It’s natural to think of “olden times” as being less colorful and alive than our current age. When we think of people from the 1700’s (or any prior era for that matter), they seem to us to live in monotone black and white, without the complexity or vibrancy of present day figures. Compounding that bias for Ben, and many of the other characters in The Wisdom of the Flock, is the fact that we have come to know these historical figures over the past 300 years of writing about their deeds. While most often these writings have been fair and good-natured, sometimes they are not. When authors oversimplify historical figures, they do them, and us, a disservice.
Ben Franklin was a lot more complex than what you learned about him in school.
Like any powerful man, Franklin made some enemies. In his book Benjamin Franklin and His Enemies, Robert Middlekauff relates how the always strait-laced John Adams found Franklin’s indulgence in the more libidinous activities in Paris (lavish soirées, kissing the ladies, etc.) to be shocking to his puritanical sensibilities. Some historians even believe that the letters that Adams wrote about Franklin’s behavior in France led to the creation (or at least the promulgation) of his “lady’s man” reputation.
However, in the case of Madame Helvetius (Minette), there appears to be more than a dalliance. Franklin proposed marriage to her – and some believe that he might not have ever left France had she accepted. For more on Franklin and the Ladies see Mon Cher Papa: Franklin and the Ladies of Paris by Claude-Anne Lopez.
As one of the reviewers of The Wisdom of the Flock gently criticized, we generally think of Ben as the “wise, corpulent, gouty statesman”, rather than “well muscled and sexually vigorous grandfather” portrayed in my book. But that was one of my goals, dear readers, to challenge our stereotypes of Ben and others, e.g. Marie Antoinette, Casanova – more about these two in another post. I hope that I was somewhat successful in this endeavor with my portrayal of Franklin in The Wisdom of the Flock. Ben was, in fact, considered to be quite virile in his own age – as evidenced by the description by DuPont of Ben’s portrait displayed in the front matter of the book.
So, yes, I portrayed Ben as “well muscled and sexually vigorous” and don’t apologize for it. During the time period of the book, in his 70’s, Ben was in excellent physical shape by all accounts. As you can see from the portrait (above) done by Filleul in 1778 or 1779, Ben was slightly corpulent. You might say he had a Grandad bod. It happens. Yet he exercised daily. He swam in the Seine. He rode horseback. He climbed repeatedly up and down the staircases at the Hôtel de Valentinois when forced inside by inclement weather. He was prone to intermittent attacks of gout – resulting in foot pain that occasionally hobbled him. But he wrote an entire bagatelle arguing with “Madame Gout” about how his diet and own proclivity to indolence were responsible for the attacks, so we know that Ben knew what he should do! And he was known to have a bladder stone – which occasionally resulted in pain and urinary symptoms – for which he invented a special catheter.
There is no medical reason to assume that Ben was not physically capable of sexual activity well into his seventies, in my opinion.
To paraphrase Robert Heinlein: “Every generation thinks that they invented sex” – meaning that we tend to downplay the sexual lives of not only our parents but historical figures in general, despite the fact that we would not be here if our forefathers (and foremothers) had not led sexual lives!
Let us then embrace Ben’s virility and give him credit for being a hale, hearty, and sexy senior citizen!