Only a decade before the War for Independence erupted in open and bloody conflict, independence from England was still far from the minds of most American colonists. The vast majority of freemen still considered themselves loyal British subjects. But the passage of the infamous Stamp Act, which imposed a royal tax on essential documents ranging from marriage licenses to newspapers, threatened to violently widen the rift between the colonists and their mother country. The disaffection resulting from this and other unpopular measures taken by Parliament over the next several years would ultimately drive a wedge between neighbors—and even members of the same family—as divided loyalties pulled them inexorably apart.
But in 1765, no such rift separated Benjamin Franklin, the illustrious author, scientist, and politician then living in London as the representative of several colonies’ interests before the British government, and his only son, William, who had risen above the stigma of being born out of wedlock to become royal governor of the colony of New Jersey. Though an ocean apart, the two men were united in their opinion of the Stamp Act: It was a bad idea.
William condemned the measure in a letter he wrote to his father shortly after the act went into effect in November 1765. “Indeed,” he wrote, “for any Man to set himself up as an Advocate for the Stamp Act in the Colonies is a meer piece of Quixotism, and can answer no good Purpose whatever.” He went on to suggest that the best response might be to simply ignore the edict, “as much as if the Stamps had never been sent, or had been lost at Sea.”
Benjamin in turn wrote to William of his recent meeting with Lord Dartmouth, the influential president of the Board of Trade: “I gave it him as my Opinion, that the general Execution of the Stamp Act would be impracticable without occasioning more Mischief than it was worth, by totally alienating the Affections of the Americans from this Country, and thereby lessening its Commerce.” Benjamin then further warned Lord Dartmouth of “the Danger, by Mutual Violences, Excesses and Severities, of creating a deep-rooted Aversion between the two Countries, and laying the Foundation of a future total Separation.”
Both Anglophiles at heart, neither Franklin wanted to see a rupture in the Colonies’ relations with England. For the five years preceding his appointment to the governor’s position by young King George III in 1762, William had lived with Benjamin in London, studying law at the venerable Inns of Court and joining his father on long trips around the British Isles. They were warmly welcomed by some of the empire’s greatest minds and were both eventually awarded honorary degrees by Oxford University. Though they no doubt viewed some members of Parliament and the government ministry as scoundrels (these were politicians, after all), their allegiance to the crown was unwavering.
Repeal of the Stamp Act
In the spirit of the loyal opposition, Benjamin lobbied strenuously against the Stamp Act, and was widely credited with helping to bring about its repeal in 1766. In a letter written in the spring of that year, William congratulated Benjamin for the success of his efforts before turning to a subject that was to crop up repeatedly in their letters over the next several years: a scheme to form a sizable new proprietary colony on western lands. Even when they quibbled over political issues, the Franklins were able to set aside their differences in their single-minded pursuit of entrepreneurial riches.
As late as 1768, though, Benjamin and William still shared similar political convictions. Benjamin wrote to William that year of his increasing belief that Parliament should make all of the colonies’ laws or none of them, “ ... and I think the arguments for the latter more numerous and weighty than those for the former.” William responded that Benjamin’s sentiments “gave me great pleasure, particularly as they are very similar to what I have often express’d among our friends here. ... ”
In the ensuing years, however, the two Franklins’ political philosophies began to diverge. “From a long and thorough consideration of the subject,” Benjamin wrote to William in the fall of 1773, “I am indeed of opinion, that the Parliament has no right to make any law whatever, binding on the Colonies.” He now firmly believed that only the king and the Colonies’ duly elected assemblies should have the power to legislate for the Colonies. “I know your sentiments differ from mine on these subjects,” Benjamin acknowledged. “You are a thorough government man. ... ” But he closed with some fatherly advice: “If you can promote the prosperity of your people, and leave them happier than you found them, whatever your political principles are, your memory will be honored.”
Benjamin’s equanimity toward his son’s position on the British payroll seemed to evaporate in the wake of a scandal caused by Benjamin’s admission that he had disseminated purloined letters written by Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchinson to a member of Parliament, calling for the forceful suppression of rebellious colonists. Early in 1774, Benjamin was given a severe dressing-down before the King’s Privy Council and stripped of his deputy postmaster position and salary. In a letter to William a few months after his public humiliation, Benjamin took his son to task for not giving up his governorship in protest, especially since it didn’t pay enough to keep him out of debt. “I don’t understand it as any favour to me or to you, the being continued in an office, by which with all your Prudence, you cannot avoid running behind hand, if you live suitably to your Station. While you are in it, I know you will execute it with Fidelity to your Master, but I think Independence more honourable than any Service, and that in the State of American Affairs, which from the present arbitrary measures is likely soon to take place, you will find yourself in no comfortable Situation, and perhaps wish you had soon disengaged yourself.”
