The second of seven children born to a British carpenter who lived in Philadelphia, Deborah Read received almost no formal education during her childhood. However, her lifelong commitment to hard work and her family led her to be one of the most important, yet poorly documented, mothers of the American Revolution, often cited as the “Forgotten Founding Mother.”
While the birth and family life of Deborah Read is not well known, it is well-recorded that she and Benjamin Franklin knew each other from a young age, but were forbidden to marry due to her family’s disapproval of Mr. Franklin and his humble beginnings. However, after her first husband ran away with her dowry and died, Deborah took up a home with Benjamin Franklin, raised his illegitimate son, and established a common-law marriage for more than 40 years.
A Woman Suited for Benjamin Franklin
Despite being apart for 18 of the 44 years of marriage, Deborah proved to be a loyal and supportive wife to her husband’s many endeavors as an inventor, intellectual, politician, printer, and revolutionary.
During the time she raised their daughter Sarah (called Sally) and Benjamin’s illegitimate son William—after their own son died from smallpox—she proved to be quite a resourceful thought leader and business owner. She appears to have had a natural gift for business, managing her husband’s print shops and general stores and advising him on all matters, professional and private.
During their time together, credit is generally given to Benjamin Franklin for creating the first library in the colonies and the first post office, as well as establishing the first fire department and hospital. However, many historians believe none of these would have been possible without Deborah’s input, and certainly not without her contribution to making him a wealthy man who could retire at 42 to pursue the colonies’ foundation.
Deborah Read Franklin Was a Singular Mother
Further, in the later years of his career, Benjamin spent almost all of his time in Europe. Deborah was therefore left to become an entrepreneur in her own right. Her inner drive led to expansion of the post office, creating educational opportunities for the poor, and continued installation of streetlights and paved roads for safety.
In the late 1760s or early 1770s, she suffered a debilitating series of strokes that left her unable to communicate well, correspond with her husband, or travel. Deborah passed away in December of 1774, while Benjamin was on one of his several yearlong trips (once a decade) to Europe.
William Franklin, the son she raised for Benjamin, went on to become a politician and diplomat in his own right, being named the colonial governor of New Jersey—the last man to hold that office.
The couple is buried next to each other at Christ Church Cemetery in Philadelphia.