Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

POOR JANE'S ALMANAC

When House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan recently announced his party's new economic plan, he called it "The Path to Prosperity," a nod to a Benjamin Franklin essay called "The Way to Wealth."

Franklin, who's on the $100 bill, was the youngest of 10 sons. Nowhere on any legal tender is his sister Jane, the youngest of seven daughters; she never traveled the way to wealth. He was born in 1706, she in 1712. Their father was a Boston candlemaker, scraping by. Massachusetts' Poor Law required teaching boys to write; the mandate for girls ended at reading. Ben went to school for just two years; Jane never went at all.

Their lives tell an 18th-century tale of two Americas. Against poverty and ignorance, Franklin prevailed; his sister did not.

At 17, he ran away from home. At 15, she married: She was probably pregnant, as were, at the time, a third of all brides. She and her brother wrote to each other all their lives: They were each other's dearest friends. (He wrote more letters to her than to anyone.) His letters are learned, warm, funny, delightful; hers are misspelled, fretful and full of sorrow. "Nothing but troble can you her from me," she warned. It's extraordinary that she could write at all.

"I have such a Poor Fackulty at making Leters," she confessed.

He would have none of it. "Is there not a little Affectation in your Apology for the Incorrectness of your Writing?" he teased. "Perhaps it is rather fishing for commendation. You write better, in my Opinion, than most American Women." He was, sadly, right.

She had one child after another; her husband, a saddler named Edward Mecom, grew ill, and may have lost his mind, as, most certainly, did two of her sons. She struggled, and failed, to keep them out of debtors' prison, the almshouse, asylums. She took in boarders; she sewed bonnets. She had not a moment's rest.

And still, she thirsted for knowledge. "I Read as much as I Dare," she confided to her brother.

They left very different paper trails. He wrote the story of his life, stirring and wry — the most important autobiography ever written. She wrote 14 pages of what she called her "Book of Ages." It isn't an autobiography; it is, instead, a litany of grief, a history, in brief, of a life lived rags to rags.

It begins: "Josiah Mecom their first Born on Wednesday June the 4: 1729 and Died May the 18-1730." Each page records another heartbreak. "Died my Dear & Beloved Daughter Polly Mecom," she wrote one dreadful day, adding, "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away oh may I never be so Rebelious as to Refuse Acquesing & saying from my hart Blessed be the Name of the Lord."

Jane Mecom had 12 children; she buried 11. And then, she put down her pen.

Today, two and a half centuries later, tea partiers dressed as Benjamin Franklin call for an end to social services for the poor; and the "Path to Prosperity" urges a return to "America's founding ideals of liberty, limited government and equality under the rule of law." But the story of Jane Mecom is a reminder that, especially for women, escaping poverty has always depended on the opportunity for an education and the ability to control the size of their families. The latest budget reduces financing for Planned Parenthood, for public education and even for the study of history.

On July 4, 1786, when Jane Mecom was 74, she thought about the path to prosperity. It was the nation's 10th birthday. She had been reading a book by the Englishman Richard Price. "Dr Price," she wrote to her brother, "thinks Thousands of Boyles Clarks and Newtons have Probably been lost to the world, and lived and died in Ignorance and meanness, merely for want of being Placed in favourable Situations, and Injoying Proper Advantages." And then she reminded her brother, gently, of something that he knew, and she knew, about the world in which they lived: "Very few is able to beat thro all Impedements and Arive to any Grat Degre of superiority in Understanding."

The American Revolution made possible a new world, a world of fewer obstacles, a world with a promise of equality. That required — and still requires — sympathy.

Benjamin Franklin died in Philadelphia in 1790, at the age of 84. In his will, he left Jane the house in which she lived. And then he made another bequest, more lasting: he gave 100 pounds to the public schools of Boston.

Jane Mecom died in that house in 1794. Later, during a political moment much like this one, when American politics was animated by self-serving invocations of the founders, her house was demolished to make room for a memorial to Paul Revere.

Jill Lepore, a professor of American history at Harvard, is the author of "The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle Over American History."

POOR JANE'S ALMANAC 04/30/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 4, 2011 6:17pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. What you need to know for Thursday, May 25

    News

    Catching you up on overnight happenings, and what you need to know today.

    To catch a ring of poachers who targeted Florida's million-dollar alligator farming industry, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission set up an undercover operation. They created their own alligator farm, complete with plenty of real, live alligators, watched over by real, live undercover wildlife officers. It also had hidden video cameras to record everything that happened. That was two years ago, and on Wednesday wildlife officers announced that they arrested nine people on  44 felony charges alleging they broke wildlife laws governing alligator harvesting, transporting eggs and hatchlings across state lines, dealing in stolen property, falsifying records, racketeering and conspiracy. The wildlife commission released these photos of alligators, eggs and hatchlings taken during the undercover operation. [Courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission]
  2. Trigaux: Amid a record turnout, regional technology group spotlights successes, desire to do more

    Business

    ST. PETERSBURG — They came. They saw. They celebrated Tampa Bay's tech momentum.

    A record turnout event by the Tampa Bay Technology Forum, held May 24 at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, featured a panel of area tech executives talking about the challenges encountered during their respective mergers and acquisitions. Show, from left to right, are: Gerard Purcell, senior vice president of global IT integration at Tech Data Corp.; John Kuemmel, chief information officer at Triad Retail Media, and Chris Cate, chief operating officer at Valpak. [Robert Trigaux, Times]
  3. Take 2: Some fear Tampa Bay Next transportation plan is TBX redux

    Transportation

    TAMPA — For many, Wednesday's regional transportation meeting was a dose of deja vu.

    The Florida Department of Transportation on Monday announced that it was renaming its controversial Tampa Bay Express plan, also known as TBX. The plan will now be known as Tampa Bay Next, or TBN. But the plan remains the same: spend $60 billion to add 90 miles of toll roads to bay area interstates that are currently free of tolls. [Florida Department of Transportation]
  4. Hailed as 'pioneers,' students from St. Petersburg High's first IB class return 30 years later

    Education

    ST. PETERSBURG — The students came from all over Pinellas County, some enduring hot bus rides to a school far from home. At first, they barely knew what to call themselves. All they knew was that they were in for a challenge.

    Class of 1987 alumni Devin Brown, from left, and D.J. Wagner, world history teacher Samuel Davis and 1987 graduate Milford Chavous chat at their table.
  5. Flower boxes on Fort Harrison in Clearwater to go, traffic pattern to stay

    Roads

    I travel Fort Harrison Avenue in Clearwater often and I've noticed that the travel lanes have been rerouted to allow for what looks like flower boxes that have been painted by children. There are also a few spaces that push the travel lane to the center that have no boxes. Is this a permanent travel lane now? It …