Ben Franklin’s family quarrel

It wasn’t just about politics.

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Why didn’t Benjamin Franklin reconcile with his son? The widely accepted explanation: pure politics. William Franklin remained loyal to England, and by the time he moved to London in 1782, he and his father had been estranged for years. In 1784, however, William wrote his father suggesting reconciliation. The effort failed. Historians have assumed it collapsed because of the political differences—but recent research has provided new insight. As in many family squabbles, money was also involved. 

Yale’s Papers of Benjamin Franklin project has discovered a 1788 document by William previously unknown to scholars. (The project is editing all of Franklin’s papers for publication.) The document, in the UK National Archives, was digitized by In it, William described a financial arrangement Benjamin had proposed in 1785: William could repay a debt he owed his father by giving some land he owned in New York and New Jersey to his own son—Benjamin’s beloved grandson. Instead, William gave his son the New York land and sold him the New Jersey land. Benjamin never again replied to William’s letters.

“This changes what we know about [Benjamin] and about his relationship with William,” says Robert Frankel, an associate editor at the project. The document also says it was actually Benjamin who had initiated the 1784 reconciliation: he had told a mutual acquaintance that people who’d taken opposite sides in the war should be able to make peace once it was over. “He basically invited William to extend an olive branch,” Frankel says.

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