Franklin Falling Out

Benjamin Franklin’s first son, William, was born around 1730. The identity of his mother is still unknown. But despite being an illegitimate child, Benjamin adopted William and the two became inseparable – that is, until the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. Joanne and Historian Sheila Skemp tell how the fight for America’s independence tore the Franklin family apart.


Starling by Podington Bear

00:00:00 / 00:00:00
View Transcript

Joanne: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, The National Endowment for the Humanities, and The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation. Nathan: From Virginia Humanities, this is BackStory. Welcome to BackStory, the show that explains the history behind today’s headlines. I’m Nathan Connolly. Joanne: I’m Joanne Freeman. Ed: And I’m Ed Ayers. Joanne: If you’re new to the podcast, all of us and our colleague, Brian Balogh, are all historians and each week we explore the history of one topic that’s been in the news. Today we’re gonna start off in Philadelphia around 1730, when Benjamin Franklin welcomed his first child, a son named William. It was a day of happiness for the Franklin family, but a complicated one. William was illegitimate. In fact, the circumstances of his birth are unknown to this day. Whatever his reasons, Benjamin ended up adopting William, and the two developed an intimate bond. Sheila: Benjamin called himself an indulgent father, and from all we can tell I think he was. Joanne: That’s historian Sheila Skemp. Sheila: He was the kind of father that I think all fathers probably are, “I’m gonna give my kid what I never got when I was growing up.”, and one of the people who observed Benjamin and William in England when they were there together said, “These two are more like companions than father and son.”, and I think other people observed the same thing. Joanne: By the time William reached adulthood, father and son had become close political allies. While Benjamin was away in England as Postmaster General, William was appointed Royal Governor of New Jersey in 1763, and despite the distance they looked out for each other’s interests on both sides of the Atlantic. Moderate in their politics, Ben and William shared a love for the king, as did many a loyal subject, and did everything in their power to support the British empire. But as things started to unravel between Britain and America, so too did the relationship between Benjamin and William. Joanne: In 1774, Benjamin was fired from his position in the British government as Postmaster General, and William, ever loyal to the crown, saw this as a blessing in disguise. He hoped that this would pave the way for his father’s triumphant return to America to restore harmony on the heels of what would come to be known as The Boston Tea Party. Little did he know that his father’s support for British rule was waning. Sheila: I mean, he would write to him, and he would say, “If only you were over here, why don’t you come home? They don’t like you over there anyway. Come on home, and you can deal with these people who are being absolutely irresponsible, and radical, and you’re the kind of person … they’ll listen to you. So, come back home, and you can pull us back together again. It’s not too late.” I sincerely think that he expected that that’s what his father would do. He saw his father as a moderate, as somebody who always tried to mollify people, and to bring people together, and when Benjamin came home, and was clearly going to be, not only for independence, but leading the fight for independence, I think William was shocked. I just don’t think he was prepared for that. Joanne: After the Revolutionary War broke out, William, New Jersey’s Royal Governor, was arrested in 1776, and charged with being an enemy to his country. So, while Benjamin worked to spearhead the revolution, William was held captive in Connecticut where he was brutally treated, and locked in solitary confinement. Sheila: Because he was a [gentleman 00:03:52], they gave him quite a bit of leeway and so he got to ride around the country, and he gave his parole that he wouldn’t do anything that he shouldn’t do, and of course violated his parole, and started trying to stir up the countryside to support the king. When the continental Congress found out what he was doing they were furious, and they removed him to another jail, and put him into solitary confinement, and he remained there for almost two years. His wife was kicked out of their home in New Jersey, taken to New York, she got sick, she died. William heard that she was near death and asked for permission to go visit her one more time, and he was denied that. Joanne: As the Revolutionary War raged, the two Franklin’s completely fell out of touch. Although Benjamin almost certainly knew of his sons plight, he didn’t lift a finger to help him. It was not until after independence that William, now exiled in England reached out to his father in an effort to repair their relationship. Sheila: After the war, William wrote to his father, and his father had not yet left for home, and William was in England, Benjamin was in France, and William said, basically, “The war is over, you won, I did what I thought was right, you did what you thought was right. I would do the same thing all over again because this is … you taught me to follow my conscience and I did, but now that the war is over, maybe we can meet again and let bygones be bygones, and reconcile.” Benjamin wrote back and said, “I’ve never been so hurt by anything that anybody has done, and in such a public and humiliating way. I will never forgive you.” Male reader: Ben Franklin letter to William Franklin, August 16, 1784. “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 where in 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 required this. We are men, all subject to errors. This is a disagreeable subject. I drop it.” Joanne: Benjamin felt deeply betrayed. His son’s loyalty to the crown was a mark of shame, and as a national leader, Benjamin had a reputation to uphold. They saw each other only one more time after the Revolutionary War. Eventually, Benjamin wrote his son out of his Will. It was a decisive and permanent break. Sheila: What William did, he did so publicly. He didn’t just support the king, but he headed an organization called the Board of Associated Loyalists, and I think today we would probably call it a terrorist group. He sent men throughout the countryside on missions to try to punish people who had done bad things to Loyalists, and people noticed, obviously. I mean, these are two rather famous people, and there were people who spread rumors that Benjamin and William were in cahoots with one another, that this was all a big show, that they were just trying to make sure that no matter which side won, Franklin would be in a good position. Sheila: So, it was an embarrassment to Benjamin at a time when he was trying to negotiate very, very fragile and delicate moves to get the French to support the war, and then to make the war a success, and William threatened all of that. When he wrote back to him, and he said, “If you’d done this quietly, if you had just been a quiet supporter of the king I might have been able to forgive you, but what you did in such a public way I can never forgive.” Joanne: Sheila Skemp is professor emeritus in history at the University of Mississippi. She’s the author of Benjamin and William Franklin: Father and Son, Patriot and Loyalist.

View Resources

Divided America Lesson Set

Download the Divided America Lesson Set

According to a 2016 study by the Pew Research Center[1] the idea that America is more polarized than it has been in recent years is supported by the data that Democrats and Republicans view each other with anger and see each other more negatively than they have in the past. Polarization and division, however, has been a theme of American history since its conception. As the episode discusses, Loyalists and Patriots represented this division over the colonies’ relationship with Great Britain. The election of Andrew Jackson pitted the “common man” of the south and west against the urban, cosmopolitan elite of the Northeast. In the years leading up to the Civil War, the caning of Senator Charles Sumner provides an example of unprecedented partisan violence and vitriol.

This lesson set considers aspects of the divisions in the 1920s and helps students grapple with the following questions: Should America pursue a policy of prohibition? Is America a Christian nation? What is the role of women in modern America? What is the role of America in the world? What role do African Americans have in shaping American culture?