Among the “present arbitrary measures” mentioned in Benjamin’s letter was the closing of Boston harbor, an action taken by Parliament in retribution for the Boston Tea Party. In a letter to Benjamin written in July 1774, William expressed his disapproval of the actions of the “Indians” who tossed the East India Company’s tea overboard: “[T]hey ought first to do Justice before they ask it of others.”
Politics split loyalties
Benjamin replied swiftly and firmly. “I do not, so much as you do, wonder that the Massachusetts have not offered Payment for the Tea. ... As to ‘doing Justice before they ask it,’ that should have been thought of by the Legislature here, before they demanded it of the Bostonians. They have extorted many thousand Pounds from America unconstitutionally, under Colour of Acts of Parliament, and with an armed Force.” Benjamin makes no attempt to hide his disdain for his son’s loyalist leanings: “But you who are a thorough Courtier, see every thing with Government Eyes.”
William apparently chose not to rise to the bait. In his next letter to Benjamin, he encouraged his father to return to America, as the political tide in England had turned against him. “If there was any Prospect of your being able to bring the People in Power to your Way of Thinking, or of those of your Way of Thinking’s being brought into Power, I should not think so much of your Stay. But as you have had by this Time pretty strong Proofs that neither can be reasonably expected and that you are look’d upon with an evil Eye in that Country, and are in no small Danger of being brought into Trouble for your political Conduct, you had certainly better return, while you are able to bear the Fatigues of the Voyage, to a Country where the People revere you, and are inclined to pay a Deference to your Opinions.” Before signing off, William slipped in a temperate defense of his royalist perspective: “However mad you may think the Measures of the Ministry are, yet I trust you have Candor enough to acknowledge that we are no ways behind hand with them in Instances of Madness on this Side of the Water.”
In the spring of 1775, just a couple of weeks after British soldiers and America militiamen clashed at Lexington and Concord, Benjamin did finally return to America, ending his decade-long absence from his native land. Over the next several months, he attempted to bring his son around to his radical conviction that nothing short of independence would resolve the grievances of the colonists. But William stood his ground, and after their last meeting in the governor’s mansion, Benjamin stormed out of his house.
Despite William’s best efforts to stave them off, the steamrolling events of the Revolution overtook him in the summer of 1776, when he was arrested as an enemy of the people and placed under house arrest in Connecticut. After it was discovered that he was continuing to covertly aid the loyalist cause, he was placed in solitary confinement in a filthy jail cell. William’s wife wrote to Benjamin, now one of the most influential members of the Continental Congress, pleading with him to use his influence to gain his son’s release. Benjamin ignored her, refusing to lift a finger to save his son.
Finally released from imprisonment as part of an officer exchange in November 1778, William was sent to British-held New York and became one of the most prominent military leaders of the loyalist Americans who hadn’t yet fled the Colonies. In 1782, with the British cause all but lost, William set sail for exile in England, never to return.
In 1784, almost nine years since their last communication, William wrote to his father to seek a reconciliation. Benjamin criticized William for his actions while at the same time acknowledging the divergent paths down which political convictions can legitimately lead even the well-intentioned: “I received your Letter of the 22d past, and am glad to find that you desire to revive the affectionate Intercourse, that formerly existed between us. It will be very agreeable to me; indeed nothing has ever hurt me so much and affected me with such keen Sensations, 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. You conceived, you say, that your Duty to your King and Regard for your Country requir’d this. 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 form’d and govern’d much by Circumstances; that are often as inexplicable as they are irresistible.”
David Mahoney is a freelance writer and editor.
The identity of William Franklin’s biological mother remains a mystery. The woman he called “mother” was Deborah Read, Benjamin’s common-law wife for 44 years. As a parent, William followed in his father’s wayward footsteps, fathering an illegitimate son while living in London as a young law student. William Temple Franklin, as he was named, was supported mostly by his grandfather, who seemed to grow fonder of him as his affection toward his own son cooled.
Even in the years before their diverging political convictions pulled them in opposite directions, Benjamin and William quibbled frequently over money matters. Benjamin kept close account of the funds he put toward his son’s upkeep and reminded him of his debts at every opportunity. At their final meeting in 1785, when Benjamin stopped over in England on his way home to Philadelphia after several years of representing his fledgling nation in France, Benjamin made William pay him back in full, forcing him to sign over what meager property he retained title to in America.
When Benjamin died five years later, almost all of what he had originally planned to leave William he left instead to his grandson. His will explained this slight against his son: “The part he acted against me in the late War, which is of public Notoriety, will account for my leaving him no more of an Estate than he endeavored to deprive me of.”—David Mahoney