Ben Franklin is the most lovable of America’s founding fathers. His wit, his charm, his inventiveness—even his grandfatherly appearance—are legendary. But this image obscures the scandals that dogged him throughout his life. In The Loyal Son, award-winning historian Daniel Mark Epstein throws the spotlight on one of the more enigmatic aspects of Franklin’s biography: his complex and confounding relationship with his illegitimate son William.
When he was twenty-four, Franklin fathered a child with a woman who was not his wife. He adopted the boy, raised him, and educated him to be his aide. Ben and William became inseparable. After the famous kite-in-a-thunderstorm experiment, it was William who proved that the electrical charge in a lightning bolt travels from the ground up, not from the clouds down. On a diplomatic mission to London, it was William who charmed London society. He was invited to walk in the procession of the coronation of George III; Ben was not.
The outbreak of the American Revolution caused a devastating split between father and son. By then, William was royal governor of New Jersey, while Ben was one of the foremost champions of American independence. In 1776, the Continental Congress imprisoned William for treason. George Washington made efforts to win William’s release, while his father, to the world’s astonishment, appeared to have abandoned him to his fate.
A fresh take on the combustible politics of the age of independence, The Loyal Son is a gripping account of how the agony of the American Revolution devastated one of America’s most distinguished families. Like Nathaniel Philbrick and David McCullough, Epstein is a storyteller first and foremost, a historian who weaves together fascinating incidents discovered in long-neglected documents to draw us into the private world of the men and women who made America.
“The history of loyalist William Franklin and his famous father has been told before but not as fully or as well as it is by Daniel Mark Epstein in The Loyal Son. Mr. Epstein, a biographer and poet, has done a lot of fresh research and invests his narrative with literary grace and judicious sympathy for both father and son.”—The Wall Street Journal
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A Night Journey, 1731
Works of fiction often benefit from prefaces that are non-fictional statements. These are usually personal and sometimes historical remarks by the writer that help us find our way into the story. Is it possible that a book of history might profit from a nearly fictional preface? Might an author part from convention just long enough to favor the reader by turning the tables? I don’t know if it has ever been done before; but, begging the reader’s indulgence I mean to try it.
When I am done with my preface, I will resume my vocation as a historian with no constellation to guide my craft but the facts.
On a starry night in April 1731, a young man in a borrowed two- wheeled shay drove along the Lower Post Road from Burlington, New Jersey, toward Cooper’s Ferry, where he hoped to cross the river into Philadelphia before daybreak. There was enough of the moon in its last quarter to light the muddy road.
Beside him on the seat was a packing crate lined with blankets, and wrapped in the blankets andwound in bunting was a baby. Right now the baby was sleeping, lulled by the rhythm of the horse’s hooves and the easy jouncing of the carriage upon its creaking wheels. The driver
guided the horse carefully in the hope that a bump in the road wouldn’t set the baby to crying again. Just eight months old, he had never been long away from his mother. She had explained a few hours ago that if the baby cried he was to pick him up, just so, and put him up on the shoulder and pat him, once, twice, and again to raise the air in his belly. Then rock him or sing to him and he would go back to sleep. He was a good baby, she said, sobbing. “He does not cry or fuss but when he is hungry or raw or has the air in his belly.”
She had weaned him early in anticipation of this terrible hour. In a separate compartment of the crate were a pewter sucking pot, a silver pap boat and spoon for pabulum, and a covered jar of mixed flour, bread, and water. He knew nothing about babies but meant to figure it out.
Franklin was famously capable. In the fullness of his twenty-four years he had proved this to himself and a few other people and was sometimes frightened of his own power. The advantage was partly an inborn mental endowment, a knack for absorbing knowledge and put- ting it to work in useful and novel ways. In spite of little schooling he had mastered Latin, French, ancient history, and strange branches of mathematics such as the magic square. He was a wunderkind, at six- teen already demonstrating a command of language that would make him the greatest writer of topical essays in America. A precocious busi- nessman, at seventeen he had replaced his brother as editor of The New-England Courant; now he was owner of The Pennsylvania Gazette and the colony’s official printer.
All of these accomplishments might be understood as functions of intellect and a hearty constitution. But he had more mysterious talents: an ability to see things, events, objects, before they appeared to his senses; also his potent influence upon people of all ages—he couldn’t account for it and preferred not to think too much about it, but this was a force he had come to rely upon without conscience.
