A nest of families

ON a recent Sunday I was a spectator at the arrest of the Governor of New Jersey.

Devotees of Perth Amboy history have taken the chief executive into custody regularly since 1976, commemorating Royal Governor William Franklin’s capture two hundred years earlier. These reenactments have never dislodged any incumbent office holders, which is perhaps to be regretted. But in fact the “real” William Franklin, at least in the view of the New Jersey Provincial Congress, had forfeited the title and privileges of Governor by showing himself “an enemy to the liberties of this country.”1 The orders of the arresting soldiers were to seize, not a public official, but a traitor.

The Proprietary House in Perth Amboy, as it looked in the first half of the nineteenth century. Engraving from a drawing by Catherine S. Brinley.

In more peaceful times the East Jersey Board of Proprietors, headquartered in Perth Amboy, had built Franklin a house out of its own funds, but not until late 1774, with British-American disagreements spiraling toward war, did Franklin move to a place he finally deemed “better adapted for the Seat of Government than any other in the Province.”2 In truth, it was one of few places in the colony where the government he represented could still count more friends than foes.

The Proprietary House served as the Governor’s mansion for barely twenty months before William Franklin was marched off to captivity. His wife Elizabeth remained, terrified and bereft, then fled to British-held New York where she would die without ever again laying eyes on her husband. Reenactors and preservationists keep alive the memory of their brief, unhappy occupancy of the house, the only one of its kind still standing.

Whitehead’s address on William Franklin, delivered before the New Jersey Historical Society in 1848.

As he went about collecting material for his history of Perth Amboy, William Whitehead also shaped the rise and fall of Franklin into a coherent narrative. The result, entitled A Biographical Sketch of William Franklin, was one of the early addresses to the New Jersey Historical Society, printed both separately and as part of the Society’s Proceedings.3 Some years later Whitehead incorporated it, with a few improvements, into his Contributions to the Early History of Perth Amboy. He chose an image of the ex-Governor to grace the book’s frontispiece.4

To Whitehead it seemed that Franklin showed “a greater attachment to the Province than his flitting predecessors had done” and that, compared with the previous resident Governors, his tenure was above reproach, “other than that which accrues to the politician from acting contrary to the views of his opponents.”5 But neither the positive aspects of Franklin’s administration nor his unyielding loyalty to Britain could account for his story’s continuing interest which, in the last half century, has generated three book-length treatments. William Franklin’s life remains compelling, chiefly because the best-known figure in the opposite camp was his own father.6

The genius and wit of Benjamin Franklin were famous on both sides of the Atlantic, but so was his penchant for liaisons with young women. William’s mother has never been satisfactorily identified, but Benjamin claimed the boy as his own and raised him to manhood.7 According to one report the elder Franklin was “at the same time his friend, his brother, his intimate and easy companion.”8 However their relationship, while profound, was inexpressibly complex and contentious, and it effectively ended with the Revolution.

Whitehead pieced together the story of this estrangement from public and private documents, but he inserted a bit of oral testimony concerning a visit of father to son at the Proprietary House in the summer of 1775.9 Doctor Franklin pleaded strenuously, but to no avail, for his son to switch his allegiance and this familial tie, like so many, was broken forever amid the coming hostilities.

William Franklin, from a “basso rilievo” once in the possession of Archer Gifford of Newark.

“A kingdom is a nest of families,” wrote a popular moralist of Whitehead’s day, implying that civil strife was like the upending of order in a household.10 The war for American independence pitted brothers, fathers and sons against one another, and in Whitehead’s view no place experienced more such tragedy in proportion to its size than New Jersey. “Family histories,” he wrote, “would bring to light many cases of this painful characteristic of our revolutionary struggle, and the case of Governor Franklin is but one of many that are similar.”11

In Perth Amboy, Whitehead encountered a “nest of families” who regarded the city’s Tory heritage as integral to its identity.  They included the Parkers, whose patriarch the elder James Parker maintained a rigid neutrality through the Revolutionary period, and the Skinners, who gave to William Franklin his long-serving Attorney General, the indefatigable Cortlandt Skinner: during the war Skinner would raise and command battalions of New Jersey Volunteers fighting on the British side. Even before marrying the granddaughter of Parker, Whitehead lived in the shadow of Loyalists. He walked in their footsteps and mingled with living witnesses to their history.

