He had met the woman at a lively dinner gathering at the home of the surveyor general in Burlington three years ago, when Franklin and his business partner were printing paper money for the province of New Jersey. She and her husband, Captain Joseph Bradford, were seated when he entered the parlor. The first thing he noticed was the sheen of her long, abundant hair, nearly black, pinned back, strands touching her bare shoulders, and eyes of china blue that made a brilliant contrast. The second thing he noticed as she rose and extended a slender hand was how tall she was, almost equal to his five feet ten inches.
They were seated together at the long table as the two youngest of the company, and because it was hoped that the twenty-two-year-old writer, with his wit and vast reading, would entertain the captain's wife, herself a woman of unusual erudition. Her father, a rich merchant and amateur scientist, had novel ideas about women and spared no expense on books and tutors for his youngest daughter, Marion. It had stood her in good stead. She had married the adoring Captain Bradford, master of two merchant vessels, who was at sea for years at a time while she managed his business affairs on land, having complete power of attorney and notable financial literacy.
After one hour in Mrs. Bradford's company, Franklin was not quite sure whether she found him entertaining or ridiculous. She smiled agreeably. At times she fairly beamed, raising an eyebrow, whether what this bachelor said was funny or not, as if she laughed at some inner joke that might be at his expense, or perhaps a distant memory awakened in her that had nothing to do with him. She was certainly the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, with the clear cameo features of a Titian Madonna. She seemed much older than he (she was then twenty-eight) and more worldly-wise, a wife, woman of affairs, and mother of a ten-year-old daughter.
At the other end of the table the surveyor general, a judge, their wives, and several aldermen sipped wine and talked business with Captain Bradford, who knew everything about the balance of trade. He was a jovial mariner of fifty with thick side-whiskers and merry eyes. He would be sailing for England in May with a cargo of tobacco and lumber, returning, God willing, in October with broadcloth and salt. Then off again on a winter run to Barbados.
Captain Bradford and his wife owned two homes, the mansion outside Burlington and a smaller house in the port city of Perth Amboy near Raritan Bay and the ship channel. She first wrote to the young printer from Perth Amboy on May 17, 1728, asking if he might call upon her in Burlington during the following week. She had questions about the currency.
There in the twilight of her book-lined drawing room, as night closed in around them, it took them all of fifteen minutes to realize they were in love—hardly enough time to light the lamps. These free spirits, unsupervised, without religion, and agreeing that vice and virtue were empty distinctions, gave in to nature and high spirits. They soon found that they could not get enough of each other.
That spring and summer, in Burlington County and in Philadelphia, in inns and courtyards, meadows, haylofts, and rowboats, they made love as lovers have done since time began and as they believed no lovers had ever made love before, with enthusiasm, imagination, and acrobatic virtuosity. They did things not to be recorded here. They were cleverly discreet. And of course they took care to see that Mrs. Bradford did not get pregnant. She knew all about that, and he trusted her to supply what he lacked in experience.
When the leaves turned and it was time for the captain to come home, they were not quite exhausted, but discovered the fire that had warmed them in the summer had given way to a glow that was inextinguishable: a sort of tenderness and deep understanding of kindred spirits. Now each must appeal to the other's highest nature. They must not meet again. They must consider not only themselves, but others.
So in November, Franklin wrote his famous "Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion" in which he embraces virtue and goodness as the only means to leading a happy life. During the next few years he would create a program calculated to achieve moral perfection, by checking off cardinal virtues one by one on a chart: temperance, frugality, justice, moderation...twelve in all, with the last being chastity. By concentrating on one per week, then repeating, in a year or two one might become a saint. He managed to stay away from Marion Bradford for more than eight months during which he pined for her. He took consolation in the company of his old flame Deborah Read, a handsome woman he had known since they were seventeen. She, too, was married, but disastrously; her husband had run off years ago, so she was for most purposes available, if not legally marriageable.