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A painting of Benjamin Franklin kissing a woman

The Very Strange and Almost Comic Advice on Choosing a Lover from, yes, Benjamin Franklin


‘Founding father,’ moralist, scientist, politician: Benjamin Franklin was all of that and also, unexpectedly, an advisor on affairs of love and sex.

To love can be simple, or not, but in any event a good option would seem to be taking a lover. Or at least that is how we could interpret the advice that Benjamin Franklin, the great moralist of the US, gave to a young man who approached him to ask him for a remedy for certain urges regarding his sexual appetite that he was unable to contain. Franklin replied in a letter dated June 25, 1745, which for many years remained censored due to its licentious content.

Benjamin Franklin, licentious? That is right. Although it sounds hard to believe, the suggestion of this ‘founding father’ went against all the moral laws of his time (although, of course, it was in tune with the then prevailing and rigid disregard for women).

Even if the advice begins with a praise of marriage as the only way to calm “the violent natural inclinations” of the youth, Franklin soon moves on to a much more less solemn option: take a mistress. But not only that. He also told the young man what qualities to look for in her. This is what Franklin wrote:


But if you will not take this Counsel, and persist in thinking a Commerce with the Sex inevitable, then I repeat my former Advice, that in all your Amours you should prefer old Women to young ones. You call this a Paradox, and demand my Reasons. They are these:

  1. Because as they have more Knowledge of the World and their Minds are better stor’d with Observations, their Conversation is more improving and more lastingly agreeable.
  2. Because when Women cease to be handsome, they study to be good. To maintain their Influence over Men, they supply the Diminution of Beauty by an Augmentation of Utility. They learn to do a 1000 Services small and great, and are the most tender and useful of all Friends when you are sick. Thus they continue amiable. And hence there is hardly such a thing to be found as an old Woman who is not a good Woman.
  3. Because there is no hazard of Children, which irregularly produc’d may be attended with much Inconvenience.
  4. Because thro’ more Experience, they are more prudent and discreet in conducting an Intrigue to prevent Suspicion. The Commerce with them is therefore safer with regard to your Reputation. And with regard to theirs, if the Affair should happen to be known, considerate People might be rather inclin’d to excuse an old Woman who would kindly take care of a young Man, form his Manners by her good Counsels, and prevent his ruining his Health and Fortune among mercenary Prostitutes.
  5. Because in every Animal that walks upright, the Deficiency of the Fluids that fill the Muscles appears first in the highest Part: The Face first grows lank and wrinkled; then the Neck; then the Breast and Arms; the lower Parts continuing to the last as plump as ever: So that covering all above with a Basket, and regarding only what is below the Girdle, it is impossible of two Women to know an old from a young one. And as in the dark all Cats are grey, the Pleasure of corporal Enjoyment with an old Woman is at least equal, and frequently superior, every Knack being by Practice capable of Improvement.
  6. Because the Sin is less. The debauching a Virgin may be her Ruin, and make her for Life unhappy.
  7. Because the Compunction is less. The having made a young Girl miserable may give you frequent bitter Reflections; none of which can attend the making an old Woman happy.

8thly and Lastly They are so grateful!!

Thus much for my Paradox. But still I advise you to marry directly; being sincerely Your affectionate Friend.

B. F.

As we can see, the sensibility that characterized Benjamin Franklin did not necessarily applied to romantic issues. The almost-comical misogyny he denotes in this piece of advice not only reflects the dominant frame of the time, but also suggests that it would be more ‘sensible’ for us to follow his advice only in matters of politics and atmospheric electricity.

The original letter is here.

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