Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Just when you think you know someone, you find out something that makes you realize you never knew them at all. Of course, when the person you thought you knew was an historical figure, chances are excellent there are many, many things you didn’t know about them.

What historical figure am I talking about? Benjamin Franklin. I discovered today that he had an illegitimate son named William. No, I’m not being judgmental because he had a kid out of wedlock; I was just surprised. (And if this is something everyone else in the world already knew, please just don’t make me be feel stupid by saying so. Just read my blog article and smile.)

Years ago, in my child’s mind, Mr. Franklin was a kindly, spectacle-wearing man who flew a kite with a key on it in the middle of a thunder and lightning storm. In fact, my little child’s mind had all of our founding fathers on a pedestal of perfection, and I’m afraid that a bit of that idealism stayed with me into adulthood. Then, four years ago, I read a biography of John Adams, and my view of Benjamin Franklin (along with all our founding fathers) began to radically change. He, and all the rest, became quite human.

William Franklin
So, it wasn’t Benjamin Franklin’s humanness in conceiving a son out of wedlock that surprised me. It was the circumstances. No one knows who William’s mother was. Some say that she was a prostitute. Others say she was Benjamin’s common law wife, Deborah Read, and Benjamin took the blame to protect her honor. At any rate, in 1730, when Benjamin Franklin was 24, he publicly acknowledged William and raised him in his household along with the children he and Deborah had. (Francis Folger Franklin, born October 1732, who died of smallpox in 1736, and Sarah Franklin, called Sally, who was born in 1743. She eventually married Richard Bache, had seven chidren, and cared for her father in his old age.)

William was educated in Philadelphia, and in the 1760s, studied law in London. There William fathered an illegitimate son, William Temple Franklin, who was born on February 22, 1762. The boy’s mother was never identified. I thought it weird that he followed  his father’s footsteps so closely. The boy, called Temple, was placed in foster care. Later that year, William married Elizabeth Downes, the daughter of a planter from Barbados. After William passed the bar in 1763, Benjamin helped him gain an appointment in 1763 as the last Royal Governor of New Jersey.

William Temple Franklin
When the American Revolution began, William stayed loyal to England. Father and son found themselves on the opposite sides of the war, and this forever strained their relationship. I’ll bet. Can you imagine the turmoil for both of them? William having to acknowledge that in England’s eyes, his father is a traitor. Benjamin perhaps feeling rejected by his son’s choice. As a result, William was cut out of Benjamin’s will. Benjamin Franklin said if the war had gone the way William wanted it to, Benjamin would never have made his fortune, so William deserved none of it. Yeah, okay. More human nature. . .

(As an aside, Benjamin found out about Temple, his illegitimate grandson, and took custody of him.)

Benjamin Franklin was a brilliant man. An inventor, writer, musician, politician. . .he accomplished much in his life. And he was one of the men who risked his life to give birth to our country. His humanness only makes him all the more interesting. And it is very possible that in addition to all of the things he did, he really was a kindly, spectacle-wearing man. At least I’d like to think so.


  1. Sounds like he was a man who really believed in taking responsibility for his actions. First with William and later with Temple. It's funny how we tend to have this perspective about history and yet, time & again, it is confirmed not much has changed about society.

  2. Wow, that's fascinating! And what amazing story fodder ... hmmmm ... I second the above comment that not much has changed about society. Studying the lives of colonial-era men really changed my view about our being a "Christian" society, for sure!

  3. Victoria Soto was a cousin of Benjamin Franklin!
    Peter Folger
    Joanna Folger-(siblings)-Abiah Folger
    Phebe Tobeyha Coleman-(1st cousin)-Benjamin Franklin
    Mary Cathcart-(1st cousin, once removed)-Benjamin Franklin
    Robert Hatch Sr.-(1st cousin, twice removed)-Benjamin Franklin
    Robert Hatch Jr.-(1st cousin. thrice removed)-Benjamin Franklin
    Henry Hatch-(1st cousin, 4x removed)-Benjamin Franklin
    Henry Robert Manning Hatch-(1st cousin, 5x removed)-Benjamin Franklin
    Waverly Hatch-(1st cousin, 6x removed)-Benjamin Franklin
    Helen Victoria Hatch-(1st cousin, 7x removed)-Benjamin Franklin
    Janice Louise Biebel-(1st cousin, 8x removed)-Benjamin Franklin
    Donna L. Fagan-(1st cousin, 9x removed)-Benjamin Franklin
    Victoria Leigh Soto-(1st cousin, 10x removed)-Benjamin Franklin

    Also, Victoria Soto is the cousin of William Franklin and William Temple Franklin!

    Explanation to the relationship of William Franklin to Victoria Soto:
    Peter Folger
    Joanna Folger-(siblings)-Abiah Folger
    Phebe Tobeyha Coleman-(1st cousin)-Benjamin Franklin
    Mary Cathcart-(2nd cousin)-William Franklin
    Robert Hatch Sr.-(2nd cousin, once removed)-William Franklin
    Robert Hatch Jr.-(2nd cousin. twice removed)-William Franklin
    Henry Hatch-(2nd cousin, thrice removed)-William Franklin
    Henry Robert Manning Hatch-(2nd cousin, 4x removed)-William Franklin
    Waverly Hatch-(2nd cousin, 5x removed)-William Franklin
    Helen Victoria Hatch-(2nd cousin, 6x removed)-William Franklin
    Janice Louise Biebel-(2nd cousin, 7x removed)-William Franklin
    Donna L. Fagan-(2nd cousin, 8x removed)-William Franklin
    Victoria Leigh Soto-(2nd cousin, 9x removed)-William Franklin

    Explanation to the relationship of William Temple Franklin to Victoria Soto:
    Peter Folger
    Joanna Folger-(siblings)-Abiah Folger
    Phebe Tobeyha Coleman-(1st cousin)-Benjamin Franklin
    Mary Cathcart-(2nd cousin)-William Franklin
    Robert Hatch Sr.-(3rd cousin)-William Temple Franklin
    Robert Hatch Jr.-(3rd cousin, once removed)-William Temple Franklin
    Henry Hatch-(3rd cousin, twice removed)-William Temple Franklin
    Henry Robert Manning Hatch-(3rd cousin, thrice removed)-William Temple Franklin
    Waverly Hatch-(3rd cousin, 4x removed)-William Temple Franklin
    Helen Victoria Hatch-(3rd cousin, 5x removed)-William Temple Franklin
    Janice Louise Biebel-(3rd cousin, 6x removed)-William Temple Franklin
    Donna L. Fagan-(3rd cousin, 7x removed)-William Temple Franklin
    Victoria Leigh Soto-(3rd cousin, 8x removed)-William Temple Franklin


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