Holy Cow! History: The Franklin history forgot

The Founding Fathers were a quiltwork of conflicting personalities. George Washington was dignified and coolly aloof. Thomas Jefferson went around with his head in the clouds. John Adams was perpetually looking for someone to argue with. Bookish James Madison was a brain with arms and legs attached.

Then there was Benjamin Franklin. He was, someone once observed, the Founder you’d want to have a beer with. Artists who painted him caught the sly twinkle in his eyes and the hint of playful mischief lurking behind them.

Statesman, scientist, diplomat, author, inventor, businessman … his accomplishments made him a genius in his or any century.

Franklin was also a ladies’ man. He made no secret of his attraction to them and was catnip to them in return. Difficult as it is to believe today, Ben Franklin — old, pudgy, balding, glasses-wearing Ben — was a babe magnet well into old age. As ambassador to France, it was fashionable among Parisian high society for ladies of the court to flirt with the then 70-something envoy from the far side of the Atlantic.

His flings sometimes produced more than memories. Stories have floated around for decades (especially in Philadelphia, where it seems tour guides gleefully passed them along) that he fathered anywhere from 13 to 80 illegitimate children.

The truth, as so often happens, was nowhere nearly as salacious. We do know he was the Baby Daddy to one, and perhaps two, kids out of wedlock. While that would have qualified him to appear on “The Jerry Springer Show,” it hardly makes him the insatiable Satyr of legend.

One documented offspring is of particular interest because he spent his life directly opposing the very cause to which his famous father was dedicated.

Ben Franklin paid more than lip service to American independence by traveling far and wide on its behalf at an advanced age. Yet at the same time, his son remained militantly loyal to England. This is the story of William Franklin.

He was born in Philadelphia in 1730 when Ben was in his 20s. His mother’s identity has never been discovered. When Ben began his common-law marriage to Deborah Reed, she took William into the household and raised him. He called her “mother” all his life.

He put on a military uniform at age 16, rose to captain and was at his dad’s side during Franklin’s famous kite experiment (proving lightning and electricity are the same thing).

He became engaged to a Philadelphia doctor’s daughter, then sailed to London to study law where. Like a chip off the old block, he fathered an illegitimate child of his own. (More on him in a minute.) He also jilted his fiancée back home and married another woman.

The Franklins settled in New Jersey. He partnered with his father to pursue land grants in the colonies’ frontier. William was named governor of the New Jersey Colony in 1763. He was an able administrator who, over the next 14 years, supported the creation of Rutgers University, eliminated debtors’ prison and pardoned 105 women jailed for adultery. Not a bad record.

But friction was brewing as the push for independence grew stronger. Ben was an ardent patriot; William a devout loyalist. The father-son relationship grew increasingly strained until the two finally split. A famous historian noted, “(William) did not abandon Benjamin, but Benjamin abandoned him.”

William was a devout member of the Church of England. The Crown had been good to him. Besides, he couldn’t afford to live without his royal salary.

Imprisoned for two years, he was released in a prisoner swap, moved to New York City and became a leader of the loyalist resistance to the Revolution. While his father did all he could for American freedom, the younger Franklin recruited pro-British military units and worked with spy rings to squelch it.

William sailed for England (permanently) when his dad’s side eventually won. His wife had died while he was jailed, and in 1788 he married a rich Irish widow.

Father and son never patched things up. William wrote to his dad in 1784, hoping for a reconciliation. Benjamin sent a lukewarm reply.

The two met one final time the following year. Benjamin stopped in London on his way home from France. It was short, businesslike and involved a third generation of the Franklin family.

Remember William’s illegitimate son? Ben met the boy and raised him, just as his wife had done for his own illegitimate child. Benjamin developed a deep affection for William Temple Franklin, perhaps transferring to him the love he no longer gave his son.

Temple (as he was called) not only shared his grandfather’s politics but also served as his personal secretary. In that last meeting in London, Benjamin, now 80, got William to transfer land in New York to his own son to settle a debt William still owed his famous dad.

When Ben Franklin died six years later, his countrymen greatly mourned him. William Franklin died quietly in exile 23 years later. His London grave was lost over the years. Appropriate, perhaps, for a man whose legacy was swept under the rug of history for being on the losing side.

Holy Cow! History is written by novelist, former TV journalist and diehard history buff J. Mark Powell. Have a historic mystery that needs solving? A forgotten moment worth remembering? Please send it to [email protected].