As I watched “Governor Franklin” being led away under armed guard for refusing to abandon his principles, I started to wonder whether anyone had ever thought to read the events of June 1776 through the lens of later troubles. Had the replaying of long-ago resentments ever been affected by contemporary passions? Had they ever become a cause or an arena of public protest? For Whitehead it was comparatively easy to grasp the continuity of his age with the Revolutionary past. But with his eyes on the present, he emphasized the consequences that the actions of every generation have for posterity: from the prominent and powerful to “humble” individuals with no apparent influence, “each has his duties, each must share the responsibility.”12

The 1819 sculpture by Carlo Franzoni known as the “Car of History.” National Statuary Hall, U.S. Capitol.

In the conclusion of his sketch of Franklin, Whitehead recalled a sculpture adorning the halls of Congress. It showed the muse of history standing in a winged chariot. In place of its wheel were a clock’s face and hands. The allegorical figure held a large book in which she noted “the events which transpire before her.” As she looked down at the lawmakers in a kind of silent reminder “that the history of each passing moment receives from them its impress, is stamped indelibly by their proceedings,” the clock prompted all to consider “their obligations to the age in which they live.”13

The muse stands today where Whitehead first saw her. The House of Representatives, which formerly met in the chamber below, moved in 1857 to its current hall, away from her calm but penetrating gaze.

Copyright © 2017-2023 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] Archives of the State of New Jersey, ser. 1, 10:720.

[2] Archives of the State of New Jersey, ser. 1, 10:459.

[3] Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society, ser. 1, 3:3 (1848), hereafter Proceedings, 137-159.

[4] William A. Whitehead, Contributions to the early history of Perth Amboy and adjoining country (New York 1856), hereafter Contributions. The biography of Franklin is found on pages 185-207. The frontispiece image (pictured above) is based on a medallion probably of Wedgwood jasperware: cf. Frederick Rathbone, Old Wedgwood (London 1898), plate XXI.

[5] William A. Whitehead, A biographical sketch of William Franklin, Governor from 1763 to 1776 (Newark 1848), hereafter Sketch, 8, 9; Proceedings 144, 145; Contributions 190, 191.

[6] Since William Herbert Mariboe’s groundbreaking dissertation The life of William Franklin 1730(1) – 1813 “Pro Rege et Patria” (Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania 1962), hereafter Mariboe, three extended treatments have appeared: Willard Sterne Randall, A little revenge: Benjamin Franklin and his son (Boston and Toronto 1984), hereafter Randall; Sheila L. Skemp, William Franklin: Son of a patriot, servant of a king (New York and Oxford 1990); and Daniel Mark Epstein, The loyal son: The war in Ben Franklin’s house (New York 2017), hereafter Epstein. An excellent shorter introduction is Larry R. Gerlach, William Franklin: New Jersey’s last royal governor (Trenton 1975).

[7] Benjamin fathered William when in his 20s. Mariboe 14-25 reviewed and dismissed as “supposition or vicious gossip” most contemporary sources for the mother’s identity, but found one account of her as a woman “not in good circumstances” to be credible; Mariboe 24.

[8] Sketch 4; Proceedings 140; Contributions 186.

[9] In 1848 Whitehead described his informant as “an aged gentleman, who knew the facts” (Sketch 8; Proceedings 144), but in a later revision made him simply “one who was cognizant of the fact” (Contributions 190). Later retellings have increased the number of witnesses to the Franklins’ argument: Randall 361; Epstein 232.

[10] Whitehead borrowed the aphorism (Sketch 22; Proceedings 158; Contributions 206) from Martin Farquhar Tupper, Proverbial philosophy: A book of thoughts and arguments, originally treated, a work that went through many editions.

[11] Sketch 21; Proceedings 157; Contributions 204.

[12] Sketch 23; Proceedings 159; Contributions 206.

[13] Sketch 23; Proceedings 159; Contributions 206.

Images: Whitehead, Contributions 259 (Proprietary House); Whitehead, Sketch (title page); Whitehead, Contributions frontispiece (William Franklin portrait); Library of Congress (Car of History).

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