cover image The Loyal Son: The War in Ben Franklin’s House

The Loyal Son: The War in Ben Franklin’s House

Daniel Mark Epstein. Ballantine, $30 (464p) ISBN 978-0-345-54421-6

Epstein (The Ballad of Bob Dylan), a biographer, poet, and playwright, skillfully shows how the American Revolution divided communities and households, as would happen more famously during the Civil War. Benjamin Franklin’s family is Epstein’s case study, with Ben in his familiar role of celebrated patriot, while his only son, William, led the line as a loyalist. What Epstein writes of Ben is already fully known, though here he’s rendered as feeling competitive with his talented son and comes off less well than his idolaters will like. Where the book succeeds splendidly is in rescuing William Franklin from obscurity. He was a loving son, an intelligent and honorable man, and a skilled (and final) royal governor of New Jersey who paid dearly by losing everything for his principled, agonizing fidelity to Britain. William could never regain the affection and respect of his father, who refused to fully reconcile with him. Perhaps this isn’t surprising, since William actively promoted Britain’s military actions during the war. Yet while never exculpating William for his choices, Epstein makes him thoroughly sympathetic (like other Franklin family members beset by the era’s divisions), the victim of “a piteous misunderstanding” on Ben’s part. Epstein’s portrayals result in a thoroughly enjoyable and well-informed, if overly detailed, work of history. (June)