The Struggle on the battlefields of Revolutionary America was also even reflected within households, with Tories and revolutionaries facing off across the dinner table for spirited discussions that, in some cases, ripped families into opposing camps. This was true even among the most famous revolutionaries themselves: John Adams, George Washington, and John Hancock; all had fervently Royalist in-laws. But few saw their families split apart as irrevocably as Benjamin Franklin’s estrangement from his once-beloved son, William.
William Franklin is something of a mystery. Although he was clearly Ben’s son, it is still not clear who his mother was. In his lifetime, Ben Franklin was a notorious womanizer – so much so that throughout much of the nineteenth century it was considered bad taste to mention Franklin’s name in the presence of ladies. Although his reputation has been cleaned up and softened over the decades, Franklin was once referred to sarcastically as “the all-embracing Doctor Franklin, America’s upstanding genius,” grabbing, kissing, and propositioning anything in petticoats.
Despite the scandal behind William’s conception, he was Ben’s pride and joy. When his son was still a child, Ben provided him with a pony and plenty of books. As William grew older, he helped his dad with the Poor Richard’s Almanack and acted as his secretary and assistant. For twenty-five years they were not just father and son, but partners, confidants, and friends. When Ben undertook his most famous scientific experiment with electricity, it was William who raced through cow pastures to get a kit to fly in a lightning storm. Benjamin sat dryly in a nearby shed.
In 1757, Ben went to England to argue tax matters as a representative of the Pennsylvania Assembly. With the idea of saving William from what Ben considered an unfortunate engagement with the daughter of one of Ben’s political enemies in Philadelphia, Ben convinced his son to come on the journey. That may have been a mistake.
Benjamin ended up staying for fifteen years, leaving his long-suffering common-law wife Deborah back in Philadelphia. (She was terrified of transoceanic travel.)
In England, William began to emerge from his father’s shadow and find an affinity with all things British. He studied law at the Inns of Court, was called to the bar in 1758, and slowly transformed himself from the bastard son of a colonial printer to an English gentleman. His skill at law favorably impressed some of King George’s advisors. When Ben was ready to return to Philadelphia in 1762, William announced that he was ready to go, too – as the newly married, newly appointed Royal Governor of New Jersey.
Initially, Benjamin was a proud papa, writing to his sister, “I have no doubt but that he will make as good a Governor as Husband: for he was good principles and good Dispositions, & I think is not deficient in good Understanding.” William Franklin at first busied himself with administrative concerns like upgrading roads and improving the debtors’ laws, but he soon threw himself into representing the Crown with vigor. Ben worried that his son had become more English than American.
Meanwhile, Ben had become enough of a revolutionary troublemaker that he was removed from his royal position as colonial Postmaster General. He asked his son to resign his royal appointment, too. William refused, fretting that his aggravating papa was ruining his chance for his hoped-for promotion to Governor of Barbados. “You are a thorough courtier,” Ben wrote accusingly, “and see everything with government eyes.”
Ben returned to England in 1764, where he badgered William back home with letters demanding payment for a variety of moneys owed, including repeated references to the cost of a small quantity of Lapsang Suchong tea. William, in the meantime, attempted to mediate between the Crown and the colonists, but slowly became one of the most vocal critics of American hopes of independence from Britain, even suggesting after the Boston Tea Party that the city’s citizens should be heavily taxed to pay for the tea.
When Benjamin returned from England after eleven years in 1775, he found the colonies on the brink of outright revolution. He traveled to the Governor’s mansion in Perth Amboy for one last-ditch attempt to convert his son to the rebel cause. The meeting did not go well. “I have lost my son,” Ben wrote mournfully to his daughter’s husband.
In June 1776, Ben was in Philadelphia, helping write the Declaration of Independence, when he got word that his monarchist son had been arrested by the New Jersey Assembly as “an enemy to the liberties of this country.” It was a fate William might have escaped except for his predisposition, learned from his father, to practice what he believed.
