J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, January 06, 2018

Benjamin Franklin’s Birthday (and the Washingtons’ Anniversary)

In a letter to her father, Benjamin Franklin, dated 17 Jan 1779, Sarah Bache (shown here in 1793) wrote from Philadelphia:
I have dined at the Ministers, spent an evening at Mr. Holkers, have lately been several times invited abroad with the General and Mrs Washinton, he allways enquires after you in the most afectionate manner and speaks of you highly we danced at Mr. [Samuel] Powels your Birth day or night I should say in company together and he told me it was the aniversary of his marriage it was just twenty years that night—
Franklin was born on 6 Jan 1705/06 in Boston under the Julian Calendar (17 Jan 1706 under the Gregorian Calendar). The Washingtons married on 6 Jan 1759 under the Gregorian Calendar. Thus, Franklin’s birthday and the Washingtons’ anniversary shared a date, even though fifty-three years plus eleven days passed between them.

I’ve noted before how Americans struggled to figure out when to celebrate Washington’s birthday—the O.S. date or the N.S. equivalent. Eventually we settled on the Gregorian date, as advised by the President’s private secretary, Tobias Lear.

Franklin seems to have been ambivalent about which date served as his birthday. On 6 Jan 1773, he wrote to his wife, Deborah Franklin:
I feel still some Regard for this Sixth of January, as my old nominal Birth-day, tho’ the Change of Stile has carried the real Day forward to the 17th, when I shall be, if I live till then, 67 Years of Age.
As Sarah Bache’s letter shows, she thought of her father’s birthday as 6 January, even though Pennsylvania started using the Gregorian Calendar when she was nine years old.

On 17 Jan 1781, Franklin started to write “My Birth-Day” in his journal but then crossed it off. On 6 Jan 1782 he wrote to Anne-Louise Brillon de Jouy about his challenges writing in French without a dictionary:
Il y a soixante Ans que les choses masculins & feminines (hors des Modes & des Temps) m’ont donné beaucoup d’Embarras. J’esperois, autrefois qu’à quatre vingt on peut en etre libre. Me voici à quatre fois dix-neuf, qui est bien prés: & neantmoins ces feminines francoises me tracassent encore.

[For sixty years things masculine and feminine (not to mention the modes and tenses) have given me a lot of trouble. I once hoped that at eighty I would be delivered of them. But here I am four times nineteen, which is very close to that, and nevertheless these French feminines still exasperate me.]
Under the Gregorian Calendar, Franklin was still eleven days away from being 76 years old (or 4 times 19) when he wrote. But I suppose that was close enough.

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