Benjamin Franklin’s public life as scientist, inventor, diplomat, publisher and author, among other activities, is well known. His private life, however, is another matter. Franklin had a complex relationship with his family, and while in his 20s and married, he fathered an illegitimate son, William, whom he adopted. They enjoyed a close relationship for many years, the son assisting his father with scientific and diplomatic matters, performing admirably in the military and impressing many with his intelligence and charm.
Their relationship changed dramatically with the coming of the American Revolution. As Daniel Mark Epstein demonstrates in his well-researched and absorbing The Loyal Son, their decisions to support opposite sides in the conflict led to an irreparable break. By 1776, William was Royal Governor of New Jersey, a post he did not want to give up, and Benjamin had many important responsibilities in the years ahead, including the chairmanship of the Continental Congress’ Committee of Secret Correspondence, the “first CIA.” William was imprisoned for a significant period, under difficult circumstances, but was eventually released thanks to the efforts of Benjamin’s friends and allies. Even then, William volunteered for additional efforts for the Empire.
Epstein, the author of many books, including the acclaimed The Lincolns, offers a balanced, nuanced study, sympathetic to but not uncritical of either man. Shortly before he died, Benjamin wrote to his son, “nothing has ever hurt me so much . . . 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, in a cause wherein my good fame, fortune, and life were all at stake.”
The gripping narrative illustrates the public issues that drove the father and son apart and illuminates in detail the agonizing cost to each man.