her mother. Franklin went away to London and got marooned there for a year and a half before he could come back. And she had married someone else. And that person, it turned out, was probably already married. And he absconded, I think, to the West Indies. And so when Franklin came back and courted Debbie again, you know, she couldn't legally marry him. And so they entered a common law marriage, and they also entered into their marriage with a young child that probably wasn't Debbie's. This has never been conclusively decided. Maybe because of Pennsylvania laws against adultery, she bore young William in secret, but unlikely. He was probably born to a prostitute. And Franklin shows up and says, "Hey, Debbie, I'm back from London. And I want to marry you. And by the way, we have a baby boy," who by the way, called Debbie nothing but Mom throughout his whole life. He called her Mother from beginning to end. You know, Franklin benefited greatly from Debbie's inheritance. You know, this was the laws, the era of Laws of Coverture. And so, once Debbie entered a union with Franklin, she was legally had no better standing than a dependent child. But she inherited her parents real estate in Philadelphia. And that's where they set up shop. Franklin trusted her completely. I was thrilled to find a power of attorney document, a pre printed form, that in the 1730s said, "I hereby give my friend" and it was going to be a man's name, power of attorney. And Franklin crossed out friend and wrote "wife" and wrote "Deborah Read Franklin" on that line instead. I mean, you can see her ledgers at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, where she's running shop. And you know, she's trading in chocolate and coffee and barrels of mackerel in 17 different currencies and giving change in different currencies. She had a really sharp mind. And in his, you know, he was away 25 of the last 30 years of his life, basically, overseas, and she managed their real estate portfolio, and she's the one in her letters you find chasing down people who are late on payments. And so I just think she's fantastic. And she, she often gets criticized too, in books for not following Franklin overseas. And I'm talking to you from Taiwan right now, my wife and I have had a long time of being expatriates switching off, you know, who has the job and who's the trailing spouse. And there's nothing worse than being the trailing spouse, because the other person has the job, the social network, the dinners to go to, and the spouse always feels like a sort of third wheel and I, I admire Debbie for not wanting to go with him to London, you know that. She said, I have my church here. I have my family here. I have my business here. I have my friends here. And so in the book, I put a spin on this saying, "I think it's admirable that she chose not to stay behind. It wasn't she was afraid or she was timid, but she had her own life to live, you know, and their letters are fantastic back and forth. And she's witty and funny, and they're flirtatious. And oftentimes, our depiction of Debbie comes down through Franklin's memoir, his autobiography, but we forget that he wrote that book to his son. The book starts "Dear Son," you know. It's to William and he's writing it when he's in London. He's been away from Deborah for several years. And you know, he's very, I think he's very, very curt about Debbie in these pages in how he describes her, you know. She's a good helper, and she's sturdy and so forth. But she's much more than that. So she's my favorite character by far.

Kelly Therese Pollock  35:11  
So, you know, you sort of outline as you're going through some of the people who received these grants, especially in the early days when they were giving out more of them, or these loans. Were there any, I know a lot of them like, we just can't know that much about beyond name and whether they paid it back or not. Are there some that we do know about? Were there, were there people that you just sort of wanted to follow their path, but there wasn't a lot to go on? Like, what what did that look like?

