My Son, My Enemy

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PRIVATE COLLECTION

William Franklin depicted during his tenure as Governor of New Jersey

In a life of so much accomplishment, Benjamin Franklin had his most devastating disappointment in his son William's choice to remain loyal to the King during the American Revolution. "Nothing," he said at war's end, "has ever hurt me so much...as to find myself deserted in my old age by my only son." Loyalists comprised some 20% of the white American population in the colonies during the war, and their ranks included men and women, rich and poor, immigrants and native-born. But Benjamin chose to reject his mother country, and his son chose to disobey his father. Benjamin never forgave William for his "disloyalty."

Some scholars have blamed Benjamin for William's decision, claiming that the elder Franklin was demanding and overbearing--thus William's public loyalty to the King was his private declaration of independence. But the evidence tends to support Benjamin's contention that he was a good and "indulgent" father. Although William was illegitimate, he brought the boy into his house and raised him as a member of the family. William used Benjamin's influence to secure the royal governorship of New Jersey. Throughout the 1760s, the two men worked in tandem. Both were strong-empire men, and neither predicted that he would have to make a choice between King and country.

Their individual experiences eventually drove the two men apart. Benjamin was one of the most reluctant of the colonies' reluctant revolutionaries. But living for years in London as a colonial agent, he saw firsthand the artifice and chicanery of what he thought of as a corrupt regime. As a colonial Governor, William was subject to attacks by a legislature whose leaders seemed bent on sundering the ties that bound the ungrateful colonists to England. The Franklins were divided by a conflict that was as much a civil war as a war for independence, one in which brothers fought brothers and fathers fought sons. Some families reconciled after the war. Others, like the Franklins, did not. Although William was imprisoned during the war, his property was confiscated, and his wife Elizabeth died of what her husband called "a broken heart," he was eager to revive his "affectionate Intercourse and Connexion [sic]" with his father at war's end. Benjamin would not hear of reconciliation.

Benjamin left his son virtually nothing in his will. William sailed from his native country in 1782 for exile in England. "I must resign myself," William wrote, "for the remaining Days of my Existence to that Solitary State which is most repugnant to my Nature." The elder Franklin had raised his son to be a loyal servant of the British Crown. He had done his job too well.

Sheila L. Skemp is the author of Benjamin and William Franklin: Father and Son, Patriot and Loyalist