Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A Little Revenge: Benjamin Franklin and His Son, by Willard Sterne Randall

A Little Revenge: Benjamin Franklin and His SonA Little Revenge: Benjamin Franklin and His Son by Willard Sterne Randall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"A Little Revenge" is the polar opposite of a hagiography. Randall's carefully researched biography on the relationship between Benjamin Franklin and his illegitimate son William serves to pull yet another founding father from his exalted pedestal and examine him in the cold light of his own actions.

William was the product of one of the many Parisian affairs of Benjamin's youth; in order to make the best of things, Benjamin provided for the impoverished young woman and saw that the boy received an education. On meeting him midway through his childhood, he took a liking to the bright young man and accelerated his efforts to transform an embarrassing reality into a respectable young gentleman: William was educated at affordable yet challenging schools and eventually passed the English equvalent of the bar, becoming a respected attorney in England and then America.

His early education in England left him with an affinity and loyalty for the country which stood in direct opposition to his father's American patriotism, and the book focuses on the schism that developed in the gathering years of the American revolution. William rose to the position of Colonial Governor of New Jersey under King George while his father was the patriarch of the revolutionary movement. We all know which side won, and Randall's writing is very sympathetic to the hardships faced by Loyalists who were eventually forced to emigrate back to England in order to avoid persecution or murder by their former neighbors or even their own families. William was among this number.

While the elder Franklin was indisputably a venerable statesman and diplomat, he conducted his personal life in a way that few will find palatable. He ignored his common-law wife in favor of another family he lived with in Paris, neglected his daughter, was indifferent to his son until he saw personal gain in raising him to respectability, and put political gain before family to the point where his son nearly died in Tory prison while Benjamin reveled in the luxury of Paris.

If colonial and revolutionary America interest you, this is an eye-opening read on the complexities of one of its key characters. Certainly no one is perfect, but one might be hard-pressed to find a founding father more flawed than Benjamin Franklin.

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