Michael Meyer  35:41  
That's a really good question, too, because it's fun when you open the ledgers and you see the first names entered into it. And then below it, these are pre-printed forms at the Boston city archives and the Philadelphia at the American Philosophical Society. You see the pre-printed forms where they fill in their names, and they have their guarantors they had did have someone backing their loan in case they defaulted. And on the very first pages in Boston, for example, you see guarantors like including Paul Revere, and Sam Adams, and then you start following them. And I found myself rooting for them as I turned the pages like, "Oh, I hope they paid it back. You know, I hope they made good on their, on their promises, and I hope their business was successful." And in those early pages, you know, the first decade of the loans, you really do see a village assembled before your eyes, because it's a saddler and a candlemaker. And, you know, a house builder, and a mason and a glazier and a baker and a hairdresser. And you see this village pop up and you're really rooting for these people to keep, you know, to keep making the payments. And then as we enter the early 19th century, as the economy starts changing, you know, Franklin did not foresee the Industrial Revolution. Franklin did not foresee the fact that Philadelphia was going to lose its status as a port because of something called the Erie Canal that was going to open up. So and Franklin didn't seem to consider too that people might not pay their money back right that they would default on loans, like he never did. And so some of those names in the in the ledgers of his defaulters are fantastic. They could have been Franklin pen names: John Debt, Francis Hammer, Philip Reap, Fraser K. Work, Daniel Deal, Samuel Stackhouse, and Isaac Kite. And you're right, I did start trying to follow I did genealogical searches of every person's name in the ledgers throughout the, you know, 200 years in which these loans were given, and tried to find out were any of these people successful. And there were several successes early on, especially in terms of rising to public service. There was a silversmith in Philadelphia, born on the Fourth of July, whose name was Liberty Brown, and you can still see Liberty Brown silver, fetching high prices at auctions today. But he rose to become president of the Philadelphia City Council, which was massively influential in the early 19th century. There was a Boston mason that became the fourth mayor of Boston. You know, he's another success story. There are I found people that became judges out in the Indiana territory living in Franklin County, perfect, who vociferously spoke against the Indian Removal Act when they became congresspeople themselves, there are successes and there are funny coincidences of history too. One guy, a bookbinder, who was an immigrant from the Caribbean, who ended up in Philadelphia, became Thomas Jefferson's book dealer. And Jefferson was so in debt when he died, you know, as he neared death, that he kept auctioning off his books. And he would send his books to the library of congress to restock it after it had been burned down by the British in the War of 1812. And this Franklin loan recipient was the one who was getting new books for Jefferson at discount prices, so he could restock Monticello and put it you know, at the University of Virginia. So there is I'm glad you bring this up. Because the book, like we said, it's, it's a book about Benjamin Franklin. But more than that, and this is all within 268 pages. I'm trying to make this a page turner and not be bogged down with academic writing. You know, it's a portrait of how working class people rose and fell and what they did with their, with their investments, right over these 200 years. really different than today. I don't know many people. My folks are in construction, for example. And I would never, like my mom can read blueprints and price jobs and hang doors and stuff. And I can't do that I'm the failure in my family. I'm just an English professor. But I can't picture my mom or any of her associates in hardware saying, "Hey, you know what? I'm going to run for city council." Like it's just anathema to them. They feel so locked out of that process or that why would I bother? Right? I don't I can't raise the funds to do something like that.

Kelly Therese Pollock  39:36  
Perhaps we need a new Franklin Fund for those people to run for public office.

Michael Meyer  39:42  
I wonder if it would be better or worse. That's the other funny thing, right? Like I wonder honestly, today it seems like every political cycle, right, we get "Joe the Plumber" or whatever, it gets pushed on TV. Would it be any better? I don't know. I I that's a fascinating question. Yeah. I think my mom's case it would be because she's quick. She'd be a good, she'd be a good city council member. But I wouldn't be, on the other hand. I'm not I don't have the patience, I think, to listen to all sides. And I'd wait for people to come to agree with me, which would be terrible. John Adams, Franklin, right.

Kelly Therese Pollock  40:12  
So there's a lot we could talk about. But people should just go read the book. So how can people get a book?

Michael Meyer  40:18  
Well, your local public library should have it stocked. I you know, people ask me sometimes, like, what benefits the writer most you know, where should I buy the book? And the answer is, what benefits this writer most is that you just read the book, I don't care where you get it. So the library, support your local independent bookseller. And of course, you can find it online. And if you do find it online, one thing that does help writers a lot is when you leave reviews, because that filters back up to the publisher, and they like to see that people are interacting and responding to the work.

Kelly Therese Pollock  40:45  
Excellent. Is there anything else you wanted to make sure we talk about?

