FRANKLIN, WILLIAM. (1731–1813). Royal governor of New Jersey, Tory leader. Pennsylvania-New Jersey. An illegitimate son of Benjamin Franklin, probably by his common-law wife, Deborah Read, he joined the company of Virginia troops raised by Beverley Robinson in 1746 for the expedition against Canada and at the age of about fifteen he rose to the grade of captain. For almost thirty years afterward, he was closely associated with his father as comptroller of the general post office from 1754 to 1756, clerk of the Pennsylvania provincial assembly, and as his father's companion in 1757 when the latter went to England as colonial agent for Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Will, as his father called him, was "a tall proper Youth, and much of a Beau." He studied at the Middle Temple, was admitted to the bar, traveled with his father, and aided him with his scientific investigations. Having become acquainted with the earl of Bute, he was appointed governor of New Jersey in 1763 through the latter's influence. This unsolicited honor may have been given with a view to winning Benjamin Franklin over to the British side.
William Franklin's tenure in the governorship started successfully. His adherence to the royal cause at the start of the Revolution appears to have been prompted by nothing more complicated than a sense of duty to the government that appointed him. In this he was estranged from his father, who after failing in all arguments to win him over, characterized William as "a thorough government man." On 15 June 1776 the Provincial Congress of New Jersey declared him an enemy and ordered his arrest. After severe treatment as a prisoner at East Windsor, Connecticut, he went to New York City in October 1778 after being exchanged for John McKinley, the Patriot president of Delaware. Franklin became president of the Associated Loyalists, which was deprived by Clinton of its powers after the Huddy-Asgill Affair in 1782. After Captain Lippincott was acquitted, blame for the killing of Huddy was transferred to William Franklin and some of the other directors of the Associated Loyalists. Franklin left for England in August 1782. He was allowed a relatively paltry eighteen hundred pounds for the loss of his estate and was given a life pension of eight hundred pounds a year. His first wife, whom he had married in England in 1762, died while he was a prisoner in Connecticut, having never been allowed to visit him there. In the family tradition, William sired an illegitimate son, William Temple Franklin, who became his grandfather Benjamin's secretary in Paris and later edited the works of the great man.
Franklin's career was a tragic paradox. As royal governor he was flexible, moderate, and resourceful, but as president of the Board of Associated Loyalists in the New York garrison town from 1778 and 1782, he tried without much success to smooth relations between Loyalist exiles trapped in the city and British commanders, first Clinton and then Carleton. To have been a stabilizing influence in the New York garrison town as the British military effort moved inexorably toward defeat would have required his father's guile.
Skemp, Sheila L. William Franklin: Son of a Patriot, Servant of a King. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
―――――――. Benjamin and William Franklin: Father and Son, Patriot and Loyalist. Boston: Bedford Books, 1994.
revised by Robert M. Calhoon
William Franklin, the illegitimate son of Benjamin Franklin, was born in 1731 (possibly late 1730) and reared in his father's home. He obtained a militia commission with Pennsylvanians on the New York frontier and by 1750 had risen to captain.
When he returned to Philadelphia, Franklin became comptroller of the General Post Office, under his father, and clerk of the General Assembly. He accompanied the elder Franklin to England in 1757, studied law, and gained admittance to the bar. He traveled with his father in Europe and assisted in his scientific studies; Oxford awarded him a master of arts degree in 1762 at the same time his father was awarded an honorary degree. That year William married Elizabeth Downes. Personable and handsome, he fitted easily into English society. Through the influence of the Earl of Bute, he was appointed governor of New Jersey in 1763.
Despite the reservations of the proprietor of Pennsylvania, Franklin and his bride were at first popular in the colony. As governor, he tactfully avoided disputes with the Assembly and demonstrated genuine interest in improving roads, aiding agriculture, and reforming the legal code. But as differences grew between the colonists and the mother country, his position became difficult. He appreciated certain American grievances, but he had scant faith in popular government and supported the authoritarian stance his proprietor's instructions required.
After the extralegal Perth Amboy Convention (October 1765) chose delegates to the Stamp Act Congress, Franklin was in continual difficulties with New Jersey rebels. He became estranged from his father. Even after hostilities commenced, Franklin remained in office as a loyalist, forwarding information on the New Jersey situation to England. After January 1776 he was kept under guard by the Provincial Congress, which ordered his arrest on June 15 and had him imprisoned in Connecticut. Denied permission to visit his dying wife, he was exchanged in 1778.
For a time Franklin stayed in New York, where he served as president of the Board of Associated Loyalists. Soon he returned to England; the British commission on loyalist claims eventually awarded him £1,800 and a pension for the loss of his estates. He became reconciled with his father by letter in 1784 and died in England on Nov. 16, 1813.
Letters from William Franklin to William Strahan, edited by Charles Henry Hart (1911), is an illuminating source. Carl Van Doren's monumental Benjamin Franklin (1938) has much information on William. Other sources are Paul L. Ford, Who Was the Mother of Franklin's Son (1889); Francis Bazley Lee, New Jersey as a Colony and and as a State, vol. 1 (1902); and Donald L. Kemmerer, Path to Freedom: The Struggle for Self-Government in Colonial New Jersey, 1703-1776 (1940).
Gerlach, Larry R., William Franklin, New Jersey's last royal governor, Trenton: New Jersey Historical Commission, 1975.
Randall, Willard Sterne, A little revenge: Benjamin Franklin and his son, Boston: Little, Brown, 1984.
Skemp, Sheila L., Benjamin and William Franklin: father and son, patriot and loyalist, Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1994. □