Summer Reading 2017: Poor Richard’s Gifted, Gallant, Illegitimate Son

William Franklin started out life with many of the gifts that others might regard with envy — including a brilliant, powerful, protective father

Credit: Sarah Longaker
2017 summer epstein
While we’re on summer hiatus, we want to make sure we’re still giving our readers something to think about, so NJ Spotlight is continuing its annual summer reading series. Every day we’ll feature an excerpt from a recent book — from nonfiction to novels to poetry – with a New Jersey connection.

The title of this historical narrative is actually a pun, as it charts the relationship of founding father Benjamin Franklin and his son Will, the last colonial governor of New Jersey. Will and Ben were unusually close during Will’s childhood and early adulthood, a tightness that was deemed “loyal.” When Ben joined the patriots seeking independence, Will broke with his father and remained loyal to the crown.

Chapter 1

Americans in London: September 22, 1761

The crowd that gathered that morning in the square mile of streets, yards, and parks surrounding Westminster Abbey was the largest that had ever been seen in Europe. A million Britons had come from all over the kingdom to witness the crowning of King George III and his bride, Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburgh.

Every house, inn, and tavern was jammed. People couldn’t sleep for the shouting and singing, the ringing of church bells, and the hammering of scaffolds. From St. James’s Park to the banks of the Thames, nobles and peasants, merchants and plowmen, flower girls, jugglers, and piemen filled the streets in hopes of a glimpse of the royal procession. Such is the power of the British monarchy that a famous American scientist of the day might have likened the choir of the Abbey—with its ancient chair of Saint Edward in which the king would be crowned—to a magnetic pole enforcing order on the field of humanity surrounding it.

The hopes of a quarrelsome empire waited upon the young king.

Even the elements of nature were moved. It had drizzled rain upon the city since Sunday. Yet on Tuesday morning the sun dispersed the clouds and fog and shone throughout the day of the pageant, an omen inspiring the London Chronicle’s bard to write: 

Since then, great Prince, it looks like heaven’s decree
Ev’n to our sunshine we should owe to thee
Let this day represent thy future reign
Clear after clouds, and after storms serene . . .

For the nobles, gentlemen and ladies, bishops and choristers commanded to walk in the procession ahead of the king, and for those with engraved tickets that reserved places in Westminster Hall where the procession formed, there was a great deal to see. The splendor of the spectacle would exceed the expectations that had been building since the death of King George II nearly a year before.

Westminster Hall, cavernous beneath its hammer-beam oaken roof, had been emptied of all but the floor and steps of the king’s law court that convened here. A new floor of planks had been laid from the North Gate up the middle of the half-acre space to those steps and covered with woven matting. Immense galleries had been erected on either side, up to the beams, three levels seating thousands of spectators. Fifty-two chandeliers, each surmounted by an imperial crown of gold, were ready to light a post-coronation banquet with a thousand candles.

There were few Americans in London, fewer who could witness the coronation of their sovereign, and only one who was entitled to walk in the procession. He was William Franklin, the thirty-one-year-old son of the famous American scientist Benjamin Franklin. The older Franklin sat on a plank in the packed gallery. He had purchased his place in the open market, where they were changing hands for five guineas or more (a workingman’s wage for a fortnight).

Ben Franklin gazed down at the privileged ranks of bedecked, bedizened, and bejeweled humanity: judges in scarlet robes, choirboys with scarlet mantles, heralds in tabards, and all the nobility in their robes of state, their coronets in their hands.

And there on the edge of that rainbow of heraldry stood his son, William, in his drab coat of broadcloth, his tricorn hat in his hand. Benjamin Franklin regarded this scene with that blend of intense curiosity and amusement that often animated his bright blue eyes. He was 
by temperament and practice an observer of life as much as an actor in the human drama, both critical and self-aware.

William, his only son, a keen observer and student of manners himself, was more naturally a man of action, a confident frontier soldier, a man of law, a scientist in his own right, and—as his father’s aide—a colonial advocate. Pennsylvania had sent father and son to England on a fateful mission. Proprietor Thomas Penn’s refusal to pay taxes on his vast property had crippled defenses on the colony’s western frontier. Success for the Franklins with Parliament would mean safety for their countrymen; failure would mean more Indian raids, more massacres. Success depended upon their harmonious collaboration. It would also depend upon the grace of the new king.

