A gripping history of a family torn apart by political upheaval.
In this fresh contribution to the abundant biographies of Benjamin Franklin and histories of the American Revolution, poet, playwright, and biographer Epstein (The Ballad of Bob Dylan, 2011, etc.) focuses on the relationship between Franklin and his illegitimate son, William, who rose to become a political force in his own right. Epstein’s title refers both to William’s sorely tested loyalty to his father and unwavering loyalty to England as the Colonies erupted in rebellion and violence. Drawing on much unpublished correspondence as well as published works, the author constructs a fast-paced, vivid narrative with a host of characters whose appearance and personality he etches with deft concision. According to a close family friend, Franklin had been the loving, “intimate, and easy companion” of his son when William was a young man. Charming, “handsome, easy-going, more agreeable” than his father, William achieved success that eventually rankled Benjamin. Epstein notes “open, unabashed competition” by the time William was 40 and governor of New Jersey. However, it was not competition that caused their deep rift but rather their immersion in vastly different political worlds: William, in the Colonies, sought to “manage the volatile emotions” of rebellious protesters; Benjamin, in England, saw Parliament as “power-hungry, factious,” and corrupt and urged his countrymen “to stand firm, trusting in their own sense of justice,” even risking “a permanent break from the mother country.” Epstein is sympathetic to William’s desperate desire to quell dissent, actions that led to a year’s imprisonment in a squalid cell while his father basked in the warmth of celebrity in Paris, where he lived a luxurious life in a villa. What did Benjamin know, asks the author, about “that hell on earth,” the “war of desolation, the hangings and rapes and dismemberments,” the 10,000 refugees? Father and son eventually reconciled, but Franklin never really forgave William for what he considered betrayal.
A perceptive, gritty portrayal of the frenzy of war and a father and son caught at its tumultuous center.