Saturday, July 14, 2012

Ben Franklin's son ... a Royal Governor and British loyalist

American patriot Ben Franklin did his best to ensure the success of his son in colonial America, but regretted it when the son became too successful and dedicated to meeting his professional responsibilities … leading to an estrangement that never reconciled between the father and son.

William Franklin

Born illegitimately to a mother who is unknown to history, William Franklin grew up with his father and a stepmother, Ben Franklin’s common-law wife Deborah. The stepmother/stepson relationship tended to be strained.

As William became a young adult, his father arranged for him to study law under a respected Philadelphia attorney. And after Ben was appointed deputy postmaster for pre-revolutionary America in 1751, he appointed William as postmaster of Philadelphia, a post that the elder Franklin held previously. Father and son appeared to be very close during this stage of their lives, not only in the professional world, but personally as well, with William serving as Ben’s only assistant for his famous kite experiment. Both men jointly speculated in acquiring western lands, too, believing strongly in their growing value as the colonies expanded.

William joined his dad on a trip to England in 1757. Ben had been appointed by the Pennsylvania Assembly to approach the British government with concerns about the Penn family’s control of the colony as its “proprietors.” At the time, the Assembly could pass its own laws, but the Penn family, which technically owned the colony based on the original land charter given to it by the British king more than 75 years earlier, had final say on any such action by the Assembly. That governance structure produced a considerable amount of conflict in the rapidly growing colony. During his visit to England, Ben was unsuccessful in his efforts to loosen the proprietors’ control.

But Ben – and William – did enjoy another success that surprised almost everyone.  Thanks to the elder Franklin’s connections with the British prime minister, Britain’s newly crowned George III appointed William to be the Royal Governor of New Jersey. William took the position seriously and never wavered in performing his responsibilities. He remained a dutiful British loyalist even as his father and others moved toward revolution during the late 1760s and early 1770s. William and Ben grew further and further apart during those years.

“Away from his father, [William] had grown into a man of his own, as convinced of the correctness of his principles as his father was of his principles, and as stubborn in defending them,” wrote H. W. Brands in his 2000 book The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin. “The apple had fallen close to the tree in regard of character, if not of politics.”

As hostilities between the colonists and British broke out and continued for years, colonial militiamen put William Franklin under house arrest in 1776. A few months later, he was seized and taken to Connecticut, where he remained under control of Governor Jonathan Trumbull. In contrast to William, Trumbull supported the American cause despite his appointment to his position by the British crown.

Released as part of a prisoner exchange in 1778, William lived among other loyalists in New York. He then went to England about 1782, never to return to America. In 1784, William wrote to his father, who was nearing the end of a stint as the American ambassador to France, that he wished to “revive that affectionate intercourse and connexion which till the commencement of the last troubles had been the pride and happiness of my life.”

On his way back to America, Ben agreed to meet with William when he passed through England. Ultimately, it became a business meeting to tie up legal and financial issues involving land William owned in America and debts that he owed to his father. A complicating issue was the presence of Temple Franklin, William’s own illegitimate son (fathered prior to his marriage, also with a mother unknown to history), who Ben had taken in and raised, although William later acknowledged Temple as his own.

“The meeting of the three generations occurred under inauspicious circumstances,” wrote Brands in his Ben Franklin biography. “[Ben] Franklin’s guests were coming and going … the three had scarce time and less privacy for the sort of soul-searching a genuine reunion required. Doubtless Franklin preferred it this way. Scars had formed over wounds he felt at what he considered his son’s betrayal; better not to reopen them.”

“William found the encounter acutely distressing,” added Brands. “His hopes for reconciliation were dashed, his ties to his homeland severed.”

1 comment:

The Horse Dad said...

Really interesting. Family dis-function, then, is not a creation of the 20th Century ...