Fathers and Sons: Benjamin Franklin

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Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin was possibly the most resourceful of our founders. Born the son of a candle-maker, with almost no education, he became a writer and printer, the founder of the best newspaper in the country in its time and a prolific inventor. He established the country’s first libraries and was the joint colonial postmaster general, responsible for improvements in mail delivery in the British colonies.

The oldest of Ben’s three children, William, was a bastard whose mother’s identity remains uncertain. Ben married a year later and with his wife raised the boy. William was with his father when Ben conducted his famous electricity experiment with a kite and key in the middle of a thunderstorm.

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William Franklin

Ben took his son to England in 1757, at least partly to advance William’s career. Five years later, William had become an attorney, had been awarded an honorary Master of Arts degree at Oxford University and, best, had been named, at Ben’s request, to the prestigious position of Royal Governor of the New Jersey Colony.

After returning home and seeing his son installed in the new office, Franklin returned to England where he acted as liaison between several colonies and the British government. As tensions mounted in the restive colonies, Ben came to sympathize with his American fellows and returned in 1775 to participate in the Continental Congress and the drafting of the Declaration of Independence.

At this most significant juncture in either of their lives, father and son parted ways.

Ben encouraged his son to join the Americans, but William refused and remained a British loyalist. At the beginning of the war, American militias put him under house arrest in New Jersey. Later he was jailed in Connecticut and finally released in a prisoner exchange to British-held New York, where he became the president of the Board of Associated Loyalists. After the war ended, in 1782, William returned to England and never returned.

Ben spent the war in France as the American ambassador to the country that supported the revolution most.

The break between father and son never really healed.

In England, William became active in the Loyalist community which, given the War of 1812, presumably was pretty active after the end of the American Revolution.

In France, Ben participated in negotiations for the Treaty of Paris, which officially ended the war. He took a very strong position against offering compensation or amnesty to loyalists like his son.

The next year, William attempted reconciliation in a letter to his father. Ben responded coolly with his own letter. “[We] will endeavor, as you propose mutually to forget what has happened relating to it, as well we can,” wrote the father.

On his way home from France in 1785, Ben stopped in England for a brief visit with William to resolve legal matters. It was the last time they saw each other.

Benjamin Franklin died a wealthy man three years later and bequeathed most of his goods to his surviving daughter, her husband and their children. There were other bequests for more distant relatives, and generous gifts for public education and infrastructure.

For William, Ben left very little: some books and papers, forgiveness of any loans outstanding and a bit of land in Nova Scotia that cannot have mattered much to either of them.

Ben was very clear about his reasons: “The part (William) acted against me in the late war, which is of public notoriety, will account for my leaving him no more of an estate he endeavoured to deprive me of.”

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