William was handsome, an endowment his father must have noticed served him well in his unique role on this glorious day. His face was long and lean, his nose perfect, his chin strong and prominent, his mouth in repose a bow with upturned corners; his eyes were dark with long lashes and arched brows well drawn by nature. It was a comely face saved from androgyny by the force that animated it when he spoke or laughed. A friend had written to Mrs. Franklin, soon after meeting him in London: “Your son I really think one of the prettiest young gentlemen I ever knew,” in a century when the word “pretty” bore no unmanly connotations.

The Franklins’ friend William Strahan was forty-six, a publisher whose circle included such luminaries as David Hume, Dr. Samuel Johnson, and Edward Gibbon, all of whom he edited and befriended. His wide-set eyes shone with humor; kindness showed in his easy smile, force in the tilt of his chin. Equally at home with lords and commoners, he covered the proceedings in Parliament, publishing his remarks in journals, including Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette. In the same letter Mr. Strahan, a good judge of character, praised William Franklin’s “solidity of judgment, not very often to be met with in one of his years.” The English publisher, a man of the world, had never met such a father and son—strong personalities who worked in perfect collaboration, without envy or friction.

Although Mrs. Franklin might take pride in William’s level-
headedness, having reared him, she took no credit for the man’s beauty, an endowment (and souvenir) bestowed by the woman of mystery who had been her husband’s mistress before he commenced his civil union with Deborah Read. The origins of that common-law marriage, and Deborah’s adoption of its bastard issue, are noteworthy.
Deborah Read had known Benjamin Franklin from the day of his arrival in Philadelphia at age seventeen. She was the first girl to take notice of the stranger, bedraggled, disheveled, ill shod. Standing by her father’s door on Market Street she watched him pass, munching a large, puffy bread roll while holding two others, one under each arm. She later recalled that the lad made “a most awkward ridiculous appearance.” He may have heard her giggle. Benjamin had run away from his apprenticeship in Boston and wanted lodging. By chance this turned out to be the home of Deborah Read’s father, John, a carpenter, who owned the house of Franklin’s new employer, the printer Samuel Keimer. When Franklin’s trunk and his clothing arrived, the boy made a better impression upon Miss Read than he had the day he passed by her door chewing the bread.

They became friends and more than friends, sharing the same hearth and table on Market Street. At eighteen he expressed his desire to marry her, soon after her father’s untimely death. The governor of Pennsylvania was about to send this charming journeyman to London to purchase a letterpress and type, with the commission to set up as the province’s official printer; he could leave Keimer’s employment. With such prospects Franklin was confident he might start a family upon his return. As much in love with the attractive, bright Deborah Read as she was with him, he wanted a wedding, or at least an engagement, before he set sail, so as not to lose her to the tides of time and distance. Her mother, Sarah, citing those same uncertainties—their extreme youth and the long sea voyage—opposed the betrothal, arguing that a marriage “would be more convenient” after his return. By then he might be well established in his business, an enterprise she wisely considered to be founded more upon wishes than probabilities.

Minding her mother, Deborah bade Benjamin farewell. He sailed for England, where his hopes were dashed upon the ground of the governor’s empty promises and a lack of credit. He toiled in London print shops for a year and a half. Enjoying the heady life of a bachelor abroad, he neglected to write to Miss Read.

When he returned to Philadelphia at age twenty-one he found his Deborah married to one John Rogers, a potter. She was married, but now alone. The shiftless potter had gone through her dowry in a matter of months. Rumor had it that Rogers was also married to a woman in London. Hearing of this, Deborah left him. Rogers then ran away to the West Indies, where he may or may not have been killed in a brawl. So Deborah was married, and perhaps a widow, living with her mother when Franklin returned from his unprofitable adventure to England.

Not married in the true sense, nor free to marry in the legal sense, Deborah was in a painful situation. Benjamin not only pitied her, he felt guilty. A frequent visitor to the Read household, where he was welcome not only as a friend but also as an adviser in the family’s affairs, he found that Deborah was usually dejected, rarely cheerful, and avoided company. He believed that his own neglect and frivolity during his year in London was the cause of her unhappiness, even though Mrs. Read insisted upon taking the blame. It was she who had opposed their engagement, she who had encouraged the other match in Franklin’s absence.

