Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) Sir William Franklin (c. 1730-1813)
Because the colonists won the Revolution, it’s been largely forgotten that the War for Independence was also a civil war in which brother fought against brother, son against father.
The deadly opposition between colonists who supported the Revolution and those known as Tories or Loyalists who opposed independence offer a preview of the next century’s Civil War.
One statistic demonstrates the internecine nature of the conflict the British and Loyalists considered a rebellion, the colonists, a revolution. After the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781 which effectively ended the war, 100,000 Americans who had opposed the Revolution fled abroad.
One of the Loyalists evacuated on a British warship was the last Royal Governor of New Jersey, Sir William Franklin, Benjamin Franklin’s illegitimate and only son.
During the younger Franklin was considered the most notorious Loyalist with the single exception of Benedict Arnold, Willard Sterne Randall writes in A Little Revenge, his masterful dual biography of the Franklins.
But even William’s enemies, according to an 18th century American biographer, Ashbel Green, described him as “one of the handsomest men in America.”
The comparison between Arnold and William Franklin is unfair and inaccurate. Wounded pride, greed and the love of his aristocratic, Loyalist wife motivated Arnold to betrayed the cause he had fought for.
William Franklin could not be labeled a traitor because he had never joined the rebellion turned revolution. Sir William remained a loyal subject of the British crown and continued to serve as Royal Governor until his arrest and imprisonment in 1776 under hellish conditions that made a Medieval dungeon seem luxurious by comparison.
The conflict between Loyalists and Revolutionaries was embodied by Benjamin, a Founding Father, and William, an ill-used son.
If he’s remembered at all, the younger Franklin is known as the boy (actually he was 22 at the time) who helped his father prove that lighting was electricity. The elder Franklin was 46 at the time and overweight. His son took on the exhausting task of placing lightning rods on the family home’s roof. William also designed and built the kite used in the experiment.
The discovery made Benjamin Franklin the most famous man in the world at the time, the Einstein of the 18th century. William received no credit for his role as his father’s invaluable assistant and drudge.
Franklin lived by the proverb in his Poor Richard’s Almanack, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” Despite his son’s demonstrable intellect and thankless work for his father, Benjamin sent William to a local grammar school in Philadelphia, but took him out of school after only two years.
Eventually, he paid for William to attend the Inns of Court in London, the great law school where barristers (litigators in America) were trained. After three years, the student was admitted to the bar and automatically became a member of the upper class regardless of birth.
Although a parsimonious parent, Benjamin was occasionally a permissive one who loosened his purse strings. Franklin sounds like a modern child psychologist when he advised a young mother on how to raise her son as he had raised his own.
“Pray let him have everything he likes: I think it is of great consequence, while the features of the countenance are forming. It gives them a pleasant air [which] much of a person’s good fortune and success in life may depend.”
In rare instances, Benjamin was not only a permissive parent but a generous one. During William’s youth, his father gave him his own horse, a rare perk for the son of a “tradesman,” the elder Franklin wrote in his autobiography.
William was illegitimate but may have been the child of his stepmother, Deborah Read, before his parents’ marriage. In their voluminous, affectionate correspondence, William always referred to Deborah as “mother.”
Benjamin recognized his son after he had been married to William’s (step?)mother for seven years, the legally allotted time before bastards could be legitimized. The acknowledgment of William’s parentage was kept secret at the time.
Years later, when William was one of the most important political figures in colonial America, the revelation of his illegitimacy would create a scandal on both sides of the Atlantic.
Benjamin insisted that William’s educational fees and living expenses while a student represented loans, not grants. For the rest of his life, father continued to dun son in person and by Transatlantic letter during trips abroad.
Benjamin often refused to admit that William had already repaid a loan from him and demanded payment a second time. A dutiful son, William always paid up.
After finishing his studies at the Inns of Court and receiving an honorary master’s degree from Oxford, William returned to America in 1762 with his bride, Elizabeth Downes, a wealthy heiress to a sugar plantation fortune in the Barbados.
He angered his father by rejecting Benjamin’s choice of a bride, Polly Stevenson, also an heiress and daughter of Franklin’s landlady when he served as the agent or lobbyist for the American colonies in England in the 1760s.
French-speaking and exceptionally well-educated for a woman of her time, Polly charmed Benjamin, who promised to tutor and in his words, “make a scientist out of her.”
