A Little Revenge: Benjamin Franklin and His Son
by Willard Sterne Randall
Little, Brown, 558 pp., $22.50
Benjamin Franklin has not attracted as many biographers as one might expect. His professional life was so complicated that would-be biographers shy away. At various times in his life he was a printer, a scientist, a journalist, a diplomat, a politician, an entrepreneur, and some would have us believe a double agent. To make matters worse, the great man shifted territory for long periods and settled chameleon-like into new worlds of fashion, culture, and politics with surprising ease. Compare, for example, John Adams’s ambivalence toward London, Paris, or the Netherlands with Franklin’s easy acceptance. Franklin sinks into London, or Edinburgh for that matter, as into a favorite, comfortable armchair. Adams seems ill at ease, perched on the edge of the seat, waiting to get angry. And yet their social origins and early experiences were not so very different.
To understand Franklin’s career abroad requires a much deeper and more sensitive knowledge of British and French politics and society than would the career of any other American of Franklin’s time. And the private man is as difficult and as complex as the public figure. Franklin has a curious capacity to slide around his own self. Sometimes he is secretive and devious, and then will almost shockingly expose his deepest compulsions whether in sexual behavior or in hunger for money and power. Add to this his ironic detachment, his social charm and vanity, his furious capacity for work combined with an exceptional indolence, and the still-deeper problem of his passion, or lack of it, for people as well as ideas. Then the difficulty of writing a biography of Franklin appears almost insuperable. And so historians who write on Franklin usually concentrate on one aspect—his work as a scientist, his social life in Paris, his activities in London as Pennsylvania’s agent. Often these books have been illuminating, but rarely of the subject as a whole.
This is true of Randall’s book as well, in which the central theme is the relation between Franklin and his bastard son, William. It is a subject rarely explored or made as central an event in Franklin’s life as Randall suggests it was. Unfortunately, since most of William Franklin’s papers were destroyed during the Revolution, documentation was lacking, but Randall claims to have found, “scattered through archives in Canada, England and America…enough surviving evidence to permit the resurrection of William Franklin.” This is perhaps too strongly put, but Randall manages to provide an outline, at least, of William’s life.
According to Randall, “until his dying day, William Franklin was apparently unsure of the date of his birth”; but the best guess seems to be 1731. The identity of his mother remains a mystery. William always claimed that his mother was Deborah Read, Benjamin’s common-law wife and the daughter of his landlady, but Randall’s evidence, such as it is, suggests that William’s mother was, in fact, “a disagreeable woman, ‘not in good circumstances,’ who prevented …