William Franklin, the illegitimate son of Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, was his father's closest confidante and companion - until he betrayed his father by supporting the British during the American Revolution. Benjamin Franklin, known as the Founding Father with the highest libido, raised his illegitimate son as part of his family, and even helped William become governor of New Jersey. But everything came crashing down when William chose king over family.
Franklin had a lot of skeletons in his closet - more than 1,200, to be exact - but the most painful was the way his son William deserted him. By siding with the British, William not only broke with his father - he also ended up in prison for two years and lost all his teeth. During that long imprisonment, Franklin didn't try to help his son at all. Instead, he used William's own son as a weapon to punish his disloyal child.
Franklin's children didn't follow in their father's footsteps - in fact, William was his biggest disappointment in life.
It was no secret that William was no fan of the American Revolution. William was the royally-appointed governor of New Jersey, and in 1776 rebels exiled him to Connecticut, where he was kept under armed guard. William ended up spending nearly two years in a colonial prison, where he was locked in a cell reserved for prisoners who received a death sentence.
The room had only a straw mat on the floor - no bed, no chair, and no toilet. A despondent William wrote to Governor Jonathan Trumbull: “I suffer so much in being thus buried alive, having no one to speak to day or night, and for the want of air and exercise, that I should deem it a favor to be immediately taken out and shot.”
The battle between father and son played out in the life of teenager Temple Franklin, Franklin's grandson. In 1775, the 15-year-old Temple went on a trip to England with Franklin, but in the summer he went back to his father in New Jersey just as the family was being torn apart over the Revolutionary War.
In the fall, William wanted to send his son to King's College - now Columbia University - but Franklin refused because the school was brimming with English loyalists. Instead, Temple attended the University of Pennsylvania, founded by his grandfather. In 1776, when Franklin went to Paris to advocate for the revolution, he took Temple along - without ever telling William, who was then locked up in a Connecticut prison.
Franklin was a reluctant revolutionary. He spent a great deal of time in England and fervently wanted to be Pennsylvania's first royal governor. He stuck it out as the royally appointed head of the American postal system until 1774. And his enemies believed that Franklin was secretly an English spy, working for King George III.
In 1773 Franklin lectured his more radical colleagues: "every affront is not worth a Duel... every Injury not worth a War," and even more pointedly: "every Mistake in Government, every Encroachment on Rights is not worth a Rebellion." Even after he was elected to the Second Continental Congress in 1775, and blood was spilt at Lexington and Concord, Franklin was silent on where he stood. In fact, it was a conversation with his son William that might have changed everything.
In the early summer of 1775, Franklin met with his son William to talk with him about the rebellion. William proposed that a policy of neutrality was best, staking out a middle ground not much different from Franklin's own public statements. The father "declared in favor of measures for attaining to independence," according to William, and "exclaimed against the corruption and dissipation of the kingdom."
An angry William shot back that Franklin intended "to set the colonies in flame." Just weeks after the tense encounter, Franklin went public for the revolutionary cause. It's possible that the meeting with William pushed his father to become a revolutionary, as he realized that William's proposed neutrality was impossible with a red coat army enforcing British rule.
By the time William was released in December of 1777, he had lost all his teeth and hair. He was also desperately ill. And during his long period of imprisonment, William's son Temple never even visited his father - all because Franklin ordered him to stay away.
In September of 1776, Temple made plans to visit his father in jail. He would carry a letter from his stepmother, William's wife, Elizabeth. But Franklin ordered Temple not to go. He later wrote to his grandson: “I hope you will return hither immediately and your mother will make no objections to it. Something offering here that will be much to your advantage.” The advantage was a trip to Paris with his grandfather - which meant that Temple never saw his stepmother again. She died while he was in Europe.