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When Benjamin Franklin and his son were on opposite sides


The Loyal Son: The War in Ben Franklin’s House

By Daniel Mark Epstein

Ballantine Books

438 pages, $30

The story line of “The Loyal Son” contains all the trappings of a Shakespearean tragedy.

It has warring kings, noblemen in the House of Lords scheming over fabulous riches, a revolution on one side of the Atlantic, and a fragile peace between mortal enemies on the other. And that’s only for background.

On the human level, we have the most celebrated non-royal of his day, a brilliant scientist, a statesman extraordinaire, a womanizer, and a revolutionary. His foil is his illegitimate son, a man he helped make the royal governor of a rebellious colony, a man accustomed to riches and the high life.

Father and son are involved in an international land scheme that would make them wealthy beyond their wildest dreams, but its success depends on the outcome of the revolution in which father and son are on opposite sides.

The revolution has the potential to change Western Civilization for centuries to come. But on a personal level, it is a struggle between moral abstractions: The right of men to govern themselves, and the license of the powerful to govern others. Father and son are diametrically opposed.

There is a wife and daughter-in-law slowly going mad, an illegitimate grandson made to choose between father and grandfather, and cameos by a dashing young French nobleman and a general who future generations would call the father of his country.

There’s more but it will get too complicated. As fiction, it would be deemed too improbable to pass muster.

This is the tangled web historical biographer and poet Daniel Mark Epstein has decided to unravel, the saga of patriot Benjamin Franklin and his loyalist son William.

Epstein’s work is strong on social history, in this instance a reconstruction of that foggy period between the maturing of the British colonies in that brave New World and the American Revolution.

The author dips heavily into primary sources: Thousands of pages of the “Papers of Benjamin Franklin,” still being catalogued and published by Yale University Press, and what remains of the Franklin autobiography. It’s painstaking research but the result is a fluid narrative of an otherwise difficult period in our history.

From these papers, Epstein reconstructs a group of British charter corporations which has made English aristocracy – along with wily early colonists like Franklin’s friends in Philadelphia and New York – independently wealthy. Franklin used his wit rather than pedigree to make his fortune as an author and newspaper publisher.

Many of the Colonists are fourth or fifth-generation Americans. They are proud and loyal subjects of the British Crown, as long as Parliament and that Hanoverian king will leave them alone as they had been left alone to fend for themselves for 100 years.

The population of the Colonies was well over 2 million in 1770, while London had less than a million inhabitants. And those waterlogged containers of tea that led to the closing of the Port of Boston were worth $1.5 million in today’s dollars, hardly a trifle.  Wise men of vision on both sides of the Atlantic – like Benjamin Franklin – were predicting it would not be long before the tail began to wag the dog.

And when the schism became all too apparent, it was all about money. “Taxation” is the operative word. Forget “Without Representation.”

Everyone knew true representation was impossible when it took nearly two months for a bill to cross the ocean, another two months for the simplest request to get Parliament’s attention, and two more months for the answer to arrive back in the Colonies. In most cases, the issue had changed before the answer arrived.

With our 21st Century penchant for speed and immediacy, we envision the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party and the Declaration of Independence as two weeks of TV news. In fact, the two pivotal Boston events were three years apart, and it took nearly another three years for the Colonies to declare their independence. It would be another five years before the decisive Battle of Yorktown, and still two more years before the Treaty of Paris ended the war.

The evolution from loyal subject to revolutionary often was a slow process. For the elder Franklin and his dream for his son of incalculable wealth from the Ohio Colony, the evolution to revolutionary was slow, but once it came, it was unwavering. For son, the royal governor of New Jersey, it never came.

Therein lies the tale of father and son, rapidly moving in opposite directions in a tragedy where both men see the other as guilty of high crimes and treason.

Father pleaded with son, more out of pragmatism than altruism, to give up his royal governorship, and save his wife and illegitimate son, both of whom Benjamin loved dearly. By now it is clear to the wise father that the Colonies will eventually gain their freedom, and his son will be an outlaw in his own country.

Father is sent off to London and then Paris to assure the survival of the nascent nation, while son, because of his name, is given ample chance to at least proclaim his neutrality. But William stubbornly refuses and is led from his luxurious home in Perth Amboy to jail. From a commoner’s cell, near death himself, he pleads to see his wife, learning that she already has died. And his son is growing up under the influence of his father, the patriot.

When son is paroled from jail through the mysterious intervention of an intermediary from the French Court, and a personal visit from the Marquis de Lafayette (both his father’s acquaintances), William, now free to flee the country, instead goes to New York, violates his parole, and heads a group of loyalists whose mission, without the backing of the Crown, is to kill Patriots.

Why? Was William still grasping at the dream that the revolution would fail and the king would reward him with the royal charter for his Ohio Colony? We don’t know. His surviving statements, like those of politicians from the dawn of political life, are veiled in high-minded claims of duty and loyalty to his king. Back at George III’s coronation, William was privileged to march in the procession as a “foreigner of distinction.”

When the war was over, a distraught William fled to the safety of London while Benjamin was concluding the Treaty of Paris which ended for all time William’s Ohio dream. Benjamin was now able to return to Pennsylvania. But a meeting was arranged on the Isle of Wight before the aging father undertook his last Atlantic crossing.

By this time, father and son had not spoken or even corresponded directly for many years. If the Bard were writing this final act, rather than a historian, father and son would have exchanged dramatic, life-changing lines. Who knows what words he would have invented for them.

But historian Epstein is only able to report there is no record of what the two men said to each other in parting. We do know they never saw each other again.

And in his will, Benjamin left William only some titles to Nova Scotia land that no longer belonged to him, and forgave his son all outstanding debts to him. There were not any. Benjamin at 84 also left his son these cruel words:

“The part he acted against me in the late war ... will account for me leaving him no more of an estate than he endeavored to deprive me of.”

Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor. 

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