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The Loyal(ist) Son: The Story of Ben Franklin's Son Taking Britain's Side During the Revolutionary War

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
April 16, 2024 3:00 am

The Loyal(ist) Son: The Story of Ben Franklin's Son Taking Britain's Side During the Revolutionary War

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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April 16, 2024 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, the war in Ben Franklin's home was not one a loving family could have ever expected.

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Our American Stories
Lee Habeeb

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Connecting changes everything. This is Lee Habib and this is Our American Stories, the show where America is the star and the American people. And this next story is how the signing of the Declaration of Independence divided the country and families, including one founder's family. You know, it's been said that there's never been more partisan division than right now in the country. Well, we're going to take you through a story that questions that narrative. Historians who study the matter differ as to the number of Americans who sided with the Patriots and the British crown.

But one thing is certain. Americans were deeply divided. One third were for the war, one third were against it, and one third were hiding under their tables, hoping it would pass.

But the consequences for choosing one side or another was not an ugly Facebook post or a tweet storm. Here's one of the signers describing what it was like putting name and pen to paper, signing the Declaration of Independence in Independence Hall. This is what Benjamin Rush said. A pensive and awful silence pervaded the house as we were called up one after another to the table of the president of Congress to sign what was believed by many at the time to be our own death warrant. Rush, who was there at our founding and signed our birth certificate, was right.

You see, the British government considered the Declaration of Independence a treasonous document, and treason was a capital crime. How divided was America? One look at Benjamin Franklin's life tells the story. The printer, inventor, humorist, writer, newspaperman, and diplomat was one of the driving forces of the American Enlightenment.

But his own home was torn apart by America's first Civil War. Franklin's son William was illegitimate, but that never stopped Benjamin from being the father his son deserved. Indeed, William wasn't told about his bastard child's status until he was 19, old enough to absorb such a thing. William had all the advantages that any son of Ben Franklin could imagine.

He had classes for everything, from Latin to dance, horsemanship to the art of conversation. William even moved to London to train for a life in the law. His father ultimately used his influence to secure his son William the royal governorship of New Jersey.

Throughout the 1970s, the two men worked closely together. Neither could have imagined they'd one day be forced to choose between king and country, family and country. Ben Franklin had waited a long time to decide, and he'd been distrusted by many on the side of the revolution. He ultimately joined the cause of the Patriots and urged his son to join, too. But William, he had other ideas.

He chose to stay on the side of the Loyalists. That choice would lead to William's arrest and land him in his new home, the Litchfield Gowl, a prison that stood on the foothills of the Bantam River in western Connecticut. Here's how Daniel Epstein described that prison in his book, The Loyal Son, The War in Ben Franklin's House. In the twilight from the high little window, the prisoner searched the four corners in vain for a chair to sit or a pallet to lie upon.

It was a noisy, filthy room, the very worst gowl in America. The son of Ben Franklin, governor of New Jersey, was now living in a place that made Alcatraz look like the Ritz-Carlton. He would spend two years there. After being released from jail in a prisoner exchange, William worked on behalf of the Loyalists for a few years before joining thousands of Americans who emigrated to England.

He never returned home. A few years before his death, Ben Franklin received a letter from his son. William was hoping for a face-to-face meeting and a chance at reconciliation. The father did not wait long to respond.

Here's what Ben Franklin wrote. Nothing has ever hurt me so much and affected me with such keen sensation as to find myself deserted in my old age by my only son. And not only deserted, but to find him taking up arms against me. A bit later in that same letter, Ben Franklin, who was in London at the time, concluded with these harsh words.

I shall be glad to see you when convenient, but would not have you come here at the present. The two would never reconcile. Ben Franklin, who died a wealthy man, left his son virtually nothing in his will. The political divide today is still about power in a distant city. But the city isn't London. It's Washington, D.C. Some Americans think our federal government has grown too vast and unaccountable to the people. They want power dispersed to the state and closer to the American people. Others want more power granted to Washington, D.C.

They want the federal government to do more for more people in areas ranging from health care to education. It's a fight we've been having since our founding. Just a few years ago, my family went to visit Independence Hall on a sunny day in Philadelphia. And all we could see around us were Americans of every conceivable race, class, age, color, and ethnicity, eating together peacefully in restaurants of all kinds.

Burmese, Chinese, Indian, Italian, Jamaican, Lebanese. It was what our founders hoped for, that scene. We may be a divided nation, but the story of the war in Ben Franklin's family is a stark reminder of what kind of divisions we've endured.

But America always pulls through, somehow stronger, somehow better. The story of the war in Ben Franklin's house, a celebration of the Declaration of Independence and the founders, and the price they paid for founding this country here on Our American Stories. Lee Habib here, the host of Our American Stories. Every day on this show, we're bringing inspiring stories from across this great country.

Stories from our big cities and small towns. But we truly can't do this show without you. Our stories are free to listen to, but they're not free to make. If you love what you hear, go to and click the donate button. Give a little, give a lot.

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