"HISTORY is not the province of the ladies," declared John Adams, stung by some unflattering but astute comments of Mercy Otis Warren, historian of the American Revolution. As long as history was the record of great men and events, battles and political upheavals, his view had some merit, for how could women understand a world they had no part of?
The concept of history has changed, however. Historians are casting their nets more widely, studying groups and individuals earlier ignored, and asking different questions even of the heroic figures. The family has at last become a legitimate historical topic, part of this "new history." Nevertheless it is a subject that often stymies the researcher who attempts to go beyond mere demographic data because the details of home life are so thoroughly taken for granted by the parties concerned that they are rarely reported. The case of Benjamin Franklin is exceptional: There is a rare richness of material, especially letters, that invites one to essay a reconstruction of his family relationships.
He was a nest builder par excellence, at home and abroad. He needed a family every bit as much as he needed "ingenious acquaintance." A great deal has been made of his alleged sexual promiscuity; far more evidence exists for a kind of emotional promiscuity in creating familial surroundings wherever he happened to be. After twenty-seven years of unprotesting domesticity with his Deborah in Philadelphia, he stepped into a tailor-made second ménage in London consisting of Mrs. Margaret Stevenson and her daughter Polly. Later in Paris he grafted himself onto the household of his landlord Leray de Chaumont and had legions of ladies of all ages vying for the honor of calling him papa.
Franklin's own family, numbering only two living children, was more like the nuclear unit of the present day than the teeming hearths of his contemporaries, but he compensated by taking on quite willingly the responsibilities of a virtual "extended family"--brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces, cousins--as the obligation of wealth and prominence. Theoreticians may argue about the character of the Puritan and post-