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William H. Benson

June 15, 2006

     On June 15, 1752 Benjamin Franklin decided to spend some quality time with his son William.  Even though it was lightning outside, together father and son flew a kite.  Pictures of Franklin holding the kite and touching a key dangling at the end of the string with lightning bolts darting across the sky often include a small boy standing alongside Benjamin.  That would be William, Franklin’s illegitimate son.

     Scholars have never been able to determine the identity of William’s mother, but Benjamin claimed the child as his own.  Once Benjamin had entered into a common-law marriage with Deborah Reed, he brought William into their home, and together Ben and Deborah raised William.

     The kite and the key made Benjamin Franklin world famous in both America and Europe, as a scientist and a discoverer of scientific laws.  London, the center of the world’s intellectual learning and the seat of the British empire of which he was a citizen, beckoned, and Ben answered.  In 1754 father with his son sailed east across the Atlantic.

     Deborah stayed in her home.  She never would spend one night of her life outside of  

her native Philadelphia, but Benjamin would not settle for just what America offered.  He wanted more for himself and his son.

     Benjamin and William had a grand time in London, seeing the sights, traveling the countryside, which was “too beautiful to be outdoors,” and enjoying the intellectual stimulation they felt when they met English thinkers and writers.  Young William especially loved to party until late every night with his friends.  Both Father and son chose to stay together in England for the most part of nearly two decades.

     Then, Ben became quite concerned that William was not growing up to appreciate hard work, frugality, industriousness, and patience—those qualities that had served him well and which Poor Richard Saunders had preached in his almanac.  Like most good dads, Benjamin wanted to help William.  Through his contacts, Ben was able to earn for William an appointment as the Royal Governor of the colony of New Jersey.

     This was a plum, a prize normally given to a native British citizen living in London and not to an American commoner, especially one of illegitimate birth.  But William by then was prepared to display the regal nature of British royalty among the Americans.  A Loyalist, he obeyed the King’s commands, and he expected Americans to do the same.  He had learned those ideals under Ben’s tutelage when living in London.  William moved into the Governor’s mansion in New Jersey.

     Then, a rift developed in the relationship between this father and his son, and it was over politics.  The colonies began to disagree with Parliament over its supposed right to rule and tax the colonies.  Benjamin moved ever more closely towards the radicals’ view, arguing for a complete break with King George III and Parliament and for independence and the inception of a new country.

     William was repulsed by the thought of breaking up the British empire; he loved England too much.  When an adolescent living in London, William’s eyes had opened, and he now perceived the Americans as most British saw them: raw country cousins, who were backwards, ignorant, unsophisticated, incapable of grand ideas, and less than regal.

     The rift grew into a separation and finally a permanent estrangement.  With a vengeance Ben cut William out of his will, saying: “The part he acted against me in the late war, which is of public notoriety, will account for me leaving him no more of an estate he endeavored to deprive me of.”  William died in exile, destitute, in 1813.

     Fathers do not always agree with their sons.  As the son moves towards independence, tension and division can emerge. It is too bad when it ruptures and breaks as it did between Ben and William.

     Sunday is Father’s Day, a day to set aside ill will and tensions and celebrate the idea of being and becoming a great dad.