Time was when a small but stout cross-section of educated Americans could identify the name of William Franklin. Now we count ourselves lucky if most people can identify his father, Benjamin. Yet William Franklin was one of the most consequential colonists of his time—just as savvy as his famous father, and in some ways more politically successful. He could conceivably have gone on to become president during the early Federal era, edging out Adams or Jefferson, but for the fact that, when the big break with Great Britain came in 1776, William remained loyal to the Crown while his father became one of the leading colonial revolutionists. The “loyal son” of this illuminating book’s title was a Loyalist, the bastard of the clan, a man who took a different path from the one that led to victory and so chose to be left behind, not exactly a man without a country but, in the end, one almost without a family.
This is not only the stuff of high political drama; it’s also, should one wish to treat it this way, a scintillating case study in family dysfunction. Daniel Mark Epstein opts for the first course, telling the story of how great global events shook one prominent family as he examines the intricate patchwork of high purposes, feints, misunderstandings, expensive allegiances, blunders, malicious violence, and low motives that accompanied the birth of a nation.
But given how the tale begins, the second course must have been tempting to Epstein. The Franklin family wasn’t altogether atypical in 18th-century colonial America, but their expedient, unorthodox ways stand out to us. Benjamin, always one for the ladies, caused William to be born out of wedlock circa 1730, so the boy was literally a bastard—though to whom we don’t know; Epstein engages in a bit of fun imagining who she might have been, but her identity remains a mystery. Fortunately, the toddler was emotionally embraced soon after Ben’s marriage by Deborah, his quiet and long-suffering wife of many years to come, and her devotion to the child survived the loss of their natural-born son to smallpox in 1736. William was given all the advantages of a son in full standing by a father whose prosperity had grown exponentially in Philadelphia during this period. He was provided with a tutor from the tenderest years and was enrolled, at age eight, in Annand’s Classical Academy, there to be armed with the heavy mental arsenal of a classical training. He learned his Latin thoroughly and later was able, as were so many educated men of the time, to conduct sophisticated correspondence in verse and toss about classical references like rubber balls. He knew all the dance steps of the day, made himself a superb horseman and soldier, and learned to treat conversation as a sport. In short, William imbibed the heady spirit of the 18th century that pressed all men who aspired to political and social elevation to engage in a program of sober self-improvement.
William moved to London and trained for the law, as his father dictated. His was a complete education—far more complete than his father’s. Thus did William become fit to take his place as a gentleman among all the king’s men.
Upon returning to Pennsylvania, William became Ben’s confidant and partner; they fed their scientific curiosity and laid out hopes for financial windfalls. William was there when Ben flew the famous kite amid the thunderstorm in 1752, and they would enter into risky land deals together in the West later in the 1750s. But one incident from the boy’s 16th year points to another strain in their relationship, one that would endure: William had been taken with a bout of wanderlust and tried to escape the more settled ways of his father by becoming a privateer at sea—before Ben rushed to the ship just in time to retrieve his son before he set sail. Willful precocity ran strong in the Franklin male line. Not for the last time would their wills cross.
Now comes the slow rollout of grievance and happenstance that eventually leads to American independence, though we experience all of it freshly through a letter-laden family saga, and Epstein, impressively, does as much as any writer of history reasonably can do to erase the sense of inevitability of outcome that might have dulled the story. He follows a winding trail of long-distance squabbles and political disagreements between Ben and William, of which the earliest—from the 1760s and the crisis over the Stamp Act—remained in bounds for people of goodwill and did not presage the split to come. But William considered the Boston Tea Party of 1773 to be an act of sheer vandalism. This demonstrated a profound rift in the family on a momentous public matter, a rift whose consequences became more pressing because, by this time, rising on the ladder Ben had built for him, William had been made royal governor of New Jersey—outranking his father in colonial preferment and playing the role of informant for London on the colonists’ acts of sedition, as he exerted himself maximally to avoid “civil war” among his countrymen.
Whatever else he was, William was a man devoted to his country as he understood that country to exist under the rule of law and under the protection of the king. And, like other Loyalists and emergent revolutionaries alike, he feared mobs. “A real patriot,” he would write, “can seldom or ever speak popular language. A false one will never suffer himself to speak anything else.” Is there not here a faint rhythmic echo of Poor Richard’s Almanack?
But the Sons of Liberty, those charter members of the Fraternal Order of Those Who Have Had Enough, were on the move—and as we read eyewitness accounts of the widening chaos, we can begin to imagine how fife-and-drum corps, now quaint obligatory attendants at Fourth of July parades, must have made a menacing noise for many a Loyalist that summer when accompanied by angry shouts, sharpened projectiles, and burning effigies. William would become the last provincial governor dutifully discharging the Crown’s business as other royal governors fled to British ships, and by 1776, refusing avenues of escape, he found himself under house arrest as armies took to the field—a fallen star, as his father’s star was rising in the court of Louis XVI at Versailles.
The long denouement of this sad story leads us through a dark labyrinth of ritual humiliations for William Franklin and his wife, Elizabeth—humiliations and confiscations capped by many months of solitary confinement in a squalid Connecticut jail, from which he emerged dangerously weakened but still resolute, hoping to arrange pardons for fellow Loyalists after his release to the British forces hunkered down at the foot of Manhattan. There he spent his last years in America and there he agreed to serve as president of a group called the Board of Associated Loyalists, a cause already lost before launching, but one that degenerated into sporadic forms of domestic terrorism, a kind of “desolation warfare” that eroded morale on both sides. There’s no doubt that William became a thorn in Washington’s side as the general strove with every ounce of strength to bring order to the fledgling nation. Epstein’s account of just how dirty and desperate the early 1780s were on these shores is unsparing.
William ended his days in his own country—England—starting a new family after the heartbreaking death of his wife during his time of confinement, and trying by fits and starts to maintain some sort of relationship with the father who had become a hero of the revolution his son opposed. Both Ben and his family felt, as Epstein puts it, “mortal pressure” to renounce William, and what thin link William maintained with him was facilitated by his own loyal son, Temple, himself born—true to family form—out of wedlock many years before but a source of pride to both father and grandfather. Yet few lives of the time could have ended more anticlimactically: William was fated to be left with little but a belief in his own righteousness.
Did Benjamin Franklin ever try to intervene for his son, even secretly? This question hovers over the last third of the book and Epstein taps every resource available to answer it. The two did meet one final time in England in 1785, as Ben passed through the island on his way home from France to America. The record we have points to renewed, if irregular, contact, but scarcely any reconciliation of the kind we would expect from a novel. It’s a story that, like all real families’ stories, leaves loose ends—but Epstein’s narrative is, for all that, deeply rewarding.
– Mr. Simmons is the author of Climbing Parnassus and teaches humanities in the Westover Honors Program at Lynchburg College in Virginia.