A Founding Father’s Fathers Day Story
Hey Dad! Do you have a story like this?
You love your son. His birth was one of the greatest and profound moments of your life. When he was little you spent all your time with him. During summer vacations you went everywhere together. You coached his hockey (baseball, football, basketball?) team, you helped him in school and as he got older you tried to protect him from the dangers of the adult world. You and your wife helped him go off to college and you were (or will be…) intensely proud of him as he began his career as an adult. Maybe thinking of it brings you close to tears.
Like me, are you looking forward to spending Father’s Day with your children? Opening the presents, or grilling a hearty steak or even on the golf course, Father’s Day is a day to celebrate everything you sacrificed and all you accomplished as a dad and maybe even as friend. But imagine for just one minute that you would not be celebrating because your story had a horrific twist. Imagine if after everything you did for your son he turned on you. He embarrassed you, humiliated you. How would you deal with that?
Unbelievably you don’t have to look very far for a story to give you pause on this Father’s Day. None other than founding father Benjamin Franklin himself lived that story and the agony of his personal tragedy changed America and the world forever!
There was perhaps no man more respected during his lifetime and no man more admired today than Franklin. He was the scientist who reached for the lightning and dared challenge the heavens, he was the inventor of bifocals and swim fins and countless other inventions. He was the “favorite son of Philadelphia” who established a fire department, ran the post office, a printing press and even developed her street lights. It was he and his associate John Adams who were the ones who asked Thomas Jefferson to write that Declaration of Independence we celebrate every July 4th. And at the conclusion of the American Revolution it was Benjamin Franklin who was the chief, and for most of the time, only negotiator with the British for the Treaty of Paris to end the war.
But what do you know of Benjamin Franklin the father? Did you know he had three children? Did you know that one of them was a son named William? Did you know that like you, Ben spent countless hours with William during his childhood? Indeed William was right there holding the kite with Benjamin during the most famous scientific experiment in American history.
Why is the picture on the top the one everyone knows and not the picture on the bottom?
And did you know that Ben got William his first job, that he traveled with William to London and helped him pass the bar exam there? Did you know he helped launch William’s career with his most prestigious job ever, the governorship of New Jersey? And did you know that his son William was the last governor in the country to resign his position after the revolt had already started?
Sounds pretty good doesn’t it? Benjamin Franklin sounds a lot like you and the relationship you have with your own son. Well wait a minute because here comes the horrible twist. William not only did a superb job in his new career, he was determined to make his father proud and be a successful royal Governor. Picking up on it yet? Yes, that is right, Royal governor. While father Ben was working with Thomas Jefferson and John Adams on declaring independence, his son William was adamant in publicly announcing his loyalty to the King. And as the war grew more desperate, William went on to not only profess his loyalty to the king but to actively work with British troops to defeat the rebellion! He organized other Loyalists; he started conspiracies and plots and even attempted to organize his own loyalist army that would be used against George Washington. And when that plot failed and the rebels went on to win, what did William do? He represented the cause of the Loyalists and traveled to London to petition the King for aid! Ironically while William was in London meeting with the King to represent one side of the war (the losers), father Ben was in Paris representing the winners!
Can you even begin to imagine the pain of Benjamin Franklin? He was a father who had given everything to his son. He was a father who had dedicated his life to making sure that his son William would succeed in his own right. And how did William repay his father’s dedication: By turning traitor to everything Benjamin had ever believed in and worked for. Indeed the way Benjamin himself said it in a letter to his son after the war, his last one by the way, was “… nothing has ever hurt me so much and affected me with such keen sensibilities as to find myself deserted in my old age by my only son!”
Can any of us understand the total sense of betrayal Benjamin Franklin was feeling at the end of the revolution? He had been betrayed by his only remaining son. He was hurt, he was angry, he was sick, and he was getting old. And if there was one last thing he would do in Paris it was to make absolutely sure that his son and the loyalists he led would receive nothing!
It was not easy. England was determined to help the Loyalists. After all, how would the rest of this mighty empire see the King if these people who had remained loyal to him, who lost everything in that war to the rebels and who were now exiles in other parts of the empire received nothing? If the British government could not protect these Loyalists then the empire itself could come crumbling down!
Despite these major obstacles, Ben Franklin succeeded as he always did. The Loyalists left the new United States. The superpower known as the British Empire was forced to scatter them throughout their remaining colonies with a huge majority of them going to Canada (where their descendants still live to this day.) Was this Benjamin Franklin’s revenge for his son’s betrayal or the practical workings of an American diplomat? You decide.
Now we could go on to discuss the massive implications the Treaty of Paris would have on the Loyalists and on the world. We could discuss the politics, the history, the bitter relations between Canada and the new United States that would continue to the present day. (The U.S. and Canada would fight two more wars in 1812 and 1838.) But on this Father’s day, we are much more interested in what happened to Ben and his son. Did Ben ever forgive his son or even see him again?
As a father myself, Ben’s story has captivated me. I spent 10 years working on a historical novel based on their relationship titled Neither King Nor Country which provides much of the resources for our story today. I was thunderstruck by the tragedy of this story. Here was one of the most brilliant men ever in American and even world history. We owe so much to this great man, and to see such personal suffering in him is staggering. Did they ever make amends? Did they ever forgive each other? There is no evidence beyond what must have been in their own hearts, but every father and son can imagine the pain they both were feeling.
