Saturday, June 15, 2013

Founding Fathers Part Three - The Most Famous Duo

The Franklins

A Promising Beginning

The most famous father son duo of the American Revolution would be the Franklins:  famed scientist, publisher, philosopher and diplomat Benjamin Franklin and his  son, William Franklin.  As with everything Franklin, this tale is complex and twisted and somehow evokes the tragedy of a war that was as much a civil conflict as a revolution.   William lived under the shadow of his father, who was arguably the most celebrated and famous man of his age - a true international celebrity. William played a pivotal role in some of Franklin's most famous exploits (the electricity experiment for one) but received little to no credit or mention. Living under the shadow of a famous father had both pros and cons.  The often parsimonious Ben Franklin paid for William to attend the prestigious Inns at Court where he read the law. This launched him in a career that, had the British won the war, would have marked him as one of the premier men of the Empire.

The Bastard Prodigy

William was illegitimate and may have been the child of Ben’s long suffering wife, Deborah Read, before their marriage. Benjamin recognized his son after he had been married to Deborah for seven years, the legally allotted time before bastards could be legitimized. The acknowledgment of William’s parentage was kept secret at the time.  After finishing his studies at the Inns of Court William returned to America in 1762 with Downes, a wealthy heiress to a sugar plantation fortune in the Barbados. But the elder
Franklin was angry with the choice. He had another bride in mind for William. Disagreement over William’s marriage worsened and already troubled relationship.  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.  But 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.

The King's Servants?

While in England, William had developed close relationships with government ministers, that resulted in his appointment as  Royal Governor of New Jersey in 1762. 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. Just when William became one of the most important political figures in colonial America, the revelation of his illegitimacy  created a scandal on both sides of the Atlantic. Meanwhile, Ben Franklin began the journey from Loyal conciliator to ardent rebel.  His dealings with the British as the Colonies representative in London led him to realize the Americans would always be considered second class citizen.  Called before the Council on a trumped up charge his treatment resulted in an unequivocal break and Franklin became the elder statesman of the American Revolution from that time on.

A Loyal Prisoner

Major Moses Seymour's House
Litchfield, Connecticut
But 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, William was confined under increasingly horrific conditions. Ben refused to intercede for him. He finally Litchfield Connecticut under horrible conditions. While most prisoners of the upper class would stay at Moses Seymour's house, Franklin was thrown into the common gaol, in a dungeon like cell filled with excrement. During his incarceration, William’s wife had become seriously ill. Her serious condition even prompted George Washington to plead for her husband’s freedom to save her life. But William spent eight months in Litchfield jail before he was exchanged for a POW held by the British. The once robust and handsome Franklin 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 his wife’s death caused by their long separation and his ill-treatment.
ended up in imprisoned in

The Proprietary House, Perth Amboy
 last Royal Governor's Mansion
in New Jersey

Family Feud outlives Political Peace

After the war, the Franklins' relationship remained strained and they never  reconciled.  Like so many Loyalists, perhaps 100,000 or so, William went into exile.  In 1785, just before Benjamin’s final return to America, William attempted reconciliation during a meeting in France. Benjamin, 79, obese and suffering from paralyzing gout and kidney stones, rebuffed his son. Franklin bequeathed the bulk of his fortune to his grandson William Temple Franklin, while demanding payment for loans his son had repaid years earlier.  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. He died in 1813.

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