William Franklin was the last Royal Governor of New Jersey. He was also the illegitimate son of famous statesman and inventor, Benjamin Franklin. He spent most of his life under the watchful eye of his caring father. However, he and his father parted ways when William remained loyal to the crown while his father became one of the most active participants in the political side the American Revolution.
William Franklin was presumably born in 1730. No one is quite sure who is mother was, but he was raised by Benjamin and his common-law wife, Deborah Reed. Deborah Reed was made Benjamin Franklin’s common-law wife in September of 1730. There is some speculation that William was actually her son, but that Benjamin wanted to spare Deborah the embarrassment of having mothered a child out of wedlock. There is also the possibility that William was the son of one of Ben’s servants or a prostitute. His father was known to have had relations with these types of women.
William was cared for by his father as if he were a legitimate son. There is no reason to believe that William was treated any differently when Deborah gave birth to a son in 1732. William’s younger brother died of smallpox in 1736. In 1742 William became an older brother again, when his sister Sarah was born. There have been rumors that Deborah treated her husband’s son with contempt, but this may not have been true. Either way, there appear to have been little problems in the Franklin household with regard to the young man.
William grew up in a home where it was commonplace for brilliant men to come and meet with his father and discuss all sorts of interesting topics. Without a doubt, William Franklin spent his childhood immersed in the issues of the day and surrounded by the ideas and philosophies of great men. He spent a lot of time with his father and was quite like him, in many ways. In fact, when William was fifteen-years-old, he tried to run away and go out to sea. His father had done the very same thing. He also managed to stop William, but there was no keeping the boy from having an adventure.
In June of his fifteenth year, William Franklin joined the military. He spent roughly two years in the military and even became a captain. He subsequently spent more time on a brief expedition before coming home and leading a very social life before settling into more responsible roles. William Franklin was like his father in that he liked to run in groups of like-minded and forward-thinking men. He became a mason, like his father. He also was a member of New Junto and the American Philosophical Society.
At the age of 24, William Franklin became engaged to the seventeen-year-old daughter of Doctor Thomas Graeme. Her name was Elizabeth. Not long after their engagement, Benjamin asked his son to accompany him to England while he was on business there. He told William that he would fund his education in law if he did. William accepted. Benjamin also named him his heir when the decision was made for him to come. That would change later in their lives, when the close pair became estranged.
While in England, William studied law and became more involved in politics while meeting his father’s contemporaries there. He maintained correspondence with his fiancé for a while, but the love seems to have fizzled out for him in the six years that they were apart because on September 4, 1762, William married a woman named Elizabeth Downes. Not before he was presented with an illegitimate son of his own, however. The boy’s name was William Temple Franklin. His father left him in England when he was sworn in as Governor of New Jersey in 1962 and sent back to America. His son would not come to America until 1775 and the two were never close in the way Benjamin and William had been.
William Franklin was the Royal Governor of New Jersey during one of the most tumultuous times in American history. Colonial resistance to British rule peaked during his years in office. Because William remained loyal to the crown, he became a target for rebels. His father tried to convince him to change sides, but William felt a strong sense of loyalty and duty. It was admirable, really, but it destroyed his relationship with his father and caused William to be arrested and deposed in 1776. He was allowed to stay in private homes under the stipulation that he could not leave town and he could not contact any other loyalists. He broke those rules in June of 1776 and was officially jailed. He was not freed until October of 1778. His wife had died while he was incarcerated.
William returned to England in the early 1780’s. He hadn’t spoken to his once beloved father in more than five years. His father had once overseen his career and gave him positions as a postmaster in Philadelphia and later the comptroller of the North American Postal System when he William was in his twenties. Benjamin had helped his son to become a politician by funding his schooling and introducing him to all the right people. William had even been with his father during the famous ‘kite experiment’ and is thought to have been holding the kite. However, none of these memories of fondness were enough to reunite father and son. Benjamin and William Franklin saw each other briefly one last time in 1885. By the time Benjamin died, he had removed William as his primary heir.
William Franklin died in 1813, after having remarried and losing a second wife. He never did return to America and if he ever knew who his real mother was, his secret died with him.
William Franklin: New Jersey’s Last Royal Governor, retrieved 3/7/10, njstatelib.org/NJ_Information/Digital_Collections/Revolution/WFranklin.pdf
William Franklin and Elizabeth Graeme, retrieved 3/7/10, ushistory.org/graeme/people/franklin_fergusson.htm