Front Page Titles (by Subject) XXXVIII: THE SPEECH OF POLLY BAKER 1 - The Works of Benjamin Franklin, Vol. II Letters and Misc. Writings 1735-1753
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XXXVIII: THE SPEECH OF POLLY BAKER 1 - Benjamin Franklin, The Works of Benjamin Franklin, Vol. II Letters and Misc. Writings 1735-1753 
The Works of Benjamin Franklin, including the Private as well as the Official and Scientific Correspondence, together with the Unmutilated and Correct Version of the Autobiography, compiled and edited by John Bigelow (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904). The Federal Edition in 12 volumes. Vol. II (Letters and Misc. Writings 1735-1753).
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THE SPEECH OF POLLY BAKER1
The Speech of Miss Polly Baker before a Court of Judicatory, in New England, where she was prosecuted for a fifth time, for having a Bastard Child; which influenced the Court to dispense with her punishment, and which induced one of her judges to marry her the next day—by whom she had fifteen children.
“May it please the honourable bench to indulge me in a few words: I am a poor, unhappy woman, who have no money to fee lawyers to plead for me, being hard put to it to get a living. I shall not trouble your honours with long speeches; for I have not the presumption to expect that you may, by any means, be prevailed on to deviate in your sentence from the law, in my favour. All I humbly hope is, that your honours would charitably move the governor’s goodness on my behalf, that my fine may be remitted. This is the fifth time, gentlemen, that I have been dragged before your court on the same account; twice I have paid heavy fines, and twice I have been brought to public punishment, for want of money to pay those fines. This may have been agreeable to the laws, and I don’t dispute it; but since the laws are sometimes unreasonable in themselves, and therefore repealed; and others bear too hard on the subject in particular instances, and therefore there is left a power somewhere to dispense with the execution of them, I take the liberty to say, that I think this law, by which I am punished, both unreasonable in itself, and particularly severe with regard to me, who have always lived an inoffensive life in the neighbourhood where I was born, and defy my enemies (if I have any) to say I have wronged any man, woman, or child. Abstracted from the law, I cannot conceive (may it please your honours) what the nature of my offence is. I have brought five children into the world, at the risque of my life; I have maintained them well by my own industry, without burthening the township, and would have done it better, if it had not been for the heavy charges and fines I have paid. Can it be a crime (in the nature of things, I mean) to add to the King’s subjects, in a new country that really wants people? I own it, I should think it rather a praiseworthy than a punishable action. I have debauched no other woman’s husband, nor enticed any youth; these things I never was charged with; nor has any one the least cause of complaint against me, unless, perhaps, the ministers of justice, because I have had children without being married, by which they have missed a wedding fee. But can this be a fault of mine? I appeal to your honours. You are pleased to allow I don’t want sense; but I must be stupefied to the last degree, not to prefer the honourable state of wedlock to the condition I have lived in. I always was, and still am willing to enter into it; and doubt not my behaving well in it, having all the industry, frugality, fertility, and skill in economy appertaining to a good wife’s character. I defy any one to say I ever refused an offer of that sort; on the contrary, I readily consented to the only proposal of marriage that ever was made me, which was when I was a virgin, but too easily confiding in the person’s sincerity that made it, I unhappily lost my honour by trusting to his; for he got me with child, and then forsook me.
That very person, you all know, he is now become a magistrate of this country; and I had hopes he would have appeared this day on the bench, and have endeavoured to moderate the Court in my favour; then I should have scorned to have mentioned it; but I must now complain of it, as unjust and unequal, that my betrayer, and undoer, the first cause of all my faults and miscarriages (if they must be deemed such), should be advanced to honor and power in the government that punishes my misfortunes with stripes and infamy. I should be told, ’t is like, that were there no act of Assembly in the case, the precepts of religion are violated by my transgressions. If mine is a religious transgression, leave it to religious punishment. You have already excluded me from the comforts of your church communion. Is not that sufficient? What need is there then of your additional fines and whipping? You believe I have offended heaven, and must suffer eternal fire; will not that be sufficient? I own I do not think as you do, for, if I thought what you call a sin was really such, I could not presumptuously commit it. But how can it be believed that Heaven is angry at my having children, when to the little done by me towards it, God has been pleased to add his divine skill and admirable workmanship in the formation of their bodies, and crowned the whole by furnishing them with rational and immortal souls? Forgive me, gentlemen, if I talk a little extravagantly on these matters: I am no divine, but if you, gentlemen, must be making laws, do not turn natural and useful actions into crimes by your prohibitions. But take into your wise consideration the great and growing number of bachelors in the country, many of whom, from the mean fear of the expense of a family, have never sincerely and honestly courted a woman in their lives; and by their manner of living leave unproduced (which is little better than murder) hundreds of their posterity to the thousandth generation. Is not this a greater offence against the public good than mine? Compel them, then, by law, either to marriage, or to pay double the fine of fornication every year. What must poor young women do, whom customs and nature forbid to solicit the men, and who cannot force themselves upon husbands, when the laws take no care to provide them any, and yet severely punish them if they do their duty without them; the duty of the first and great command of nature and nature’s God, increase and multiply; a duty, from the steady performance of which nothing has been able to deter me, but for its sake I have hazarded the loss of the public esteem, and have frequently endured public disgrace and punishment; and therefore ought, in my humble opinion, instead of a whipping, to have a statue erected to my memory.”
[1 ]Two of the more elaborate of Franklin’s jokes in the Pennsylvania Gazette says Mr. Parton in his charming biography of Franklin, have escaped the vigilance of editors hitherto. The speech of Polly Baker is one of these; which is not only humorous, but well rebukes the cruel immorality which sent a poor miserable drab to the whipping-post, and invited her seducer to dinner. This speech was a current joke in the colonial press for thirty years, and continued to be occasionally reprinted after the Revolution. It was inserted in the Gazette, Franklin tells us, to amuse the town at a time when there was little news stirring.