Historical Characters

John Adams

John Adams

As a brilliant lawyer and gifted orator, John Adams (1735–1826) played a key role in persuading the Continental Congress to declare independence from Britain in 1776. In addition, he served on the committee (with Jefferson and Franklin) to draft the Declaration of Independence, and as a commissioner (with Franklin) to the Court of Louis XVI. Later, he helped negotiate the peace treaty with Great Britain. After serving two terms as Vice President under George Washington, Adams was elected America’s second president. He served only one term (defeated by Thomas Jefferson).

Richard Bache

Richard Bache

Richard Bache (1737–1811), born in Yorkshire, England, came to New York City in 1765 to join an older brother in the mercantile business. He moved to Philadelphia in the interest of the business, which had built up a large West Indian trade. In 1767, misfortune struck and the business failed. Because of his insolvency (and insinuated reputation as a fortune hunter), Franklin objected to Bache’s proposal to marry his daughter, Sarah. Although Franklin never formally blessed Bache into the family, he eventually installed his son-in-law as head of the American Post Office.

Sarah Franklin Bache


Sarah Franklin “Sally” Bache (1743–1808) was the only daughter of Benjamin Franklin and Deborah Read. She married Richard Bache, a local merchant, in 1767, against her father’s wishes (Franklin was in London at the time). The couple had eight children, including Benjamin Franklin Bache (b. 1769), whom Franklin took to France with him in 1776 and subsequently sent to Switzerland to be educated.

Madame Brillon

Anne Louise Brillon de Jouy (née Boyvin d’Hardancourt (1744–1824) was a near neighbor of Franklin at Passy (near Paris). Franklin frequented Anne Louise’s salon and submitted several of his bagatelles to her, including his “Dialogue Between Franklin and the Gout,” for comment and editing. With Ben assuming a paternalistic role, the two became close friends and lifelong correspondents. In 1777, Anne Marie, an accomplished musician and composer, composed the March of the Insurgents to celebrate the American victory at Saratoga. She had two daughters with Jacques Brillon de Jouy, a receveur des consignations.

Peter Collinson


Peter Collinson (1694–1768), a cloth merchant by legacy and a science aficionado by choice, maintained an extensive correspondence with many of the leading scientists of his time. As a patron of the Philadelphia scientific community, Collision assisted Benjamin Franklin and John Bartram in promoting the American Philosophical Society. He also provided Franklin with apparatus for his electrical experiments, and served for many years as the purchasing agent for the Library Company of Philadelphia. It was through Collinson that Franklin first presented to the Royal Society what would be published in 1751 as “Experiments and Observations on Electricity.” Collinson was a Quaker.

Deborah Read Franklin


Deborah Read Franklin (1708–1774), daughter of a carpenter, was the common-law wife of Benjamin Franklin and stepmother to Ben’s illegitimate son William. The pair had two children together: a son, Francis, and a daughter, Sarah (Sally). While her husband traveled around the colonies and Europe, Deborah steadfastly remained in Philadelphia, where she attended to her husband’s affairs during his oft-long absences. At one point, she defended his home against a mob incensed by Ben’s rumored complicity in the enactment of the Stamp Act. Deborah died on December 24, 1774, having not seen her husband in the past ten years.

Francis Franklin

Francis Folger Franklin (1732–1736) was Ben Franklin’s first of two children with Deborah Read. The other was a daughter, Sarah, called Sally. “Frankie” died of smallpox at the age of four years, one month. His father had chosen not to have him inoculated in the belief, Ben declared, that his young son was too frail for the procedure.

William Franklin


William Franklin (ca. 1730 –1813) was born out of wedlock and raised by Ben and his common-law wife Deborah Read. (William also fathered a son out of wedlock, William Temple, but did not raise him; Ben did). William held a series of colonial appointments through his father’s influence, and travelled to England with his father to study law.  He married Elizabeth Downes while there, and was appointed Royal Governor of New Jersey (also through his father’s influence). Much to his father’s chagrin and bitter disapproval, William remained loyal to the Crown during the Revolution. Father and son never reconciled. William died in England.

Madame Helvetius

Anne-Catherine de Ligniville, Madame Helvétius (1722 –1800), although one of twenty-one children, had none of her own. In 1751, she married the philosopher Claude Helvétius, whose atheistic, utilitarian, and egalitarian views were highly controversial. When Claude died in 1771, Madame Helvetius used her husband’s wealth to maintain a popular salon, which attracted many of the greatest intellectuals of the time, including Ben Franklin, who was so smitten by this early bohemian woman that he proposed marriage to her. Almost as famous as her salon was Madame Helvetius’ colony of angora cats, eighteen in all, which she adorned with silk ribbons.

Polly Stevenson

Mary (Polly) Stevenson (1739–1795) was the daughter of Margaret Stevenson, Benjamin Franklin’s landlady during both of Ben’s lengthy tenures in London. Over the years, Ben came to regard Polly as a second (or even first) daughter, and wrote many affectionate, father-to-daughter letters to her. Ben hoped one day to see Polly married to his son William; instead, Ben stood in the place of Polly’s long-dead father at her wedding to William Hewson, a well-regarded surgeon and physiologist. Polly was present at Ben’s bedside when he died in Philadelphia April 17, 1790.

William Strahan


William Strahan (1715–1785) was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, as William “Strachan.” Although originally apprenticed to an Edinburgh printer, Strahan was made a master printer in London, where he changed his surname to Strahan. For many years Franklin printed Strahan’s “paragraphs of political news” in his Pennsylvania Gazette, and the two became close friends and lifelong correspondents. Strahan’s protégé, David Hall, succeeded Franklin in his Philadelphia print business when Franklin retired in 1747.

Bishop Shipley


Jonathan Shipley (1714 –1788), Bishop of St. Asaph, was strongly opposed to the policies of George III toward the American colonies, and was a lone ecclesiastical voice in opposition when the British Parliament was considering punitive measures against Boston after the Tea Party incident. It was at Shipley’s estate in Winchester that Ben began to write his famous autobiography. Ben was very fond of Shipley’s five daughters. In 1782, in a letter to Henry Laurens, Franklin called Shipley “America’s constant friend.”

William Smith


William Smith (1727–1803) was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, and educated at the University of Aberdeen. In 1753, Smith wrote a pamphlet outlining his thoughts about education. Benjamin Franklin was smitten and invited Smith to come to Philadelphia to teach at a newly established academy he had helped found (to become the University of Pennsylvania). During the French and Indian War, Smith advocated disenfranchising the Quakers because of their pacifist views, and went so far as to suggest getting rid of them “by cutting their throats.” Smith received an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from Oxford in 1759.

Alexander Wedderburn


Alexander Wedderburn (1733–1805) was called to the English bar in 1757. To rid himself of his Scottish accent, and to improve his oratory, Wedderburn engaged professional coaches. In 1771, he was appointed solicitor-general, and throughout the American War of Independence, railed against the colonies. In 1775, following the Boston Tea Party, Wedderburn famously humiliated Benjamin Franklin before the King’s Privy Council at Whitehall. One critic said of Wedderburn: “As for Mr. Wedderburn, there is something about him which even treachery cannot trust.”