Traitor?  Patriot? Merely a Point of View?


Bill Franklin, New Jersey's Royal Governor

Whatever is begun in anger ends in shame.

- Benjamin Franklin

Write injuries in dust, benefits in marble.

- Ben Franklin again

The old saying "like father, like son" could not be more applicable than it was in the case of William Franklin and his famous father, Benjamin.  Though they ended up on opposite sides of the revolutionary cause, they were both men who were highly partisan and rigid in support of their causes.

In 1728, Benjamin fathered a child named William.  The mother of William is not known.  "Young Bill" had an adventurous spirit; he left home at a very early age and spent eight years "finding himself" in the new frontiers of the American West.  After that, he joined the Pennsylvania Company and went to Albany to fight the French.  This was followed by a stint as an assistant to an Indian trader in the wilds of Ohio where Young Bill learned the art of diplomacy.  He returned to Philadelphia and became the city's postmaster.

To please his famous father, William left Philadelphia and went to England to study law and to serve as a member of the Pennsylvania Assembly.  While in London, William studied the people in power and made many political contacts.  He earned a Master's degree at Oxford and was accepted to the bar.  He returned to America in 1760.

Like his father, William had sired an illegitimate son, William Temple.  Ben Franklin understood his son's behaviour and doted on the child.  Two years later, in 1762, William married Elizabeth Downs of London.  Five days later, he was sworn in as the royal governor of New Jersey at the age of 32.  Many people in the colony considered him unfit for the job because he had no experience and because of his illegitimacy.  Nevertheless, he took up residence at Green Bank, a riverside Burlington mansion.  There, he entertained dinner guests including George Washington.

Despite his youth, Franklin was a well-educated and talented administrator and he was quite liked by the people of New Jersey.  But the office of Royal Governor was rapidly losing power.  The first two years of his term were pleasant and uneventful, but in 1765, he was unable to enforce the Stamp Act passed by Parliament.  Three years later, 8,000 pounds disappeared from the East Jersey treasuries, and Franklin's refusal to remove treasurer Stephen Skinner from his post earned him more ill feelings.

Franklin deviated from his father in his loyalty to the British crown and he actively worked to stem the tide of revolution by sending news of the independence movement to London.  He was also the head of the Associated Loyalists, a pro-British party that conducted guerilla war against the colonies.  This loyalty bought him little in the way of military support, and when the spirit of revolution began to build, he was powerless to act against it.  Locally, assemblyman James Kinsey began the Burlington Committee of Correspondence in 1774, to turn public opinion against the royal government.  In 1775, Ben Franklin parted from his son.  They were not to meet again until the war was over and never again met as friends.

Back in New Jersey, William had another domestic enemy - the Presbyterians.  He had wanted to take control of their main institution, the College of New Jersey at Princeton.  When they refused to relinquish control, William sought and received a charter from the legislature to open a competing school in New Brunswick.  The new university was initially called Queens College - but the name was later changed to Rutgers University.

With American's resistance to Britain stiffening and Franklin's motives now openly challenged, the people of New Jersey took action against him.  On 8 January 1776, Franklin was captured in Perth Amboy at his second home and placed under house arrest.  Five months later, he was seized and brought to Burlington for questioning by the independence-minded Provincial Congress.  As he refused to relinquish his authority, he was transported to Connecticut and held as a prisoner of war for 2½ years.  And a horrible confinement it was.

Bill Franklin was taken to Litchfield, Connecticut, where he was eventually housed for eight months in a solitary cell with a floor covered with old straw matted from the waste of previous occupants.  He was denied writing paper, clean clothes, and even bathing and toilet facilities.  Benjamin even forbade William's son, Temple, who was in Ben's care, any contact with his imprisoned father.  Urging him to abandon William, Benjamin offered his grandson the temptation of France, which the boy took.  "I have rescued a valuable young man from the danger of being a Tory," a satisfied Ben wrote.

While in jail William lost his hair, his teeth, his health and his wife, who died.  When she was on her deathbed George Washington was moved enough to write Congress advocating William's request to meet with her.  His "situation is distressing and must interest all our feelings," he wrote.  "Humanity and generosity plead powerfully in favour of his application."  Ben Franklin did not weigh in with his preference, however, and the request was denied.  (The elder Franklin, meanwhile, kept the interests of other prisoners close to his heart.  Writing more than 13 letters to his friend in the British Parliament, David Hartley, he begged him to help alleviate "all the horrors of imprisonment" for captured Americans.)

After his imprisonment, William was exchanged for John McKinley, the former President of Delaware.

October 1778 found William living in British-occupied New York City where he worked to suppress the rebellion.  For several years he was the leader of a Tory association.  He set sail for England and permanent exile on 18 September 1782, 20 years after being appointed governor of New Jersey.

Ben Franklin never forgave his wayward son who had so dishonoured his family.  William's support of England severely strained his relationship with his father, as well as with his son, William Temple Franklin, who also supported independence.  A few years before his death, Benjamin Franklin wrote in a letter to William, "Nothing has ever hurt 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."

Some called William Franklin a traitor and others called him a patriot.  There is no record of which he felt himself to be.  Why do so few people today know William ever existed?  Because Benjamin excised most references to his son from the final version of his autobiography.  Father and son did meet again, in England, nearly a decade after they had last spoken, to settle financial accounts.  Benjamin, nearing 80 and on his way to America for the last time, "brought all the warmth of a real estate settlement" to the encounter, according to historian Willard Sterne Randall, who described the scene in his book A Little Revenge: Benjamin Franklin & His Son.  Father insisted that son sign over deeds to his American property in exchange for the forgiveness of debts owed him.  William soon realised his father was making him pay for clothes and pocket money going back to his childhood.  The rest of the "reunion" time was largely spent apart as Benjamin met with old friends from England.  On the last day the father slipped away on a ship bound for America, not even saying goodbye.

Source:; "William Franklin - New Jersey's Rogue Governor" from New Jersey History by Peter Kross, 1987; and Michael Farquhar, a Washington, DC writer and member of the Washington Post "Horizon" staff

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