"Advice to a Friend on Choosing a Mistress" is a letter by Benjamin Franklin dated June 25, 1745, in which Franklin counsels a young man about channeling sexual urges. Due to its licentious nature the letter was not published in collections of Franklin's papers in the United States during the 19th century. Federal court decisions from the mid- to late- 20th century cited the document as a reason for overturning obscenity laws.
Franklin begins by advising a young man that a cure for sexual urges is unknown, and the proper solution is to take a wife. Then, expressing doubts that the intended reader will actually marry, Franklin names several advantages of marriage. As supplementary advice in case the recipient rejects all previous arguments, Franklin lists seven reasons why an older mistress is preferable to a young one. Advantages include better conversation, less risk of unwanted pregnancy, and greater prudence in conducting an intrigue.
According to John Richard Stevens, the unnamed correspondent is a friend of Franklin's named Cadwaller Colton, and it remains unknown whether Franklin was serious or if the letter was ever delivered. Whether serious or humorous, the letter is frankly sexual:
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.
The Mistress letter was not the only document by Franklin that later generations censored. The bawdy portion of Franklin's writing was accepted during his own era. Although the Mistress letter was not published during his lifetime, Franklin's public works include an essay called "Fart Proudly". A passage from his Autobiography describes an unsuccessful attempt to seduce a friend's mistress. As John Semonche observes in Censoring Sex: A Historical Journey Through American Media, the autobiography was widely read during the 19th century because of its moral lessons, but the passage about the failed seduction was variously altered or deleted entirely. The Mistress letter was omitted from 19th century publications of Franklin's works, and by some accounts it was singled out for suppression.
This censorship occurred both informally and under law. The first state to enact obscenity legislation was Vermont in 1821. During the following decades every state except New Mexico adopted similar laws. Then the Comstock Act of 1873 made it a federal crime to circulate "obscene, lewd, and/or lascivious" material through the mail.
Although Franklin had mistresses throughout his life (including one still-unknown mistress who bore his only son William Franklin), such circumstances were incompatible with patriotic sensibilities a century afterward. Amy Beth Werbel opines bluntly:
At a time when America was scant one hundred years old, Benjamin Franklin was an important part of its founding mythology. Some Americans felt it their patriotic duty to hide the fact that the conqueror of electricity and continental congressman was also a raunchy (and probably unfaithful) lout.
By the mid-20th century, United States federal judges were citing the letter in originalist reasoning to overturn obscenity laws. A Jerome Frank appellate opinion of 1957 named "Advice to a Young Man on Choosing a Mistress" along with "The Speech of Polly Baker" as two examples that would have convicted one of the nation's leading founding fathers on federal obscenity charges if they had been written and mailed under subsequent law.
The most notable of these citations occurred in the United States Supreme Court case, United States v. 12 200-ft. Reels of Film. In a dissenting opinion, Justice William O. Douglas states:
The First Amendment was the product of a robust, not a prudish, age... This was the age when Benjamin Franklin wrote his "Advice to a Young Man on Choosing a Mistress" and "A Letter to the Royal Academy at Brussels". When the United States became a nation, none of the fathers of the country were any more concerned than Franklin with the question of pornography... The Anthony Comstocks, the Thomas Bowdlers and Victorian hypocrisy—the predecessors of our present obscenity laws—had yet to come upon the stage.
The letter is also referenced during a conversation with Benjamin Franklin in the 2012 video gameAssassin's Creed III during a cutscene in a general store.
- ^ abBenjamin Franklin, "Advice to a Friend on Choosing a Mistress" (accessed 19 July 2008).
- ^John Richard Stevens, Weird History 101: My Dinner with Attila the Hun, I Started World War I, Adams Media, 1997 p. 219. ISBN 1-55850-715-9
- ^ abJohn Semonche, Censoring Sex: A Historical Journey Through American Media, Rowman & Littlefield, 2007, p. 14.
- ^ abcAmy Beth Werbel, Thomas Eakins: Art, Medicine, and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia, Yale University Press, 2007, p. 161. ISBN 0-300-11655-1
- ^Semonche, pp. 14-15.
- ^Semonche, p. 15
- ^Daniel J. Kevles, "The Secret History of Birth Control", The New York Times, 22 July 2001 (accessed 19 July 2008).
- ^Stevens, pp. 219-225.
- ^Nat Hentoff, The Nat Hentoff Reader, Da Capo Press, 2001, p. 60.
- ^United States v. 12 200-ft. Reels of Film, 413 U.S. 123 (1973); accessed 19 July 2008.
- ^Assassin's Creed III - Benjamin Franklin's 8 Reasons for Dating Older Women"
In both manuscript and print, this composition has had an unusual history. Three versions of it were among the papers which William Temple Franklin inherited from his grandfather. One was entirely in Benjamin Franklin’s autograph; this is the text reproduced here. The second was a contemporary copy, to which Benjamin Franklin himself made two additions. The third manuscript, made early in the nineteenth century, seems to have been intended for Temple Franklin’s edition of his grandfather’s writings. He decided, however, not to include it and the piece remained unknown to the public.
In 1850, nearly 30 years after Temple Franklin’s death, what remained of the Franklin papers he had owned were purchased by the London bookseller Henry Stevens of Vermont. Stevens’ catalogue offering the collection for sale in 1881 listed “Essays in form of Letters, on ‘Perfumes’ and ‘Choice of a Mistress,’ witty and explosive, but perhaps too Dean Swiftian for the press;” but Stevens did not enumerate the manuscript versions.6 The United States Government purchased the collection in 1882. It contained, as the librarians of the Department of State were startled to discover, two copies of the Old Mistresses—the copy with Franklin’s two additions, and the transcript that had been made for the printer.
Presumably Henry Stevens had withdrawn the Franklin autograph draft from the collection. In any event, it was subsequently acquired by the Chicago collector Charles Frederick Gunther, who later offered his library to the city of Chicago on condition that the city construct a fireproof building to house it. Mr. Gunther died in 1920 before any action had been taken on his offer; the collection became part of his estate; and his widow sold it—some 50,000 items—to the Chicago Historical Society.7 The Society disposed of those items which did not fall within its fields of interest. Thus Franklin’s autograph Old Mistresses’ Apologue was discarded. The manuscript passed through the hands of Forrest G. Sweet into the collection of Dr. A. S. W. Rosenbach of Philadelphia in 1926.8 Dr. Rosenbach prized it as “the most famous and the wittiest essay” Franklin ever wrote and gave it the place of honor in the exhibition of his Frankliniana at the Free Library of Philadelphia in 1938.9
Meanwhile the letter had been frequently, if furtively, printed. In the catalogue of his collection Stevens listed two copies (one “on the purest vellum”) of “Dr. Franklin’s Two New Bagatelles [on Perfumes, and on Marriage],” edited and printed in London in 1881 from the original manuscripts in his possession; but it seems that this never got past the stage of printer’s proof.1 Possibly from Stevens’ unfinished printing, but more than likely from the two manuscript versions which gentlemen might see at the Department of State despite the special restrictions placed on them, other limited editions were privately issued. The first was made in 1885; Paul L. Ford did another in 1887, entitled “A Philosopher in Undress;” and two other printings were run off before 1889, one of them designed by form and type to be inserted between appropriate pages of Bigelow’s edition of Franklin’s writings.2
Ford has recounted the story of his printing. In the Department of State, he explained to a friend, the Franklin letter “was kept very private, and when Bigelow wanted to add it to his edition, permission was refused by Bayard.3 To a distinguished politician and intimate friend, however, he gave an MSS. copy, which was read aloud at a dinner party in New York (after the ladies had left, it is needless to remark). Several gentlemen at once requested copies, which were declined on account of the troubled [sic] to the dis. Pol. involved, so the suggestion was made that he should have it printed. Very well—find me a safe printer—this was a poser to all but himself. He was a friend of mine and knew that for many years I had owned a press and was in the habit of printing little tracts, varying in editions from 1 to 50 copies; and so he came to me and asked me to do it as a favor, as it could not be done by an ordinary printer. Agreed. I added a title page, in keeping, as I thought with the matter, and put it into type, receiving [?] two copies, and sundry shekels in return. One copy went into my Franklin collection, and one into my press file. … You are at liberty to use as much or as little of this story as you please, only kindly omit my name, as I do not care to harness it, even with that of B.F. to such a cart.”4
By such means Franklin’s essay acquired a clandestine fame. No nineteenth century editor or biographer, however, dared to print it. John Bach McMaster, who warmly praised The Speech of Polly Baker, thought the Old Mistresses’ Apologue “unhappily too indecent to print.”5 Ford was certain it would “shock modern taste.”6 Without being specific, Smyth spoke of Franklin manuscripts “the printing of which would not be tolerated by the public sentiment of the present age.”7 Not even that cheerful iconoclast Sydney George Fisher would quote it without deep excisions.8 Slowly, however, the national taste changed. In 1926 Phillips Russell printed the complete essay in his widely read biography of the man he called “the first civilized American.”9 Fifteen years later Franklin’s little essay achieved acceptance, if not complete respectability: Simon and Schuster included it in their Treasury of the World’s Great Letters, and that volume was delivered as a dividend to 225,000 members of the Book-of-the-Month Club.
June 25. 1745
My dear Friend,1
I know of no Medicine fit to diminish the violent natural Inclinations you mention; and if I did, I think I should not communicate it to you. Marriage is the proper Remedy. It is the most natural State of Man, and therefore the State in which you are most likely to find solid Happiness. Your Reasons against entring into it at present, appear to me not well-founded. The circumstantial Advantages you have in View by postponing it, are not only uncertain, but they are small in comparison with that of the Thing itself, the being married and settled. It is the Man and Woman united that make the compleat human Being. Separate, she wants his Force of Body and Strength of Reason; he, her Softness, Sensibility and acute Discernment. Together they are more likely to succeed in the World. A single Man has not nearly the Value he would have in that State of Union. He is an incomplete Animal. He resembles the odd Half of a Pair of Scissars. If you get a prudent healthy Wife, your Industry in your Profession, with her good Œconomy, will be a Fortune sufficient.
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 agreable.
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 regarding2 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.
8[thly and Lastly]3 They are so grateful!!
Thus much for my Paradox. But still I advise you to marry directly; being sincerely Your affectionate Friend.
5. Known better as “Advice to a Young Man on the Choice of a Mistress,” and sometimes as “A Letter on Marriage,” the title here used is that which BF himself gave the copy in Lib. Cong. An undated French translation, in BF’s hand, of the first two and a half sentences is in APS.
6. Henry Stevens, Benjamin Franklin’s Life and Writings: A Bibliographical Essay (London, 1881), p. 18.
8. This sober recital is less colorful than the account Dr. Rosenbach liked to give of the manuscript’s history. See his A Book Hunter’s Holiday (Boston, 1936), p. 26.
9. The All-Embracing Doctor Franklin … Illustrated by Books and Manuscripts from the Collection of Dr. A. S. W. Rosenbach (Phila., 1938).
1. Stevens, Benjamin Franklin’s Life and Writings, pp. 39, 40. No completed copy of this printing is known. A proof copy was found and presented to Lib. Cong. in 1935 by Henry Stevens, Son & Stiles, of London.
2. Ford, Franklin Bibliography, nos. 52–5.
3. Thomas F. Bayard, Secretary of State, 1885–89.
4. Goodspeed’s Book Shop, Inc., Catalogue 268 (1936), item 74.
5. Benjamin Franklin as a Man of Letters (Boston, 1887), p. 266.
6. The Many-Sided Franklin (N.Y., 1899), p. 410.
8. The True Benjamin Franklin (Phila., 1899), pp. 126–8.
9. Benjamin Franklin, The First Civilized American (N. Y., 1926), pp. 171–3.
1. The addressee is unknown; and the letter may in fact be an essay in the form of a letter. Paul L. Ford believed it was addressed to William Franklin; but William was only a lad of 14 or 15 in 1745. Smyth noted a tradition in the Colden family that it was written to one of their young men, and Va. Hist. Soc. owns a facsimile of a late 19th century transcript of the letter on which the name of Cadwallader Colden has been inserted—as unlikely a recipient as can be imagined. These statements of Ford and Smyth are made in letters laid in a copy of Ford’s A Philosopher in Undress (1887) that was offered for sale in Goodspeed’s Catalogue 268, item 74.
2. BF first wrote “viewing.”
3. “thly and Lastly” is added from BF’s own correction of the copy in Lib. Cong.