Ben and Jane
by Pastor George Van Alstine
I’ve become more and more bothered by the fact that in our society the gap between the rich and the poor has been widening for the past fifty years, to the point where today 10% of the population of America owns more than 70% of its wealth. This situation has been further aggravated during the recession of the last two years, as people in lower income brackets have experienced loss of jobs, home foreclosures and reduced opportunities for advancement, while richer Americans have weathered the storm quite comfortably, many even increasing their personal wealth dramatically.
Harvard Professor of American History Dr. Jill Lepore helped focus this for me in a recent (April 23) opinion piece in the New York Times, entitled “Poor Jane’s Almanac.” In it she tells the story of wealth and poverty through the correspondence between a famous brother in the 18th century and his not-so-famous sister.
Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston to the family of a struggling candle and soap maker who, through two wives, fathered seventeen children. Young Ben felt trapped by such a life, and got out at his earliest opportunity. He was seventeen when he took a ship to New York, where he looked in vain for a job. He made his way, by foot, across New Jersey to Philadelphia. There he got lucky, finding work in a printing company. This led to his writing career, in which his natural talents blossomed, until he was a successful author and publisher. He was careful with money and became very prosperous. Anyone who has the slightest knowledge of American history knows the rest — Franklin’s emergence as a political leader in the Revolution, his role in shaping the new nation, his interest in science and numerous inventions, his nine years as Ambassador to France.
Ben’s baby sister Jane also felt trapped, but for her there was no way out. As was typical for women in the lower classes in her day, Jane was not given any schooling and remained only semi-literate throughout her life. At the age of fifteen she was married off to Edward Mecom, a saddle-maker. He had no money, and was totally dependent on his daily labor to support his family. His increasing physical weakness and mental instability kept the family on the edge of homelessness and starvation. The only thing he was really good at was keeping Jane pregnant. She delivered twelve babies in twenty-two years, three of whom died in infancy, with several others succumbing during their childhood years. Only three lived past the age of thirty-three, and two of these were insane, a weakness inherited from their father. One daughter lived to comfort Jane in her old age.
Now, the interesting thing Dr. Lepore reveals in her article is that this brother and sister, throughout their parallel lives of affluence and poverty, kept up a correspondence by letter, and significant portions of these letters have been preserved. Through them we can sense the strong affection they felt, in spite of separation by years and by miles. But we can also sense a sort of tension and discomfort, as alongside of the warmth of their sibling attachment was a painful detachment caused by their radically different circumstances in life. Their conversations seem carefully choreographed to avoid the immense distance between their lots in life.
Ben genuinely cared about his sister, and he periodically sent financial support in times of great need. He left her a house in Boston where she could live out her last years in relative comfort. But he never seemed to grasp that his rugged individualism and his blind belief in laissez faire capitalism contributed to her misery. He did nothing to build into the new society a safety net to save people like Jane and her family from the harshest realities and guarantee to them some chance at “The American Dream.”
Let some of Jane’s words speak to your heart:
“I have such a Poor Fackulty at making Letters. Nothing but troble can you her from me.”
(Letter to Ben)
“Josiah Mecom the first, Born, on Wednesday June the 4: 1929 and Died May the 18-1730.”
“Died my Dear & Beloved Daughter Polly Mecom. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, oh may I never be so Rebelious as to Refuse Acquiesing & saying from my hart Blessed be the Name of the Lord.”
(Entries in her journal, which she called the “Book of Ages”)
“Thousand of geniuses have Probably been lost to the world, but lived and died in Ignorance and meanness, merely for want of being Placed in favourable Situations and enjoying Proper Advantages. Very few is able to beat thro all Impediments and Arive to any Grat Degre of superiority of Understanding.”
(Letter to Ben when Jane was 74)
I’m happy that my America still provides opportunities for people like Ben to break out into limitless success. I’m sad that my America still allows people like Jane to remain hopelessly trapped in poverty and misery.