“All over colonial America natural opponents of the rebellion were moving to their country houses and keeping quiet,” wrote historian William Sterne Randall in A Little Revenge: Benjamin Franklin & His Son. “William Franklin might have suffered no worse fat than to sit out the Revolution in elegant comfort had it been his nature to acquiesce.” Instead, he convened the loyalist New Jersey Assembly and began sending intelligence reports back to the British Army headquarters. One of his last letters, in fact, was a report on his father’s rebellious activities, including the news that Benjamin had traveled to Canada to try to stir up rebellion there as well.
With his father’s blessing William was thrown into a rat-infested hellhole of a jail in Litchfield, Connecticut. The floor was covered with straw, matted with the waste of previous occupants. The date, ironically, was July 4, 1776. Even George Washington urged Congress to have William moved to better quarters, but Ben used his influence to block a transfer. He also prevented William’s son from seeing him, successfully working to alienate the boy from his father. He wrote to a friend abut his grandson: “I have rescued a valuable young man from the danger of being a Tory. . . .”
Meanwhile, William was discovered writing Tory diatribes that were being smuggled out of his cell, so authorities confiscated all pen, ink, and paper.
During confinement, William lost his teeth, hair, health, and wife, Deborah. When she was on her deathbed, William sent a message to George Washington, requesting that he be allowed to visit her one last time. Washington was so moved that he wrote to Congress that “humanity and generosity plead powerfully in favor of his application.” Congress looked to Ben for a sign of concurrence.
William stayed confined for nearly three years until English authorities, alarmed at his conditions, won William’s release in trade for some rebel prisoners.
Intended lesson unlearned, William traveled to British-held New York, where he worked with new vigor to subvert the revolution, developing a network of informers and planning raids into rebel-held New Jersey. Finally, when it became clear that the cause was lost, he moved to London, never to return to the land of his birth.
Benjamin made an effort to erase all records of his son from his life. He expunged William’s name from all diary entries and from his autobiography (the first draft of which had been dedicated to his “beloved son Billy” and had begun, “Dear son, . . . “). Ben not only disinherited him and forced him to give up his properties in the colonies, he even sent a bill for the “loan” of every farthing Ben had spent raising William from infancy.
The estrangement continued after the war. Finally, in July 1784, William wrote to his father, who was on diplomatic mission to France: “Dear and Honoured Father, Ever since the Termination of the unhappy Contest between Great Britain and America, I have been anxious to write to you and to endeavor to revive that affectionate Intercourse and Connextion which till the Commencement of the late troubles had been the Pride and Happiness of my Life. . . . I have uniformly acted from a sense strong of what I Conceived by duty to my king and regard to my Country required. . . .
“On a subject so disagreeable I have no Desire to say more, and I hope everything which has happened relative to it may be mutually forgotten. . . . I beg you to be assured of my constant Prayers for your Health and Happiness, and that I am, as ever, Your very dutiful and affectionate Son. . . .”
His father’s answer came back a month later: “I am glad to find you desire to revive the affectionate intercourse that formerly existed between us. It would be very agreeable to me; indeed, nothing has hurt me so much . . . as to find myself deserted in my old age by my only son; and not only deserted, but to find him taking up arms against me in a cause wherein my good fame, fortune, and life were all at stake.
“Yet I ought not to blame you for differing in sentiment with me in public affairs. We are men, all subject to errors. Our opinions are not in our own power; they are formed and governed much by circumstances. . . . I will be glad to see you when convenient, but would not have you come here at present. . . .”
Benjamin never did invite William to France. A year would pass before the father found it “convenient” to see his son, and only because he would be briefly stopping in England en route home. It was a brief and coolly formal meeting. Ben had spent most of his time in London meeting with old friends and associates, knowing that at near eighty, this was likely his last transatlantic trip. Finally, he arrived at William’s door to present some financial documents to sign, and then sailed back to America as soon as a ship would take him away.
In 1788, two years before his death, Franklin wrote, “My son is estranged from me and keeps aloof, residing in England.” When Benjamin Franklin died, he left the city of Philadelphia a large quantity of money, but provided little to William: It canceled Ben’s claim to the sum that he believed William still owed him (including the cost of raising him) and left him a small parcel of land in Nova Scotia.