The Loyal Son by Daniel Mark Epstein

Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

The Loyal Son
The War in Ben Franklin’s House
by Daniel Mark Epstein
Ballantine Books, 464 pp., cloth $30

The Loyal Son vividly narrates the complex and often painful relationship between Benjamin Franklin (1706–90) and his son William Franklin (c.1730–1813), from its beginnings in Philadelphia to its foundering on the rocks of the American Revolution. For some 40 years, the pair were on warm, close terms. They lived together in London for five years from 1757 when Benjamin, aided capably by William, operated as Pennsylvania’s agent. This immersion in imperial politics lead to the 33-year-old William’s surprise 1763 appointment as New Jersey’s royal governor.

What seemed remarkable good fortune proved to be the source of much pain. While Benjamin again lived in London as a colonial agent between 1764 and 1775, William’s office placed him on the front lines of the burgeoning American crisis. For more than a decade, he labored to balance his sympathies for colonial grievances with his responsibilities to uphold law, order and royal authority. William emerges in Epstein’s account as a man of talent and principle in these trying times, devoted to his father and wider family, and gamely playing a worsening political hand.

William suffered severely for his loyalties when war came. Benjamin, now a leader in the Continental Congress, largely cut off contact after failing to persuade William to abandon the crown. Arrested by the patriots, William spent six months alone in a fetid Connecticut jail cell. His wife Elizabeth died of disease during his captivity. Nearly all of Benjamin’s revolution was spent more comfortably as a diplomat in Paris. Freed through a 1778 prisoner exchange, William spent the next four years in Manhattan and worked to establish a loyalist militia there. Both sides committed atrocities in what Epstein calls the “danse macabre” that ensued in New York and New Jersey, and a hardened William helped direct brutal violence.

Postwar, a permanently exiled William lobbied for loyalist compensation in England. Father and son were reunited only for a few days there in 1785, as Benjamin traveled home to Philadelphia from France. William hoped for a permanent reconciliation, but Benjamin saw his son’s political choices as a personal betrayal. When Benjamin died in 1790, William was cut out of his will explicitly on account of his wartime loyalties.

Epstein’s rounded, evocatively drawn dual portrait of the Franklins shows that, even for the Revolution’s victors, old wounds could still ache.

Travis Glasson 
Temple University