By Suzanne Sparrow Watson
As I have previously mentioned, probably ad nauseum, I am a committed Anglophile. Give me a good BritBox mystery show and a cup of Earl Grey and I’m in my element. I have often wondered what side I would have chosen in the Revolutionary War. One can’t assume that the people who resided in “the colonies” were automatically revolutionaries, or “Patriots”, as they were known. It is estimated that 15-20% of the British people living here remained loyal to the crown. Thus, they were known as “Loyalists”. Probably most notable among them, ironically, was William Franklin, the son of Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin. Many families at the time had divided loyalties, but none were as prominent – or as interesting – as the Franklins.
William Franklin was born in Boston in 1730 and was Benjamin’s acknowledged illegitimate son. He was raised by Franklin and his common-law wife, Deborah Read. Wouldn’t you have loved to be a fly on the wall when Franklin had that discussion with his wife? In any event, Franklin saw to William’s schooling and taught him the printing trade. William helped Benjamin publish Poor Richard’s Almanac and also assisted his father with many of his scientific investigations including his famous kite and lightening experiment. Benjamin obtained a military commission for William during the French and Indian War, and later used his influence to help William be appointed to positions such as Controller of the General Post Office and Clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly. In other words, he was a nepo kid. When Benjamin’s government role took him to England, William accompanied him and formed many relationships with the British aristocracy. When George III became King, William was appointed Royal Governor of New Jersey in 1862 and Benjamin could not have been prouder. However, in the more than ten years that William served in that position his views diverged from his father’s, leading to a rift that would never quite heal.
Benjamin, sometimes referred to as a ‘reluctant revolutionary’, hoped at first that differences with the British could be resolved. When he did join the revolutionary cause, though, he was fully committed. He expected William would do likewise. In August 1775 Franklin traveled to New Jersey to convince William to join the rebellion. He told his son he would be accepted with open arms by those opposing the King and could easily win a generalship in the army forming under George Washington. But William believed America’s best chance to succeed lay in remaining with Britain. He firmly believed most Americans would not support the rebellion. He gave his famous “two roads” speech to the New Jersey legislature urging them to refuse to endorse the newly formed Continental Congress and take the road to prosperity as part of England rather than the road to civil war and anarchy. His efforts were to no avail.
Ever a Loyalist, William secretly informed the British of revolutionary activities. Unfortunately for him, a packet of his letters was intercepted by the rebels who passed the information to the Continental Congress. They requested William be exiled from New Jersey. He was sent to Connecticut where he was jailed and placed in solitary confinement in a cell for prisoners about to be executed. Shocked at his harsh treatment, he wrote to Governor Trumball of Connecticut, “I suffer so much in being buried alive, having no one to speak with day or night…that I should deem it a favor to be immediately taken out and shot.” Being shot was actually more humane than the normal punishment for Loyalists, most of whom were tarred and feathered. William’s wife became gravely ill and died while he was imprisoned. During all his travails, Benjamin exerted no effort on his behalf, leaving William to face the consequences of his decisions. In 1777, suffering from ill health, he was exchanged with another prisoner and allowed to go to New York. From there he departed for England where he would live in exile for the rest of his life.
William attempted to reconcile with Benjamin while the latter was in Paris as one of America’s peace commissioners, but Benjamin rebuffed William’s overture. The two would never mend their differences, each remaining true to his convictions. They never saw each other again.
So, tomorrow, if you find yourself with family or friends with whom you have divergent views, don’t be the Franklins. Find a way to compromise…or just chug another beer and agree to disagree.