Deborah was grateful for his attention and loved his company. Gradually their old affection was rekindled. But now there were many obstacles to their union. If Rogers was indeed married to someone in London, Deborah’s marriage was null and void. But at such a distance the fact could hardly be proved. If he was dead, stabbed in a barroom in Barbados or Grenada, then she was a widow; this was likewise unlikely to be proved. Inquiries had been made, and perhaps time would tell, but the corporal punishments for bigamy in those days were so severe that no one dared to risk it.
Meanwhile, twenty-one-year-old Benjamin Franklin was a man about town, not only in Philadelphia but in nearby Burlington, New Jersey. He and Samuel Keimer were busy there printing the official colonial currency in the spring of 1728, and doing what young men do in their spare time. He later confessed to his helplessness in managing his sexual urges: “That hard-to-be-governed passion of youth had hurried me frequently into intrigues with low women that fell in my way, which were attended with some expense and great inconvenience, besides a continual risk to my health.”

About that time Franklin fell into an intrigue with a woman unlikely to pose a risk to his health, not a low woman but one who would cause him considerable inconvenience, as he did her. Although her identity remains a mystery, unknown at the time even to Deborah, the woman in question was one who could keep a secret. She was someone who had at least as much to lose as Benjamin, if not more, than Benjamin, by the divulging of the secret trysts, the affair, the pregnancy, the birth. Most likely it was someone of breeding, and perhaps a woman already married, whose husband was out of the picture for months or years, a sea captain or merchant trading in China or Africa. For the sake of discretion, so much the better if the woman in question lived at a distance, anywhere but Philadelphia, where no one could keep a secret, someplace like Burlington, over the river. Deborah would be kept wondering, as would the whole world, for the sake of that woman’s honor, which was only as safe as the knowledge of William’s true parentage. Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead, wrote Poor Richard, famously and sagely.

The woman in question was confined sometime in 1729 or 1730. The child was born and put to nurse. His father—who at the time was practicing to become a saint, or rather a moral paradigm, as his writings show—resolved to adopt this baby, William, as his own. He meant to rear the boy and acknowledge him despite the world’s vain and idle opinions. This was a rare course of action for a man of Franklin’s class, although not unheard of. Usually bastards were reared by their mothers, when they were not abandoned. But Franklin was no ordinary man. In 1730 he was refining his “Art of Virtue,” a manual that was no less than a “project of arriving at moral perfection,” and responsible fatherhood seemed as good a place as any to begin.

Now things grew complicated and inconvenient, if not expensive, for the unwed father. The mother returned home with her honor intact and a terrible grief that time might heal. Her child was lost, and the world need know little more about it than that. Franklin, the would-be saint, went back to his lodgings, after the weaning, with a bastard to mix into the bargain of his marriage contract, for he had every intention of living with Deborah Read. “Better to be married than burn,” Saint Augustine advised, and Benjamin Franklin at twenty-four wanted badly to be married. He wanted a mother for this baby, and a wife. His choices were limited by his paternity, especially with respect to a dowry. Years later he would blame the limitation on his trade: As the printing business was generally thought a poor one, he couldn’t expect a dowry along with a wife, unless it was such a woman as he would otherwise think disagreeable. The truth is rather that Benjamin Franklin was an eligible and engaging bachelor, talented, charming, handsome, and full of promise, with one liability—his bastard son.

This is where his needs coincided with Deborah’s. They were equally damaged goods. They had been in love when they were eighteen. Six years later, sadder and wiser, they nourished a mutual affection that would ripen into conjugal love. While Deborah waited for sworn testimony of her husband’s death in order to marry again, Ben Franklin faced the contingency that as Rogers’s successor he would be held liable for the late husband’s debts, which were considerable. He would have to accept such bad news with the good. Deborah, for her part, had to accept the role of mother to the bastard son Benjamin had sired in a passion that was neither impetuous nor insignificant, in all probability. It was a bitter pill. He had probably been in love with her, whoever she was, since he had gone to such lengths to care for the child and protect her anonymity. He had made love to her sometime after returning from England, and God only knew what he felt for her now.

