Portrait of Benjamin Franklin by Joseph-Silfrede Duplessis, 1778

It may seem surprising that one of our most well-known founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, had a Loyalist son. In fact many families were divided during the Revolution, with some members choosing to rebel against British rule and others remaining loyal to the King. Benjamin Franklin and his son, William Franklin, prominently exemplified these divided loyalties. How did this rift occur, and were they ever reconciled?

Judging from their early years together, no one would imagine they would end up in opposition to one another. William Franklin (b. 1730 in Boston), was Benjamin Franklin’s acknowledged illegitimate son, raised by Franklin and his common-law wife, Deborah Read. Benjamin Franklin saw to William’s schooling and taught him the printing trade. William helped with publishing Poor Richard’s Almanac and also assisted his father with many of his scientific investigations including his famous kite and lightening experiment. Yes, William was in the field where it happened! Having done so himself, Franklin was well aware of how to build a man’s career and was determined to do so for his son. Benjamin was careful to obtain a military commission for William during the French and Indian War, and later used his influence to help “Billy” as the family called him win positions such as Controller of the General Post Office and Clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly. When Benjamin became Colonial Agent for Pennsylvania and New Jersey, he took his son to England where William read law. Father and son traveled together in England and Scotland, enjoying contacts with the British aristocracy.  When George III became King, William was appointed Royal Governor of New Jersey. Ben Franklin could not have been more proud. His efforts for his son’s success had paid off!

William and Benjamin portrayed in “Franklin’s Experiment” by Currier and Ives, 1876

So, for roughly the first thirty years of his life, William more or less followed the career path his father envisioned for him. But when he became Governor of New Jersey in 1762, he was apart from his father for more than a decade and became his own man. He proved a popular and able governor: improving roads, building bridges and working to secure crop subsidies from Britain. He established courts, signed the charter for Queen’s College (now Rutgers), and became known as an even-handed “dispenser” of justice including to native Americans. His actions as governor were commendable to the British, particularly as he showed himself to be steadfastly loyal to King and Country (Great Britain).

Portrait of William Franklin by Mather Brown, 1790

This ‘era of good feeling’ between father and son would come to an end with the advent of the American Revolution. Benjamin Franklin, sometimes referred to as a ‘reluctant revolutionary, hoped at first that differences with the British could be resolved. When he did join the revolutionary cause, though, he was “all in” and pursued goals of freedom and liberty with vigor. He expected William could be persuaded to do likewise. Hadn’t William always followed his father’s lead before? This time Benjamin would be bitterly disappointed. In August 1775 Franklin traveled to New Jersey to convince William to join the rebellion. He told his son he would be accepted with open arms by those opposing the King and could easily win a generalship in the army forming under George Washington. William refused, remarking that if his father was determined to set the colonies on fire, he trusted that “he would take care to run away by the light of it.” As a Loyalist William believed America’s best chance to succeed lay in remaining with Britain. He also believed most Americans would not support the rebellion. William’s break with his father became very public with his “Two Roads” speech to the New Jersey legislature urging them to refuse to endorse the newly formed Continental Congress and take the road to prosperity as part of England rather than the road to civil war and anarchy. His efforts were to no avail.

Benjamin Franklin Appearing before the Privy Council by Christian Schussele, not dated. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Ever a Loyalist, William secretly informed the British of revolutionary activities. Unfortunately for him, a packet of his letters was intercepted by the rebels who passed the information to the Continental Congress, declaring William Franklin “a virulent enemy to the people of this country and a person who may prove dangerous.” They requested William be exiled from New Jersey. He was sent to Connecticut where after violating terms of his house arrest, he was jailed and placed in solitary confinement in a cell for prisoners about to be executed. Shocked at his harsh treatment, he wrote to Governor Trumball of Connecticut, “I suffer so much in being buried alive, having no one to speak to day or night...that I should deem it a favor to be immediately taken out and shot.”  Learning his wife was gravely ill, William sent a plea to George Washington to grant him a furlough to see her. Washington responded he could not countermand an order issued by the Continental Congress, which had refused his request. William’s wife died while he was imprisoned. During all his travails, his father exerted no effort on his behalf, leaving the son to face the consequences of his decisions. In 1777 suffering from ill health he was exchanged with another prisoner and allowed to go to New York. From there he departed for England where he would live in exile for the rest of his life.

William attempted to reconcile with his father while the latter was in Paris as one of America’s peace commissioners (1781-1785). In William’s August 1784 letter to Benjamin Franklin, he wrote he hoped his father might care “to revive that affectionate intercourse” that William valued above all else. He then proceeded to dash any hope for reconciliation by pronouncing himself happy to have “uniformly acted from a strong sense of what I conceived my duty to my king,” saying he would make the same decision again. This was not the apology Ben Franklin was looking for!! In his reply, he acknowledged William’s prerogative to follow his political convictions; however, he contended “There are natural duties that precede political ones and cannot be extinguished by them.” In other words, William had owed loyalty to his father above his duty to the King, and “to find him taking up arms against me, in a cause wherein my good name, fortune and life were all at stake” was something he could not forgive. He rebuffed William’s suggestion to meet. The two would never mend their differences, each remaining true to his convictions. Shortly after Benjamin Franklin sailed for America in 1785, the two never to meet again, William wrote despondently, “My fate has thrown me on the other side of the globe.” He lost his family and his country while Franklin lost his only son.

This blog post was made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.