After the war, after the betrayal, Ben and William met one last time in 1785. Ben was returning home from Paris and had stopped in England to see his son.
The meeting did not go well. How could it? Ben was already in intense physical pain. Gout, kidney stones, nearly paralyzed on his left side; was there any malady left that Franklin did not have? If it wasn’t for his grandson William Temple Franklin firmly placing his hand on his Grandfather’s back, the old man would have fallen over in a heartbeat.
Standing on that ship, waiting to see his son he still must have realized how lucky he was to be nearing his 80th birthday, to still be alive and to have seen so much in his life. The Revolution, the Indian wars before that, the friendships he had made with such great men like Washington and Jefferson. He had literally seen empires tremble and countries be born. But how could any of that matter now?
Was he actually nervous to see his son? Benjamin Franklin, the man who stood up to Kings, who met with the greatest Lords and Ladies of Europe, who had schooled Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and even, at times, George Washington himself. I wonder if he was weak in the knees.
He still had not come to terms with William’s betrayal that was clear. He had disowned him, repudiated him both publicly and privately and was even planning on making the boy pay for every debt his father ever encumbered for him, all the way back to his school days. Not a single loyalist, starting with his son, would get anything from this war. Franklin had made sure of that.
Was it pure revenge? Did his heart want to forgive William but his politics could not. After all he had argued in Paris that no Loyalist should get any compensation from the Americans. It was logical. It was scientific. And Benjamin Franklin was the most logical, scientific man in America if not the world. Everything he had ever done, every decision he had ever made, was based on rational thought and behavior. He had not been one of the mob. He had never tarred and feathered anyone. He abhorred that! His decisions to leave the Empire had been made slowly, rationally, weighing all the odds and considering all the ramifications. No one could ever accuse Benjamin Franklin of being rash and emotional; although that certainly never stopped John Adams.
And then there was his son William. How could Ben be rational here? We fathers all know the intense feelings of love, devotion and loyalty that come with being a father. William had betrayed his father in the deepest, darkest recesses of his heart. He had not only chosen a different side, he had actively fought to defeat the Americans and resorted to terror and vengeance to win his cause. If William had won the day, the first man hanged, the first man to lose all his earthly possessions would have been his father Benjamin Franklin. How could Benjamin forgive that? But I will always wonder, did he?
The rational mind of Benjamin Franklin could understand his son’s reasons if not his actions. William had been brought up to respect the Empire. He had served in its army, he had held various positions in its government, including of course the Governor of New Jersey. Benjamin knew that throughout his son’s life, he had taught him to respect authority, to look for compromise, to ignore the baser instincts and use the rational mind to make decisions that were best for all.
But there can also be no doubt that he had loved his son. The two of them spent almost every moment together in Williams’s youth. As a bastard, William had no real mother figure to look up to so Benjamin filled that role in as many ways as he could. They traveled together, they worked together, and Benjamin taught him science, mathematics, law and most importantly morality. Someday, Benjamin must have felt, his son would take over his legacy and the Franklin name would live forever.
Well the Franklin name would live forever, but not because of his son; despite him. Ben still had his beloved daughter Sarah. She was the light of his life, his ardent defender, ally and confidant. Unlike her elder brother, she had never wavered. She had remained loyal to him and to America. Doing relief work, hosting the Ladies Association of Philadelphia to aid the soldiers and even hosting his political meetings after the war; Sarah had been every bit the loyal daughter and hero of the Revolution. That of course, must have made the betrayal of William all the more painful.
In that last meeting, as Benjamin Franklin reflected on his legacy he must have known that his own name would live on. For as long as the new United States was in existence, he knew his role in shaping her would not be forgotten. But as a father how did he feel? We all have the desire to see our children happy. We all have at least some ego that wants to see our children follow in our footsteps, to honor our memory if not in practice at least in character. How then did Benjamin feel? Was he his hit with the deepest despair only a father could feel for a child? He must have. He did. Their meeting did not go well. They did not exchange pleasantries or let bygones be bygones. There is no evidence whatsoever in any letters, papers or diaries that Benjamin and his son ever made amends or that Benjamin ever forgave him. Indeed, the story was so tragic, that in our admiration for Benjamin, we have erased William from the history as Benjamin tried to do in his heart. In school books, in paintings of key, kites and lightning, in every aspect of the everyday culture, William’s name is almost impossible to find. Yes indeed, Benjamin’s name would live on but no one, no one in the entire world, American or Englishman would ever remember his son, the most infamous Loyalist of them all; William Franklin.
…Would any father today trade the world wide fame and fortune for the personal pain of Benjamin Franklin? On this Father’s Day, I think not. Enjoy your day dads, count your blessings and give your kids an extra hug today.
Thanks for listening,
Alan N. Kay
Alan N. Kay is the Daughters of the American Revolution , 2002 National Outstanding teacher of the year and an award-winning author with more than 25 years of experience bringing stories to life. Known for creative teaching as well as creative writing, Kay has won multiple awards. His most recent work, Neither King Nor Country is a historical mystery/thriller novel set in both the present as well as the American Revolution.
For more on Alan and his work teaching and writing go to https://alannkay.com/