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Books: A Collision of Genes and Temper :A Little Revenge: Benjamin Franklin and His Son

5 minute read
Kenneth Turan

His is not one of the faces on Mount Rushmore, but Benjamin Franklin has a position in American mythology that could hardly be loftier. Canny diplomat and dispenser of moral apothegms, scientist and pioneer in electrical experiment and theory, Franklin is everyone’s favorite patriot, the kindly uncle of the American Revolution. There was, however, a dark side to the familiar beaming countenance, an aspect that might have come from one of Freud’s case histories of an overheated family crucible. This provocative and enlightening account overturns the legend by examining William, Benjamin’s only son, born out of wedlock in 1731. Once his father’s closest confidant and potential partner, the younger Franklin nearly perished in prison because of a mutual that was, in the end, all that the two men had in common.

Virtually unknown today, William Franklin cut a grand figure in 18th century America. He was Royal Governor of New Jersey for more than a dozen years and a believer in the divine right of King George III. Other families were similarly split–John Hancock and John Adams had royalist in-laws–but none came asunder with quite the intensity of the Franklins. The result shocked contemporaries but, like imperceptible fissures that suddenly expand in an earthquake, took considerable time in the making.

An unlikely combination of circumstances has conspired to keep this curious, compelling tale from public view. History is written by the victors; the senior Franklin’s autobiography gives his offspring no more than a brief nod for helping him build some frontier forts. As for William, his chance of writing his own version was severely hampered by a Revolutionary War fire that destroyed not only his furniture but all his papers. Luck was most assuredly not on this man’s side.

Willard Sterne Randall, a former investigative reporter who was directed to the Franklin imbroglio by Historian Catherine Drinker Bowen, has done a brilliant reconstruction from archival material widely scattered in England, France and the U.S. Although his research was thorough enough to produce a 700-odd item bibliography, Randall’s greatest skill is portraiture. In A Little Revenge, both Franklins are vital, believable figures: Benjamin, “puffy and smooth from gout, his body overweight and rounded into the peculiar barrel shape of the once-powerful swimmer too long out of the . water”; William, “a smoother, thinner, sharper replica of his father, with the same impressive forehead, the same strong, straight nose apostrophizing the same set jaw and pronounced chin.” Through his 20s, the younger Franklin is an almost biblical son, honoring his father, serving as lab assistant, aide-de-camp, courier, legal factotum, confidential secretary, bodyguard and chief military adviser. The two are closest during the French and Indian War (1754-60), when they jointly conceive the idea of gaining title for themselves to fertile lands west of the Appalachians.

Those slight fissures, however, are becoming perceptible. Son of one of the most prominent men in Pennsylvania, young William is engaged to the daughter of a wealthy physician–and one of Benjamin’s political enemies. Before the wedding can take place, the father imperiously takes his son off to London in 1757. Reading law at the Inns of Court serves to strengthen the young student’s monarchist tendencies. Moreover, the circumstances of his birth only serve to deepen William’s belief in British law. Observes Randall: In 1758, “William Franklin, bastard son of a provincial printer, was called to the English bar . . . In every sense, William had become an English gentleman.”

William returns to the colonies as the first Royal Governor appointed by King George III; his father leaves England but returns in 1764 and lingers there until the eve of the Revolution, continually pestering his son about past moneys owed (including repeated references to the cost of a small quantity of Lapsang Souchong tea). A born conciliator, William attempts to mediate between the Crown and the colonies, but even when arrested by revolutionary troops, he refuses to abandon his monarchist beliefs. Benjamin, according to Randall, makes a formal request to the Continental Congress that his son be incarcerated. Then he ignores William’s sufferings, including eight months in solitary confinement and the death of his wife Elizabeth, which occurs during William’s three-year prison term.

At the close of the war, William returned to England, where he lived on a pension from the Crown. Randall ends his sad, striking account by noting that father and son had only one more tepid meeting, in 1785, although Benjamin lived five years more. The collision, Randall theorizes, was not merely temperamental but genetic. Philosophically, Benjamin the pragmatist and William the stiff-necked legalist could never meet on common ground. More important, both men shared “the single-minded Franklin drive to prevail no matter what the cost.” The cost was prohibitive. Perhaps it is just as well that Benjamin is not beside George Washington and Abraham Lincoln on the slopes of Mount Rushmore, after all.

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