While in England, William developed a close relationships with government ministers, most importantly Lord Bute. The Scottish earl was the young King George III’s favorite, former tutor and briefly his prime minister.
On Bute’s recommendation, the King appointed William Royal Governor of New Jersey in 1762. William’s own illegitimate son, William Temple Franklin, wrote in his Life of Benjamin Franklin by His Grandson that the appointment was due to the “influence of Lord Bute without any solicitation on the part of his father,” Benjamin.
The prestigious appointment came at an unfortunate time. Just as William assumed his new post, a newspaper hostile to the Franklin family revealed the younger Franklin’s illegitimacy.
The reaction showed that American colonialists could be as snobbish and class-consciousness as any English aristocrat. John Adams fumed with righteous Puritan indignation against a bastard being elevated to high office:
“Without the supposition of some kind of backstairs intrigue, it is difficult to account for the affront to the dignity and insult to the morals of America, the elevation to the government of New Jersey of a base-born brat.”
When William appeared before the Continental Congress during an investigation of his “traitorous” behavior on the behalf of the British and the Loyalists, a member employed irony to express sentiments similar to Adams’: “On the whole the governor’s performance was worthy of his exalted birth…”
Both slurs were hurled by members of a revolution whose founding principle was the equality of men.
Before the rebellion turned into a revolution, the two Franklins were partners in politics, publishing, grand real estate schemes in the Illinois country, and fighting Indians on the Pennsylvania frontier.
William was very much the junior partner, dependent on his father for income even after his appointment as governor. William’s salary was often delayed for as much as three years.
Before becoming governor, William had served as his father’s unpaid secretary and assistant in America and later in London while Benjamin lobbied Parliament and the king on behalf of the colonies.
The clash between father and son over the course of the American colonies’ destiny was not inevitable. As he was later lionized in France during the war, England also treated Benjamin like a celebrity and was feted by usually snobbish aristocrats.
The Royal Society of London, whose members had included Sir Isaac Newton, awarded Franklin a medal for his experiments with electricity and made him a member, one of the few Americans in the 18th century to be so honored.
After an enemy had blackballed him for years, Oxford finally awarded him an honorary doctor of laws degree which particularly pleased the self-educated Franklin.
William, who did have a formal education from the most prestigious school of law in England, received an honorary master of laws degree
One event more than any other turned Benjamin into a revolutionary. It was more of a personal affront than political that soured Franklin on his welcoming ancestral country.
In 1768, while in London, Benjamin gave a friendly member of Parliament the correspondence of William Hutchinson, the Royal Governor of Massachusetts.
The letters were leaked to the press and revealed that Hutchinson had asked for British troops to punish scoff-law Americans. Franklin publicly admitted having stolen the letters.
Called before the King’s Privy Council, he endured an hour and a half of humiliation by his interrogators.
Joseph Priestly, one of the discoverers of oxygen and one of Franklin’s few allies during the hearing, later described the insulting treatment meted out to the most celebrated mind of the age:
“At the sallies of [Solicitor General’s] sarcastic wit, all members of the Council, the president himself included, frequently laughed outright” at Franklin.
He was dismissed from his lucrative post as deputy postmaster general for all of America, the main source of his income. The Solicitor General, Alexander Wedderburn, also planned to arrest Franklin for treason.
After his interrogation by the Privy Council, Franklin said, “I entered the [hearing] a loyal British subject and emerged an American.” Personal pride and humiliation had created a Founding Father.
Four years later, when he was presented to Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette from whom he sought loans and troops to fight France’s ancient enemy, England, Franklin wore the same coat, now a threadbare mess, he had worn during questioning by the Privy Council.
Asked why he had appeared in such shabby clothing, Franklin said, “For a little revenge.”
Before and after Lexington and Concord, William continued to act as George III’s loyal subject. As Royal Governor and adherent of the British constitution, he urged conciliation on both sides.
As the war heated up, William engaged in what was inaccurately labeled treasonous correspondence with members of Parliament and the King’s ministers. His letters provided information on American troop movements as well as pleas for reasonableness on the part of the crown.
William was arrested by order of the Continental Congress but refused to give his “parole” or word that he would cease his counter-revolutionary activities.
Over a two-year period beginning in 1776 shortly after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, William was confined under increasingly horrific conditions.
George Washington, who had dined with William and his beautiful wife at the Governor Franklin’s mansion before the war, pleaded for humane treatment of his friend. The chairman of the Congressional committee that had ordered William’s imprisonment rejected Washington’s pleas.
