Franklin’s relationships with his family can be troubling compared to our modern sensibilities. How proper (or abusive) was Franklin by the standards of his own age? What can 18th-century families teach us today from observing Franklin’s relationship with his own family?
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Certainly, by his own age's standards, Franklin was not seen as any more abusive than anyone else. The time period in which Franklin lived viewed issues of personal conduct and domestic responsibilities in a different light than the modern setting. The fact that Franklin had a son outside of marriage is one issue that could be seen as troubling in today's condition, but was not viewed in such a light in Franklin's time. Interestingly enough, his break up with his son was rooted in their political differences. Franklin's son was a Loyalist and the father sided with the Patriotic cause. By today's standards, most would not break up over political affiliations. This reflects some of the differences between how people carried themselves in terms of their emotional understandings then and now. At the same time, Franklin was so committed to his work that he spends more time away from his wife than with her. Franklin embraces the idea that work is paramount to one's existence, a habit that we now criticize, but strangely still see in the modern condition.
This is where the lessons lie. In the end, it's difficult to assess what is "abusive" using today's standards in understanding the past. This becomes even more relevant in the discussion of emotional and private dynamics. The same transgressions of the past are done today. We can easily criticize Franklin for his actions in the emotional realm using standards of today. Yet, this becomes hollow when we acknowledge that the same behaviors are done today. Some children exist outside of marriage. Some parents fail to acknowledge them, while some, like Franklin, do. Some bonds are broken and never repaired while others are broken for a time and then reestablished. It becomes a futile practice to look at private issues in the past and judge them in a harsh manner or deify them in a glorious one. The best we can do is look at what was done in the domestic realm in the past and examine how we are different or similar today. We can use points of emphasis to stress what we feel is important and valuable and perhaps make personal judgments as to what we believe is essential and proper, but the exercise to make sweeping moral or ethical absolutes might be futile one.
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