Michael Meyer  40:50  
Well, I think one of the funny things about this book that surprised me, when I say funny, that I never thought of before, is that, you know, Franklin isn't often credited as being a founder of American philanthropy. And Americans as a nation are the most charitable people on on the planet. But I think we nowadays when we think of philanthropy, we often think of, you know, the bleached teeth, smiling photographs of very rich people donating 10s of billions, hundreds of millions of dollars, you know, building buildings, on campuses with their names on it. Philanthropy in the press, at least, has become a sort of source of self advertisement and self promotion. And I think people can feel locked out of the process or that they don't have a lot to contribute. And from Franklin's example, I want people to know, you know, Franklin believed very strongly in not putting his name on any of his charity, because he said,"If you put your name on it, people are less inclined to give to it. They feel like it's your project, not not something that they can be part of." Franklin also said that, he found that the people with the least money give the most and that's still true in America today, percentage wise of income, those the least in the lowest incomes give the highest percentage of their income to philanthropy. And Franklin said, you know," I observed this firsthand that it's not the 1000 pound or $1,000 gift that gets things moving and gets projects off the ground. It's the $1. It's the $5. It's those nickels and dimes that are being put in by by lower contributions that collectively raise something up." And, you know, Franklin invented the matching grant. He counted that among his proudest inventions. He use that to build the Pennsylvania Hospital. And so I think of this now, because at the end of the book, when I talked to foundations that are still managing portions of his money, they all say this, that, you know, the $20 Check the $100 check for us, is better than waiting for the million dollar check to arrive because the whole community buys into it, too. And so this has not only influenced my perspective on like, hey, you know, I shouldn't be supporting my public radio and TV station with a small donation, I shouldn't be waiting to do one off things at the end of the year. But it's also made me think, again, about, you know, what causes you support and looking for things that aren't getting the attention, you know, that the billionaires are supporting, like a like a college, for example. Franklin, is probably the first person in history, if not one of the last that did not leave any money to the university that he founded, in his will. He said, "No, I want to try something different with my money and support working class people." So he devoted it to that. So I think when we think of Franklin again, and these depictions of him as a scientist, and diplomat, and inventor, I think we should add philanthropist and tradesperson in that description as well.

Kelly Therese Pollock  43:32  
Well, thank you so much for speaking with me, this is a really fun read. I learned a lot. And I'm just delighted to have learned about this thing that I knew nothing about and is so fascinating. It has also made me start thinking about like, how could I do this for my, you know, for my descendants, someday I could put $5 in the bank account.

Michael Meyer  43:52  
I think about the year how many of us right now are thinking about our own families, let alone the country in the year 2222? And it blows the mind. I think Franklin was really thinking that, you know, he wanted his name to be in our mouths 200 years later. And I had the same thought, if I put 100 bucks away or $1,000 away, right and just let it grow, and then say to my great, great, great whoever right, like go ahead have at it, you know, what would what would result from it? It's a fascinating idea. I'm surprised more people haven't done it. Maybe they are and we just don't know about it. That's the sequel to this book.

Kelly Therese Pollock  44:24  
I think people most people don't think quite that long term.

Michael Meyer  44:28  
Alright, thanks so much for having me, Kelly. This is a fantastic conversation. I love your podcast.

Kelly Therese Pollock  44:32  
Oh, thank you. And thanks so much for speaking with me.

Teddy  44:34  
Thanks for listening to Unsung History. You can find the sources used for this episode To the best of our knowledge, all audio and images used by Unsung History are in the public domain or are used with permission. You can find us on Twitter, or Instagram @Unsung__History or on Facebook @UnsungHistorypodcast. To contact us with questions or episodes suggestions, please email If you enjoyed this podcast, please rate and review and tell your friends.

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Michael Meyer

Michael Meyer is the author of the acclaimed nonfiction books The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed and In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China. He first arrived in China in 1995 with the Peace Corps, and for over a decade contributed from there to The New York Times, Time, the Financial Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Architectural Record, Reader’s Digest, Slate, Smithsonian, This American Life and many other outlets. He the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, two Lowell Thomas Awards for travel writing, and residencies at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, MacDowell, and the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center. He has taught Literary Journalism at Hong Kong University’s Journalism and Media Studies Center, and wrote the foreword to The Inmost Shrine: A Photographic Odyssey of China, 1873, a collection of Scottish explorer John Thomson’s early images. He is a member of the National Committee on United States-China Relations‘ Public Intellectuals Program, a recipient of a 2017 National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar fellowship, and Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, where he teaches nonfiction writing. The final book in his China trilogy, The Road to Sleeping Dragon: Learning China from the Ground Up was published by Bloomsbury in 2017. Currently a Visiting Scholar at the University of Oxford’s Center for Life-Writing and a Fulbright scholar to Taiwan, Meyer’s next book, Benjamin Franklin’s Last Bet: The Favorite Founder’s Divisive Death, Enduring Afterlife, and Blueprint for American Prosperity, will be published by Mariner/HarperCollins in April 2022.