Benjamin Franklin's Bastard
The Story Behind the Story
I never planned to write about Benjamin Franklin. I was busy researching some other men and women who peopled eighteenth century America, and as I worked, out popped Benjamin Franklin, lurking around every turn, coming at me from the most unlikely places. I soon discovered I knew a lot less than I thought about this arguably most famous American: Yes, he was a writer, a printer, an editor, an inventor, a philanthropist, a politician, and need it be said, a balding, overweight, and very clever old man. But he was also a runaway indentured servant, a would-be swimming instructor, a lifelong slave-holder and an abolitionist, and, once upon a time, a tall, handsome, athletic, and dangerously charming young man, with an “inconvenient” fondness for low women that landed him with a common-law wife and an illegitimate son.
When I first read about William Franklin, Benjamin’s bastard son, and I learned that the identity of the child’s mother had never been unearthed, it was as if someone had handed me a familiar puzzle with several key pieces missing. I wanted to find those missing pieces, complete the picture and gaze at it as a whole. I wanted to know who that mother was, whether she was just one of Franklin’s “low women” or something more, whether she voluntarily gave up her child to Franklin, whether her son even knew her identity. But as I began to read and dig, I discovered I needed to know others things as well: Who was that bastard child who grew up to be one of the most notorious Americans of his time? What was his real relationship with his father? His mother? Who was this common-law wife who agreed to raise a “base-born brat,” as John Adams called him, and claim him as her own? How did all these people fit into the puzzle that was Benjamin Franklin, a man I thought I’d thoroughly understood from the time I was twelve years old?
Recent historical discoveries provided answers to some of these questions, but as I got to know and like them more and more, some of the answers came out of the characters themselves. They – and I – orbited around Franklin like planets orbiting the sun, never managing to draw too close or to pull too far away.
Despite the constant pushing and pulling, the constant challenge, you might imagine that any journey with Benjamin Franklin on board would turn into a fun ride, and this one surely did, but even so, neither Franklin nor I were able to rewrite the central family tragedy that remained. The “what ifs” continue to haunt me today, as they surely haunted the father, the son, and the women who loved them. As you read Benjamin Franklin’s Bastard you’re sure to form your own list of “what ifs” and come up with questions and answers that differ from mine, but isn’t that the joy of reading? Enjoy the ride.
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