Understanding these things they agreed to enter into a common-law marriage. On September 1, 1730, they invited friends and family to an informal ceremony in which they declared their intention to live together as husband and wife. They set up housekeeping in Franklin’s residence at 139 Market Street about the time little William was taking his first steps. Two years later, on October 20, 1732, Deborah gave birth to a son, Francis Folger Franklin. Assisting with the delivery of the newborn as well as the care of the toddler William was Deborah’s mother, Sarah, who had come to live with them. She also helped in the stationery store Deborah managed on the ground floor. 

Little Frankie was his mother’s darling, longed-for, prayed for in the trying presence of his handsome half brother. The new baby arrived during a year of ample fortune and prosperity for the little family. Benjamin had paid off his debts and consolidated his publishing, printing, and stationery businesses; he had brought out the first edition of Poor Richard’s Almanac, which would soon make him rich. Perhaps it was the pressure of business or the feeling of invulnerability that comes with lavish good luck that caused Franklin to neglect inoculating this baby against smallpox. William had been treated. It was a curious oversight. He had been an early champion of the controversial experiment, studying its statistical results and sharing his opinions in the Gazette. In 1736, smallpox swept the city, and Frankie died of it. Now his father would have to explain to critics that the child had not died of the inoculation, but of the disease itself. He would never forgive himself. In death the little boy seemed to him to possess every human grace and promise of greatness—in any case, this was what he told Deborah and the world.

She could not wish harm to any child, but it must have seemed cruel to the grieving mother that Death would pass over the bastard son and carry off the only baby she and her husband were ever likely to have. They both came from large families that prized fecundity, and like most couples of their generation, they wanted many children. Franklin loved children. In the almanac he had written: “A ship under sail and a big-bellied woman / Are the handsomest things that can be seen common.” For whatever reason, they had failed each other in this. It was not for a lack of trying. Now she was twenty-nine, and an entire decade would pass between fruitful pregnancies. On August 31, 1743, at the age of thirty-five, she gave birth to a daughter they named Sarah after her grandmother. They would call her Sally. The girl was as fine a specimen of her sex as Frankie might have been of his, with all of her parents’ virtues, strength, beauty, and intelligence. William adored her. Her father was so proud of her that he joked with Mr. Strahan about arranging a marriage between the seven-year-old Sally and Strahan’s ten-year-old son.

Meanwhile, the gossips of Philadelphia either did not know or did not care that William Franklin was illegitimate until the early 1760s, about the time of the coronation of King George III. In that decade the rumor would be useful to the Franklins’ enemies. Until then, all the world—including Mr. Strahan—took for granted that Deborah Franklin was mother of all three children.

It was through Strahan’s influence, in part, that William stood by his side in Westminster Hall, about to walk in the procession. Although Strahan had not met the Franklins until their arrival in London in 1757, he had corresponded for many years with Benjamin and had heard intriguing stories about young William as he came of age on the American frontier.

The boy had been bright and headstrong, precocious like his father before him. And had he not also been charming, the task of rearing William in adolescence might not have seemed worth the trouble.

At fifteen he tried to run away from home on a privateer, longing for adventure and plunder. Benjamin fetched the boy from the ship, later protesting that no one could say it was hardship at home that prompted him, for Franklin was by all accounts not only an attentive but an indulgent father. When he himself had run away from home as a teenager, it was to escape a harsh apprenticeship to his brother James, a printer of inferior talents who whipped him to get even. William had no such complaints, being favored and coddled. He had received the best education available in Philadelphia in the 1730s and ’40s: a private tutor, then a desk at Annand’s Classical Academy at age eight. The boy wrote a fine hand and knew his Latin declensions. He danced, and rode well on his own pony.

Benjamin would have liked to see his son follow him in the printer’s trade, but the boy declined. If he could not go to sea, he was hell-bent on being a soldier, and in no time he proved he was good at it. At sixteen he enlisted in the king’s army; by eighteen he had distinguished himself, having risen to the rank of captain during King George’s War. In the seemingly endless war with France, the enemy and her allies (various Indian tribes) engaged in gruesome raids upon the settlements of the New England borders, and in battles on the high seas. 

From the book THE LOYAL SON by Daniel Mark Epstein. Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Mark Epstein. Reprinted by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

This book may be purchased on Amazon.

Read more excerpts in the 2017 Summer Reading series.