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Franklin’s Mint

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 her maternity from becoming known.” Deborah and Benjamin raised William as their own son, however, and in 1737 “legitimized” him, as Philadelphia law allowed. William worked in his father’s print shop until he was fifteen, when he joined the Pennsylvania militia, and distinguished himself in the French and Indian War. He fought in the campaign of Fort Ticonderoga. “The youngest of the Pennsylvania officers, he was,” according to Randall, “promoted to the highest provincial rank: captain.” Randall thinks that William hoped for a military career, but that his father refused to put up the money for a commission. In any case, William became a lawyer instead.

For the early years of William’s career, when he was almost entirely involved in his father’s complex political, publishing, and scientific worlds in Philadelphia, there are no sources of any depth or weight that the biographer can draw on. Benjamin Franklin’s references to his son are often laconic, at times almost dismissive, so Randall is forced to rely on inference and speculation, often from little or no evidence. In 1766 both Franklins, father and son, were given honorary degrees at Oxford for the experiments with electricity they had pursued together. Randall claims that the degrees “thrilled” the two men, but that “enjoyment…in each other proved brief,” since “Benjamin was growing deeply dissatisfied with William’s aristocratic tendencies” and jealous of his ease in society.

When William went to England in 1757 to complete his legal studies, he frequented Northumberland House, the London home of the Percys, who had much influence with the new king, George III. Randall also finds “aristocratic tendencies” in William’s choice of a wife, Elizabeth Downes, the “daughter of a Barbados sugar planter.” They were married in 1762, two weeks after William was appointed governor of New Jersey. “For the rest of William’s life,” according to Randall, “it was his glory that he was, in his own words, the first royal governor appointed by the new King.”

Randall claims to find a widening rift between father and son during these years. “Whether or not there was an actual showdown between the two men, Benjamin,” according to Randall, “obviously did not approve of his son’s choice of a career, a wife or a political party.” There is no evidence for this speculation and Randall begs the question. He could be right and he could just as easily be wrong. It is difficult to see why William’s appointment as royal governor of New Jersey would earn Benjamin Franklin’s disapproval at that time, since he himself positively pursued influence for himself and his family.

Randall makes too much of Benjamin’s leaving England just before his son’s induction into the governorship and his wedding. Nothing on earth would have changed Franklin’s decision to return at once when he learned that his power base in Philadelphia was in danger. Indeed, contrary to Randall, I suspect that Benjamin encouraged William’s “Tory” inclinations and drift, at least in the early stages, for it is unlikely that Franklin himself had much idea in 1762 where the American irritations and conflicts with the Penns and with the English might lead. Although old certainties were dissolving, new directions were not yet clearly visible. Who, even in 1765, could have believed that America would be an independent country by 1783? I suspect no one did, although a few may have had secret dreams.

Randall feels it necessary to supply the historical, political, and social background in order to give depth and color to his picture. Alas, the effect is of great shallowness and naiveté. The Franklins were in London when George III ascended the throne in 1760. Several ministerial changes followed, but Randall’s description might be mistaken for an American school textbook of 1850, although the works of Sir Lewis Namier are listed in his bibliography. Randall writes:

In the eleven months before [George III] was crowned, he not only dismissed his grandfather’s ministers, but took into his own hands the immense treasury and used it to buy control of Parliament.

Later he refers to “Tory society, now restored to power.” All of George III’s leading ministers, like his grandfather George II’s, were Whigs. As long ago as 1929 in The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III Namier exploded this myth of a Tory takeover and the wholesale buying of parliamentary boroughs by the Crown. It was the Whigs who made peace with France in 1763, the Whigs who suppressed John Wilkes, who drove the American colonies to rebellion, and it was the Whigs to whom William Franklin stayed loyal. Tories in America and Tories in Britain are not the same.

As in large matters, so in smaller ones, carelessness seems to combine with ignorance in Randall’s account. “Built of stone in the Flemish style of the seventeenth century Prestonfield was known to be the most fashionable House in Scotland.” Has Mr. Randall heard of Thirlestane, Dalkeith, Drumlanrig, etc., etc.? He thinks that the Great North Road goes through Derby, Manchester, and Lancaster, that Northamptonshire possesses “moors,” and so on. None of these errors is by itself very heinous but there are too many of them, and they are likely to put off a knowledgeable reader. This would be a pity. Overwritten, rather insecurely tethered to evidence, and freckled with errors of fact, nevertheless this book deserves to be read. The uncritical reader will probably enjoy it, for it has considerable verve, an excellent story to tell, and displays one outstanding skill—a sense of character. Because of this, eighteenth-century scholars, if they are patient with the errors, can derive much from it. It helps us to come a little closer to the enigma that was Benjamin Franklin.

Few of Benjamin Franklin’s relationships with other people had the depth of his tie to his son. Because his other relationships were not entangled in ambivalent feelings and emotional demands, he could treat people with a detached kindness or simply ignore them. Franklin escaped from his own parents as soon as he could; he neglected his wife for years on end, often hardly bothering to write to her. All this indicated a cool temperament, for he never hated his family and loathed quarreling with them; indeed, he liked them after his fashion.

His strongest emotions were probably stirred by the conflicts of politics and power where vanity could be deeply wounded and hopes crushed. And yet even this cool temperament, as Randall shows, was warmed if not to fierce heat at least beyond the tepid by his son. William was brave, handsome, intelligent, and through adolescence and early manhood very amenable to his father’s plans. Whether in science or politics or war, William worked with skill, intelligence, and dedication for his father. Indeed his contribution to Franklin’s scientific experiments was crucial. He evidently participated in all his father’s research on electricity. Randall points out how very casual, almost dismissive, Franklin was about his son’s help. On the other hand, William would never have received an honorary degree at St. Andrew’s or Oxford University had not Benjamin stressed that his son’s contribution was an essential part of his success. Benjamin showed great pride in William’s achievements; of that there can be little doubt.

The final split between father and son should not be traced back to the normal tensions between a father and his son. In general Benjamin was exceptionally supportive and generous, especially since the stigma of William’s birth was hardly a social asset. Temperamentally they had much in common—Franklin might pontificate in private about the desirability of breakfasting on gruel but he never showed himself averse to luxury when it came his way or indeed to public pomp so long as it was organized for him. Benjamin’s pride in William lasted as long as William’s political usefulness. When William stayed loyal to his king, got himself captured, then jailed and finally exiled, Benjamin’s frail emotional bonds with him snapped. The great merit of this book is that it conveys very vividly the initial closeness of father and son, and shows that William possessed many of the best qualities of his father. But Benjamin never seems to have been fully committed to his son emotionally, or even to have come close to being so.

One day some well-trained professional historian with a passionate interest in human psychology should attempt a one-volume biography of Franklin. Of all eighteenth-century personalities, European or American, he presents the greatest difficulty. The documentation, difficult and complex, is there, but to catch that multifaceted man in a steady light would require the hand of genius.

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