William Franklin

c1730 - 1814

Last Royal Governor of New Jersey

I was the illegitimate son of Benjamin Franklin and grew up living above his printing shop in central Philadelphia. My father made sure I received a classical education and then when King George’s War was fought in the 1740’s I served in a Philadelphia company created for a planned expedition against the French in Canada and attained the rank of captain. With no prospect for advancement, I resigned shortly after the war ended even though I enjoyed military life. During the French and Indian War I accompanied my father to London and then in August 1762, I was appointed Royal Governor of New Jersey. At first my wife and I lived in Burlington where we built an impressive three story brick mansion. In 1773, we moved to Perth Amboy into a handsome mansion overlooking Raritan Bay. According to historian and biographer Willard Steele Randall I was New Jersey’s “ablest and most progressive royal governor, as well as its longest in office.” However, my dedication to my political appointment came at a price. My father was a passionate believer in the necessity for independence, while I did not believe that independence could lead to anything but division and chaos. In June 1776, I was arrested and after spending some months under house arrest I was transferred to Connecticut. Elizabeth died before we could reunite. The success of the Revolution made me the last Royal Governor of Provincial New Jersey. After the war, I sailed to England where I spent the remaining years of my life.

Learn More About William Franklin…

While no record of my birth has been found, I was probably born between September 1730 and March 1731. I was the illegitimate son of the famous Patriot leader Benjamin Franklin, but no one knows just who my biological mother was. My father, disregarding common practice at the time, welcomed me with open arms to his family and I grew up living with the rest of the family above his printing shop in central Philadelphia. My childhood was not completely happy, though, because my father’s wife, Deborah, was either silently indifferent or openly hostile towards me. My father made sure I received a classical education that included the study of arithmetic, history, geography, and a foreign language. When King George’s War was fought in the 1740’s I served in one of the four Philadelphia companies enlisted for a planned expedition against the French in Canada and attained the rank of captain. I resigned shortly after the war ended even though I enjoyed military life, because I saw no prospects for advancement as a provincial. My first political job came when my father was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly and I became clerk of the Assembly. I accompanied my father to London during the French and Indian War when he was sent there to debate the legal right of the Assembly, versus the legal right of the Royal Governor, to tax. While in London, I was fortunate to obtain a ticket to the coronation of King George III. In August 1762 I was appointed Royal Governor of the Province of New Jersey and after a stormy and icy Atlantic crossing, arrived in Perth Amboy in February 1763 with my wife, Elizabeth, whom I had courted and married while in London. Elizabeth and I first chose to live in Burlington, the capital of West Jersey, where we built a handsome three story brick mansion. The politics of New Jersey were complicated by being divided into two parts, each with its own culture. Each part wanted the government to focus on its concerns and wanted the governor to live in its capital. In 1773 we moved to Perth Amboy, the capital of East Jersey, where the East Jersey Proprietors had put a lot of their private resources into building a handsome mansion overlooking Raritan Bay that they hoped would become the permanent residence of the Royal Governor. Various concerns, both political and personal, led me to make inquiries about the availability and condition of the Governor’s mansion in Perth Amboy. The Proprietors promised me they would make general repairs such as plastering and painting to the house, build stables, and install a new garden fence. I also had some very specific decorating ideas I wanted included to personalize our new home. I requested specific colors of wallpapers and curtains in almost every room. Some of the wall decorations I wanted were very elaborate. For example, I wanted the hallway to have a painting of the “Falls of Passaic and Cohoes represented in black and white.” According to historian and biographer Willard Steele Randall I was New Jersey’s “ablest and most progressive royal governor, as well as its longest in office.” He added that I, “ran lotteries to build and improve roads and bridges, helped found Queens College, now Rutgers, introduced a pioneering welfare plan to aid destitute farmers, fought for a loan office to alleviate the colony’s cash shortage and established the nation’s first Indian reservation at Brotherton in Burlington County.” However, my dedication to my political appointment came at a personal price. During the autumn of 1775, my father stayed with me at my Perth Amboy mansion but, unfortunately, we were headed towards two different loyalties. My father was a passionate believer in the necessity for independence, while I did not believe that independence would lead to anything but division and chaos. He was loyal to the idea of a new nation while I remained loyal to the King. I sent secret dispatches to the king that warned of the brewing colonial crisis. After one of my secret messages was intercepted, the rebels decided I needed to be silenced. On June 17, I was placed under arrest by a force of militiamen commanded by Colonel Nathaniel Heard. After spending some months under house arrest, I was transferred to Connecticut. The success of the Revolution made me the last Royal Governor of Provincial New Jersey. My wife, Elizabeth, stayed at the Governor’s Mansion and when the British Army retreated from Perth Amboy to New York City, she accompanied them. Elizabeth and I never saw each other again. She died at age forty-eight and her remains were placed underneath the altar at St. Paul’s Chapel in New York City where a tablet was placed in her memory. I sailed to England where I spent the remaining years of my life.

Randall, Willard Sterne, A Little Revenge: Benjamin Franklin and his son. Boston: Little, Brown, 1984.

Skemp, Sheila L. Benjamin and William Franklin: Father and Son, Patriot and Loyalist. Boston: Bedford Books by St. Martin’s Press, 1994.

Skemp, Sheila L. William Franklin: Son of a Patriot, Servant of a King. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

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