William Franklin: Biography & Quotes

Instructor: Erica Cummings

Erica teaches college Humanities, Literature, and Writing classes and has a Master's degree in Humanities.

You might think that any son of Benjamin Franklin's would be just as devout an American patriot as Benjamin was. But that's not exactly the case with William Franklin. In this lesson, learn more about William's political ideas, career, and life.

William Franklin: Son, Politician, and Loyalist

It's part of the human experience--sometimes we feel like we are 'at war' with our parents, whether about curfews, significant others, money, or our careers. Often (hopefully!), these 'wars' subside, but with one famous father and son duo, this 'war' was quite literal.

The American Revolutionary War strained one of the most intriguing parent-child relationships of that time: Benjamin Franklin and his son, William Franklin. Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) was an influential, self-made Pennsylvanian businessman, politician, and patriot. William Franklin (1730/31-1813) was Benjamin's illegitimate son, and even though he took after his father in many ways, he wound up on the other side of the Revolutionary War, forever breaking the bond between them.

Portrait of William Franklin
Portrait of William Franklin

Cherished Son of Benjamin Franklin

Though their relationship would later become strained, the relationship between Benjamin and William started strong. William was born in Philadelphia in 1730 or 1731, outside of wedlock; mother unknown. Despite his illegitimacy, Benjamin treated William as part of the family. As a young boy, William helped Benjamin with his printing business and science experiments-- including the famous kite and lightning experiment!

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin
Portrait of Benjamin Franklin

As William grew, Benjamin introduced him to the political scene, where he was making a name for himself as a liaison between Pennsylvania and the British Crown. William assisted Benjamin in this endeavor, and in return, Benjamin arranged for William to get legal training. Benjamin also used his influence to help William win political posts in the 1750s, like a clerk in the Pennsylvania Assembly and a postmaster. When the French and Indian War broke out (1754), William helped Benjamin organize military campaigns. William had an illegitimate son (William Temple Franklin) around 1759, and Benjamin raised him while William was busy with his career.

In a September 3, 1758, letter to Benjamin Franklin, William expressed gratitude for his father's support: 'I am extremely oblig'd to you for your Care in supplying me with Money, and shall ever have a grateful Sense of that with the other numberless Indulgences I have receiv'd from your paternal Affection.'

Politician and Loyalist

The height of William's political career came in 1762 when he became the Royal Governor of New Jersey--the same year he married Elizabeth Downes. William would be the last Royal Governor of New Jersey. As tensions between the colonists and Great Britain grew, William negotiated between his colony and the Crown quite effectively, at least at first. Though he enforced some unpopular laws like the Stamp Act, he also pleaded with Great Britain to loosen its grip on the colonies.

Though William loved the American colonies, he loved the British Empire as well--a love he learned from none other than his father. So, when the Revolutionary War started in 1775, William could not advocate independence. He didn't agree with everything the Crown did, but he thought war with Britain was unwise and treasonous. He thought America's best chance for success was to stay under Britain's control. Benjamin was also initially reluctant to war with Britain, but by 1775, it was clear to Benjamin and many others that diplomacy was not working. Benjamin then became a leading advocate for independence. In contrast, William saw only chaos in such a pursuit; thus he became a Loyalist, an American colonist who supported Great Britain and did not want independence.

In fact, from 1775 on, William became more active against the Revolution. For example, he sent letters to Britain about what the patriots were doing. When this was found out, the patriots jailed William for two years, from 1776 to 1778.

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