Franklin believed in God but shunned the church. At nineteen he had published a pamphlet arguing against free will. As God was infi- nitely wise, good, and almighty, nothing in His creation could be wrong. Therefore vice and virtue were empty distinctions. By and by,though, he had begun to see the danger in this creed. He had allowed a large debt to a friend go unpaid. He treated his brother badly, first by running out on his apprenticeship in Boston, then by returning there in triumph a year later, flaunting his new wealth, flashing gold coins, embarrassing James in front of his staff. He had treated his fiancée, Deborah, terribly at one time, neglecting her while indulging his pas- sion for low women.
Lacking a proper philosophy, religion, or supervision, he realized there was no end of mischief and misery he might cause the world. Look what had happened in the past year during a time when he was trying so hard to mend his ways.
The carriage hit a bump and the baby stirred in the wooden box, murmuring, and then fell silent again.
Two women were in love with Benjamin Franklin. One he loved with all his heart and soul; the other was his wife, who was waiting for him, weary and anxious, in their rooms on Market Street in Philadel- phia. The woman he had left behind, weeping, at the door of a mansion on the outskirts of Burlington was the mother of the child who lay beside him.
He had met the woman at a lively dinner gathering at the home of the surveyor general in Burlington three years ago, when Franklin and his business partner were printing paper money for the province of New Jersey. She and her husband, Captain Joseph Bradford, were seated when he entered the parlor. The first thing he noticed was the sheen of her long, abundant hair, nearly black, pinned back, strands touching her bare shoulders, and eyes of china blue that made a bril- liant contrast. The second thing he noticed as she rose and extended a slender hand was how tall she was, almost equal to his five feet ten inches.
They were seated together at the long table as the two youngest of the company, and because it was hoped that the twenty-two-year-old writer, with his wit and vast reading, would entertain the captain’s wife, herself a woman of unusual erudition. Her father, a rich merchant and amateur scientist, had novel ideas about women and spared no expense on books and tutors for his youngest daughter, Marion. It had stood her in good stead. She had married the adoring Captain Bradford, master of two merchant vessels, who was at sea for years at a time while
she managed his business affairs on land, having complete power of attorney and notable financial literacy.
After one hour in Mrs. Bradford’s company, Franklin was not quite sure whether she found him entertaining or ridiculous. She smiled agreeably. At times she fairly beamed, raising an eyebrow, whether what this bachelor said was funny or not, as if she laughed at some inner joke that might be at his expense, or perhaps a distant memory awakened in her that had nothing to do with him. She was certainly the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, with the clear cameo fea- tures of a Titian Madonna. She seemed much older than he (she was then twenty-eight) and more worldly-wise, a wife, woman of affairs, and mother of a ten-year-old daughter.
At the other end of the table the surveyor general, a judge, their wives, and several aldermen sipped wine and talked business with Cap- tain Bradford, who knew everything about the balance of trade. He was a jovial mariner of fifty with thick side-whiskers and merry eyes. He would be sailing for England in May with a cargo of tobacco and lumber, returning, God willing, in October with broadcloth and salt. Then off again on a winter run to Barbados.
Captain Bradford and his wife owned two homes, the mansion out- side Burlington and a smaller house in the port city of Perth Amboy near Raritan Bay and the ship channel. She first wrote to the young printer from Perth Amboy on May 17, 1728, asking if he might call upon her in Burlington during the following week. She had questions about the currency.
There in the twilight of her book-lined drawing room, as night closed in around them, it took them all of fifteen minutes to realize they were in love—hardly enough time to light the lamps. These free spirits, unsupervised, without religion, and agreeing that vice and vir- tue were empty distinctions, gave in to nature and high spirits. They soon found that they could not get enough of each other.
That spring and summer, in Burlington County and in Philadel- phia, in inns and courtyards, meadows, haylofts, and rowboats, they made love as lovers have done since time began and as they believed no lovers had ever made love before, with enthusiasm, imagination, and acrobatic virtuosity. They did things not to be recorded here. They were cleverly discreet. And of course they took care to see that Mrs. Brad- ford did not get pregnant. She knew all about that, and he trusted her to supply what he lacked in experience.
When the leaves turned and it was time for the captain to come home, they were not quite exhausted, but discovered the fire that had warmed them in the summer had given way to a glow that was inex- tinguishable: a sort of tenderness and deep understanding of kindred spirits. Now each must appeal to the other’s highest nature. They must not meet again. They must consider not only themselves, but others.
So in November, Franklin wrote his famous “Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion” in which he embraces virtue and goodness as the only means to leading a happy life. During the next few years he would cre- ate a program calculated to achieve moral perfection, by checking off cardinal virtues one by one on a chart: temperance, frugality, justice, moderation . . . twelve in all, with the last being chastity. By concen- trating on one per week, then repeating, in a year or two one might become a saint. He managed to stay away from Marion Bradford for more than eight months during which he pined for her. He took con- solation in the company of his old flame Deborah Read, a handsome woman he had known since they were seventeen. She, too, was mar- ried, but disastrously; her husband had run off years ago, so she was for most purposes available, if not legally marriageable.
But in the summer of 1729 he received a letter from Marion in- forming him that the captain was departing upon a triangular trade route from Sandy Hook bearing rum to the Gold Coast, slaves from Africa to the West Indies, then molasses to England. Her husband would not return before late winter eighteen months hence. This was more temptation than the aspiring saint could bear, not to mention Mrs. Bradford. They picked up their affair where they had left off, but with renewed intensity after months of longing, and the piquancy of knowing that this must come to an end, the sweet torment of swearing oaths that they would never see each other again, of tearful, high- minded partings, and then delicious, wicked falls from grace.
After Christmas they made love in a damp hunting lodge, and in March she told him she was pregnant. This was a sobering development. What could she do? The pregnancy could be concealed withproper clothing until the end, and then she would travel. Her daughter would be away at school. There was a friend in Richmond who could be trusted. Her husband must never know; he wanted more children, would never forgive her. She would be ruined. Benjamin must go away and never see her again. She would write to him.
He had seen her one more time before that long night in April 1731. Drawn by an overwhelming impulse, he went to her upon her return from Richmond, learning she had been unwilling to give up the newborn until she had weaned him. He found her alone in the house near Burlington with only one servant so old and frail she appeared ready to carry Marion’s secret to the grave any moment. The mother was both happy to see him and very sad. The boy child in his cradle, with the promise of a smile, was perfectly formed, as one could see when she undressed him. He did not touch the baby. He promised her that he would return when the boy was weaned and see to it that he was placed in a good home. It was the least he could do.
Franklin had been in fitful negotiations with Deborah Read for several months concerning their domestic arrangements. She wanted to marry him but couldn’t until there was proof of her husband’s de- mise. Franklin wanted a wife for all the usual reasons. He was fantasti- cally busy. He did not want to assume responsibility for the enormous debts of Deborah’s late husband should he prove to be dead, which colonial law demanded. One solution was for them to set up house- keeping together and declare themselves husband and wife, above the law, which appealed to him more than to her. They argued over it, bar- gaining. Now there was another pawn on the board—this baby. It might tip the balance for Deborah Read. After a heated discussion, she consented to raise the bastard under two conditions: Franklin was never to see the child’s mother again, whoever she was, and “the wom- an’s identity must never be revealed, even here, to me. At best the world may come to believe he is ours; at worst he will be known as a found- ling orphan.”
Deborah moved into Ben’s house in September 1730, beginning
their common-law union. Never gregarious, she served her husband, traveling occasionally to visit her siblings.
In April he crossed the Delaware River with his baby. He drove the shay along Front Street in view of the sailing ships, turning up Market Street in the dawn. It was a new world that needed good fathers. A ship’s horn blared, and sounds of the city waking woke the baby beside him. At an alley between Second and Third Streets the infant whim- pered. Then he began to cry in earnest. They were almost home. He did not want to bring this baby to his wife screaming and crying. He reined the horse, jumped down and tied him to a hitching post, and threw a blanket over him. He got back up on the carriage seat, gently lifted the baby from the cradle, and began rocking him side to side as he had seen women do. The baby cried. He put him up on his shoulder and patted his back, just so. He began to sing.
Hush ye, my bairnie
Bonny wee laddie
When you’re a man
You shall follow your daddy . . .
Franklin loved to sing old tunes. It calmed the child, and soon he was sound asleep once more.
Leaving the horse and shay in the rising light he carried the bundle to the house and up the stairs to the bedroom where his wife was half asleep. He laid the child in the middle of the bed and got in beside him. When Deborah’s eyes were fully opened, she first saw the baby sleeping between them.
“His name is William,” her husband whispered.
The night journey of young Ben Franklin may have happened much as it is described above. The persons and the circumstances were real (excepting the Bradfords) and the events highly probable. But there is no record of them. So it is not history. It is scaffolding. Like the wooden frame that follows the form of the underside of an arch while the marble stones are laid upon it, until the last capstone is in place and the arch is self-supporting from the weight of gravity, the little story may now be taken down.
What lies ahead is the stone arch of history.