The Loyal Son, Daniel Mark Epstein. New York: Ballantine Books, 2017.
Summary: The history of relations between Ben and his illegitimate son William Franklin, from filial loyalty to estranged parties as a consequence of the Revolutionary War, and each man’s choices.
I’ve read a biography of Ben Franklin and numerous histories of the Revolutionary War, and had never realized how deeply estranged Franklin and his son were until I read Daniel Mark Epstein’s well-researched study of the lives and the tragic relationship of these two men.
It was not always so. William, an illegitimate offspring of Franklin’s, was raised as a son by him and Deborah. They worked side by side in the affairs of Philadelphia, fought alongside each other against Indian attacks, and went to England together to plead against the Penn family, who as proprietors of Pennsylvania enjoyed an exemption from taxes for defense of the Commonwealth. Franklin supported William in his legal studies while William was at his side in his laboratory and often his emissary in legal pleadings with the Solicitor General. They were engaged together in a land deal for western lands. William gained such a reputation that he even marched in George III’s coronation procession while Ben observed from a distance. While in England William met and married Elizabeth, shortly before they all left for America.
For a few short years, the family was together as Elizabeth gave birth to William Temple Franklin (who would be known as Temple). Ben returned to England as a representative of the colonies for their growing list of grievances against England. William eventually secures an appointment from the Royal Court as governor of New Jersey. From here their paths begin to diverge. Ben becomes increasingly disenchanted with England and concludes that independence for the colonies is the only answer. William remains a loyal to the crown, executing his office well (New Jersey being among the last to join to movement for independence). When Ben becomes involved in the cause against fellow governor Thomas Hutchinson of Massachusetts, the divide becomes greater.
After a brief return to America in 1775 (after Deborah had died of stroke during his long absence) and the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Ben went to France as America’s emissary, taking Temple, who played a role similar to William in his earlier years. Before he departed, he tried to intercede with William to withdraw from his governorship gracefully. William, stood firm, until finally arrested. When paroled, he acted subversively, endorsing pardons of New Jersey loyalists and otherwise acting to subvert the revolution. When discovered, William is imprisoned under deplorable conditions in Litchfield. Ostensibly, Ben does, and can do nothing without seeming in complicity with the son and giving fodder to his own enemies in the colonies. Eventually, in ill health, he is released, but too late to comfort Elizabeth, who dies in New York City. Instead of leaving the country, William continues efforts to mobilize loyalists in subversive activities in support of England, including and indirect role in the seizure and hanging death of hated Captain Jack Huddy.
Only when peace is finally achieved is an attempt made at reconciliation. William makes the first move, in a moving letter of apology to his father, to which Ben responds with coldness. Eventually the two meet, but only for William to sign over lands to satisfy debts to his father. They remained estranged for the rest of their lives, and it was Temple, and not William, who remained in England on a government pension, who inherited from Ben. Sadly, Temple did not otherwise benefit from the influence of his illustrious grandfather, living a dissolute life without direction or purpose.
The “loyal” in Epstein’s title underscores the crux of this book, William’s choice of loyalty to Crown above family. It might have been one thing had he fulfilled his office of governor until displaced. His persistence in the loyalist cause, against all his father and family held dear was fatal to his relationship with Ben, who could not forgive this. Yet one wonders if things might have been different had Ben been more present as a father, particularly in that critical period after he was arrested, and eventually transported to Connecticut. Did his resistance stem in part from his father’s absence when his mother Deborah’s health was failing, while Franklin engaged in affairs with other women?
While William comes off as stubborn, and from an American point of view, a traitor to his country, Ben Franklin comes off little better, and perhaps worse–more interested in money owed than in restoring the son who once worked and fought at his side. Each had betrayed the loyalty of the other, yet it is a mark against the legacy of the elder Franklin that he was so unwilling to forgive. One may attribute this to the exigencies of war which often presses people to hard choices, yet in Epstein’s telling, the elder Franklin comes off poorly.
Epstein shows us a side of Ben Franklin’s life that has been muted in many portrayals of this founder, as well as giving us a full-bodied rendering of William. One unusual aspect of this rendering is the debt Epstein acknowledges to William Herbert Mariboe, whose unpublished 1962 doctoral dissertation on William Franklin he calls “the best biography of William Franklin ever written.” One wonders what might have been if such generosity had existed between father and son Franklin. Sadly, that is a story not to be told.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.