The phrase “brother against brother” ever conjures up the American Civil War in popular memory, but that same expression could just as accurately be stamped upon our
Benjamin Franklin—sometimes dubbed the “grandfather of our country” because he was so much older than Washington and the other Founders—was a remarkable self-made polymath who throughout his long life was printer, author, scientist, inventor, statesman and so much more: a truly iconic figure in his day on both sides of the Atlantic. Due to his pivotal role in both the Revolution and the birth of the Republic, Franklin has received much attention in the literature, including the widely acclaimed biography by Walter Isaacson that I read some years ago. Yet, his son William—also a highly accomplished man who for decades was nearly inseparable from his father—rarely earns little more than a footnote in tales from the life of his more famous forebear. In The Loyal Son, Daniel Mark Epstein seeks to right this wrong, not only by rescuing William from the anonymity where history has cast him, but also by placing him in the proper context for his time and place, an often overlooked milieu where there was hardly a consensus for revolution, and vast numbers in the population remained loyal to the British crown. It just so happened that William Franklin was one of them.
Epstein, while not a trained historian, is something of a polymath himself: poet, dramatist and biographer. Despite a lack of scholarly credentials, he has managed to turn out what is both an outstanding history and dual-biography on a number of levels, not least in that he brings a fresh perspective to the years leading up to the American Revolution, and deftly does so through the eyes and experience of two notable men who end up on opposite sides of the divide when conflict breaks out. His skill as a writer translates into an artful prose that is often lacking in the works of more distinguished historians. As such, in a book that runs just under four hundred pages and covers not only the lives of its subjects but the grander themes of the day, the pace never slows and there are virtually no dull moments.
William Franklin is, of course, the title character in The Loyal Son—a title that is a clever but also a tragic play on words. In the preface, Epstein wistfully imagines the identity of William’s mother and the circumstances of his birth, but admits that the facts of the matter are stubbornly unknown. What is known is that the young Benjamin Franklin was father to an illegitimate son with a lady who has been lost to history, a secret kept that has never been revealed. Franklin brought this infant to Deborah Read, the woman who became his common-law wife (they were never officially married, for complicated reasons), and she raised him as her own. But William Franklin’s life was defined far more consequentially by his relationship with his father. As a young man, he distinguished himself in the military, but then returned from war to engage in almost side-by-side endeavors with his father for decades to come. Once Benjamin had made his fortune—his Poor Richard’s Almanack had much to do with that—he largely retired from business in favor of scientific and scholarly pursuits, often eagerly accompanied by William, who served as aide and confidante. Seemingly incongruous for the great Patriot, the elder Franklin spent much of his life living abroad, both in England before the Revolution, and later in France, representing the new nation diplomatically. William accompanied his father to England for a sojourn that was to last many years, establishing key contacts that would lead to his selection as royal governor of New Jersey.
This eminent role was subsequently to have fateful consequences, as events elsewhere in the colonies and friction with the mother country deeply radicalized his father, while he was yet still living abroad. In a remarkable coincidence of timing, Benjamin returned from England on the very eve of the Revolution, immediately staking out a leading role in the developing rebellion even as William remained a moderate but firm voice against separation. Epstein here masterfully explores a topic rarely probed: how the renowned Benjamin Franklin is yet at this stage eyed quite skeptically by fellow patriots, who hold him in great suspicion for both his many years of residence in London, and as father to a stubbornly loyal governor. As it is, both Franklins prove stubborn to their diametrically opposed convictions, which—despite their lifelong close bond—drives them permanently apart.
Benjamin Franklin’s prominence in the Revolution and its aftermath are well-known; William’s own woeful story is rarely told. While all the other loyal governors flee the colonies, William doggedly remains in office, attempting to strike some kind of middle course that does not seek conflict with the rebels yet adamantly resists independence. The center, of course, could not hold. The forces of rebellion seized the reins of power, atrocities were committed on each side—including even such medieval punishments as drawing and quartering—and treason remained in the eye of the beholder. Ousted from authority, the governor was at first treated gently, likely because of his famous father, but a series of events and William’s own devious efforts to secretly abet the Loyalist cause eventually relegated him to the worst sort of prison, where he languished for months in truly deplorable conditions. His British-born wife, whom Benjamin and the rest of the family loved and cherished in the preceding years, fell into ill health in isolation, separated from her husband. William was refused permission to visit her on her death bed, even after beseeching George Washington, a one-time friend from bygone days.
And where was Benjamin while his son suffered so? He was working for the cause of Revolution, on both sides of the Atlantic, with William’s own son—Temple—in tow, in the same role of aide and confidante that William once held, long before. It makes the reader wince to see Benjamin abandon his son to an awful fate—emaciated, teeth falling out, rats crawling on his bedding in a drafty cell—while the great Patriot is honored at home and abroad. The author argues that it under the circumstances it would have been dangerous for Benjamin to intercede directly on behalf of his son, while suggesting circumstantial evidence exists that attempts were made behind the scenes, but all of this rings of excuses all too flimsy. Ben had once been closer to his son than any other human being; now he had so hardened his heart that even a token of mercy was out of the question. It is especially poignant that William seems to have never given up his love for his father, nor the hope that one day their fractured relationship would be mended. Sadly, it was not to be. Safe in England after the war, William sought reconciliation that even then Benjamin spurned.
Benjamin Franklin was a man who was a friend to many and seemed, unlike many of his fellow Founders, always given to the best of motivations. But he was not the finest family man. He failed to inoculate his first son with Deborah Read for smallpox (although, notably, William had been vaccinated), and the boy died of the disease, a scourge of the day. Benjamin lived for decades away from Deborah, who longed for his return but was ever rebuffed, even after she was disabled by stroke. She died heartsick, without seeing him again, all while he dallied with a host of women in the halls of Europe. Despite his close relationship with William, his very wealthy father kept an ongoing tab of debt accumulated by the son in expenses given to raising him and to his education, a debt he ever dangled before him, a debt that should never have been assessed. During the war, William might very well have died in prison, and his wife did perish, far from his side; Ben did nothing for either of them. And in the tumult of Revolution, Benjamin drove a wedge between William and the whole of the rest of the family, including his own son, Temple, although the break with the latter was to heal, unlike the one with his father. That bond remained severed. Forever.
William was a prominent Loyalist with a famous name and a famous father, but he was hardly alone: some estimates of Loyalists run to a half million, or twenty percent of the white population of the colonies. Most of these Tories, like William, were no more or less honorable individuals than the Patriots they resisted. But they found themselves on the losing side. Some were murdered, others imprisoned, and the bulk of the survivors lost much of their property and were permanently driven out of their homes. Most of them died in exile. Until recently, their collective stories have long been ignored. This fine book takes another step towards resurrecting these lives for a modern audience that hardly knows they ever lived.
If there is a fault to The Loyal Son, it is that while notes are included, those notes could have much more depth. But perhaps that is a quibble, and certainly could be beefed up in a future edition. More importantly, this is a very well-written work that makes a significant contribution to studies of the Revolutionary era. I would highly recommend this book to every student of American history.