The chairman was Benjamin Franklin. At war’s end, William told a British historian that his father had actively sought his imprisonment.
During the revolution, atrocities were committed by both sides. Some Loyalist prisoners of war were kept in an abandoned mine shaft. William’s final place of incarceration was arguably worse, Litchfield jail in Connecticut, which William described without exaggeration as “the very worst jail in America.”
A revolutionary general predicted that William would be hanged. Instead, he was confined in a second-floor cell reserved for condemned prisoners. The cell had only a small barred window and was covered with straw previous prisoners had used to relieve themselves since the jail had no toilet facilities.
There were also no bed or chair, and William had to sleep on the filthy straw – when he could get sleep. His cell had also been chosen because a guardroom on the ground floor also housed a tavern whose rowdy patrons made it impossible for William to get any sleep.
“The smell hit him first, then the darkness,” Willard Randall writes. The cell was so cramped, it was impossible for the prisoner to stretch out on the reeking floor.
After six months in solitary confinement, William succumbed to terminal despair.
In a letter to his jailor, Jonathan Trumbull, the governor of Connecticut, he described his imprisonment as “being buried alive” and told Trumbull he would “deem it a favor to be immediately taken out and shot,” preferring a quick death to the lingering death he was certain awaited him.
Despite the continuing pleas of Washington, who wrote Congress, “Humanity and generosity plead powerfully in favor of [William’s release],” Congress had the temerity and vengefulness to deny the request of the hero on the Revolution.
During his incarceration, William’s wife had become seriously ill, and her condition also prompted Washington to plead for her husband’s freedom to save her life.
William spent eight months in Litchfield jail before he was exchanged for a POW held by the British. He had entered confinement a robust, slightly overweight gentleman in his 40s with a full set of teeth.
The once “handsomest man in America” emerged toothless, emaciated, destitute, his health ruined, his hair gone. Washington’s fears about William’s wife were validated. Shortly before her husband’s release, Elizabeth Downes Franklin died at the age of 43.
William believed he knew the cause of his wife’s death, writing that she had “died of a broken heart occasioned by our long separation and my ill-treatment.”
A decade later while in exile in England, William commissioned a memorial plaque Trinity Church in New York City where his wife was interred.
“From a grateful remembrance of her affectionate tenderness and constant performance of all the duties of a good wife, this monument is erected by him who knew her worth and still laments her loss.”
The Royal Gazette in London agreed with William’s assessment and published an obituary noting that her funeral had been “attended by a number of the most respectable inhabitants” and called her “a loving wife, a steady friend, affable to all” in a class-conscious society.
In 1785, just before Benjamin’s final return to America, William attempted a reconciliation during a meeting in France. Benjamin, 79, obese and addicted to opium due to paralyzing gout and kidney stones, rebuffed his son.
And bequeathed the bulk of his fortune to his grandson William Temple Franklin, while demanding payment for loans his son had repaid years earlier.
Dutifully, William suppressed his anger and signed over all of his extensive property in America, including his mansion in New Jersey.
After his release in 1778, the ex-governor moved to London, where he rented a modest home. While in exile that lasted until his death in 1813, he continued to seek peace between the warring sides. After the Revolution, he successfully lobbied Parliament to compensate Loyalists for loss of property and lives.
The political and personal animosity between father and son was not a unique phenomenon. Both Washington and John Adams had relatives and in-laws who had remained loyal to the crown.
William Livingston, a New Jersey delegate to the Continental Congress, unfairly described the situation after his nephew was imprisoned for Loyalist sympathies:
“All families are liable to have degenerate members.”
Clary, David A. Adopted Son: Washington, Lafayette, and the Friendship That Saved the Revolution. Bantam Books, 2007.
Green, Ashbel. The Life of the Rev’d John Witherspoon. Princeton University Library Manuscripts Division, 1973.
Randall, Willard Sterne. A Little Revenge: Benjamin Franklin & His Son. Little, Brown & Co, 1984.
Sanello, Frank. Fractured History Tales. Genesee Avenue Books, 2011.
Tuchman, Barbara. The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam. Alfred A. Knopf, 1984.
Wheatcroft, Andrew. The World Atlas of Revolutions. Simon and Schuster, 1983.
Williamson, David. Debrett’s Kings and Queens of Britain. Salem House, 1986.
Causes Frank Sanello Supports
ACLU, ASPCA, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders