24 April 2011 • Ben & Jane and What Jill Saw

Apr 24 2011

It takes only 5 or 6 swings of the ax to knock down this morning’s New York Times OpEd by Jill Lepore, a Harvard historian whose scholarship I have more regard for than her politics. I actually watched her give a lecture on CSPAN over the winter; learned from it, and enjoyed her manner very much. Then she lost me with the slobbering mess below. The liberal drivel in “Poor Jane’s Alamanc” is so easily wiped up, I debated whether or not to spend a minute with it never mind an hour, but here it is. In short, Mizzzz Lepore laments Ben Franklin’s cherished sister’s life as a pitious example of what will happen to you if those evil-doers, the Republicans, get their way with the Ryan budget.

April 23, 2011 • Poor Jane’s Almanac • By JILL LEPORE • Cambridge, Mass. 

THE House Budget Committee chairman, Paul D. Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin, announced his party’s new economic plan this month. It’s called “The Path to Prosperity,” a nod to an essay Benjamin Franklin once wrote, 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 candle-maker, scraping by. Massachusetts’ Poor Law required teaching boys to write; the mandate for girls ended at reading. Benny went to school for just two years; Jenny never went at all.

AF: Mizz Lepore, ‘Tis true. Women were not burning bras in the 18th, or even 19th century.  Colonial America was inhospitable to women’s freedom, yes, but if applying contemporary standards to society in centuries past is the underlying structure of your thesis to follow, what’s next?   A blistering essay on how evil Lincoln was for not inviting openly gay soldiers to fight in the Civil War?  C’mon.

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.

AF: No doubt due to his care.

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. She once asked him for a copy of “all the Political pieces” he had ever written. “I could as easily make a collection for you of all the past parings of my nails,” he joked. He sent her what he could; she read it all. But there was no way out. 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, the nation’s bookshelves sag with doorstop biographies of the founders; 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.

AF: Happily education is now mandatory and free for all, and women now have the right to say “no,” also free. Next?

The latest budget reduces financing for Planned Parenthood, for public education and even for the study of history. At one point in the budget discussion, all money for Teaching American History, a federal program offering training to K-12 history teachers, was eliminated. Are we never to study the book of ages?

AF: Mizz Lepore. Perhaps you don’t cross the river down to the Back Bay of Boston very often, but there, in Copley Square, is a building of some importance. I guess it’s easy to miss. It’s only an entire city block. It’s the Boston Public Library. Oh! And I seem to remember Mr. Franklin having something to do with it. Women and men, history teachers or not, are allowed in. There’s even a CVS across the street with a whole row of condoms in it.

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.” That world was changing. In 1789, Boston for the first time, allowed girls to attend public schools. The fertility rate began declining. 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.

AF: Sympathy, madame, cannot be legislated into being. Neither is charity spelled t-a-x.

Benjamin Franklin died in Philadelphia in 1790, at the age of 84. In his will, he left Jane the house in which she lived.

AF: Had Representative Weiner & the Democrats had their way last December, she’d have been left nothing. Zero. Nada. Zip. “It’s not yours. You’re dead.” or words to that effect were the reasoning of one Mr. Weiner, when asked about inheritence rights.

And then he made another bequest, more lasting: he gave one hundred pounds to the public schools of Boston.

AF: Franklin, like the wealth creators who came after him, left not only a legacy of families enriched by the jobs they created, but the the needy lifted up by the philanthropic instruments they left behind. If the Democrats get their way, the tax deduction for charity will end.

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.

AF: And how much of our cherished history will fall into ruin, decay, and dust, when individual bequests are taxed out of existence? How long will the small little corners of history we walk by every day in our beloved New England, kept up solely by those who love history & have the money to preserve it, last, in ObAmerica? If a Democrat has to make a choice between historical preservation & “social justice” which will they choose? http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/24/opinion/24lepore.html

4 responses so far

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