One of the interesting things we learned this summer in Philadelphia is that Benjamin Franklin lived in a common-law relationship with his wife Deborah Read, from 1730 until her death in 1774. Was this on account of Franklin’s principled unorthodoxy, the same spirit that impelled him to reject organized religion and to appear at the court of the French king wearing a rustic fur hat? Not really – it was simply that Read could not prove that her first husband was actually dead, and could thus not remarry without committing bigamy. Franklin and Read spent much time apart, however – allegedly she hated sea travel, and so did not accompany Franklin on his many trips to Europe. Another theory “suggests that a debate over the failed treatment of their son’s smallpox was the culprit.” See an extensive article in this month’s Smithsonian Magazine for more details.
Franklin already had an illegitimate child by another relationship before he set up house with Read; this was William Franklin (d. 1813). William grew up to be the last colonial governor of New Jersey and interestingly, remained a steadfast loyalist during the Revolutionary War. He ended his days in London unreconciled to his father.