The Tragedy of Elizabeth Franklin 😢

Benjamin Franklin’s Daughter-in-Law

elizabeth franklin grave nyc

One of the things we don’t learn much about in school is the way families were divided during the American Revolution. We’re taught an image of the “good guys” as patriots and the “bad guys” as loyalists. But what about brothers or fathers and sons who fought on opposite sides of the war? And the women married to them? What was life like for them? This is one of those stories.

William Franklin, Royal Governor of New Jersey

William Franklin was Benjamin Franklin’s illegitimate son. He was born in Philadelphia in 1730 and recognized as a son by his father. William accompanied his father on some of his trips to London, where Benjamin served as the colonial agent for Pennsylvania. He assisted his father with the famous kite experiment at sea in which they discovered electricity in lightning. In 1759 William entered law school in London and in 1760 he married Elizabeth Downes. Elizabeth was born in Barbados to a wealthy sugar planting family and met William while visiting London with her family. In 1763 William was appointed Royal Governor of the colony of New Jersey.

William Franklin, Governor

1776 – The Battle of New York

In 1776 the armies converged on New York City for the Battle of New York. Benjamin Franklin was in Philadelphia, a delegate to the Continental Congress and William remained in New Jersey with Elizabeth. He was still the Royal Governor of the colony and supported the King’s efforts to keep them. To assist the King’s army in their preparation for the attack on New York he helped transmit intelligence to a ship in NY Harbor, The Duchess of Gordon, where the exiled Governor of NY, William Tryon, was living. From there Tryon passed information to General William Howe, encamped on Staten Island with his forces. In addition, in his book Turncoats and Traitors, John Bakeless tells us “In January, 1776, the patriots captured papers that William Franklin-Tory governor of New Jersey, Benjamin Franklin’s illegitimate son-was sending to London. These included secret records of the Continental Congress.”

Disturbed by Governor Franklin’s behavior, the Continental Congress sent a committee to interview him, to determine whether he was a “friend or foe” of America. In June the committee submitted their findings to congress. Governor Franklin, it was reported, was a “virulent enemy to this country, and a person that may prove dangerous.” As a result Congress voted to have William Franklin placed under arrest and moved to Connecticut where he would be under the control of rebel Governor Trumbull. He was imprisoned in Connecticut until 1778.

Let’s stop for a moment to consider the events. Benjamin Franklin voted in the Continental Congress to have his own son arrested and imprisoned! Can we even imagine the emotional effect of such a decision?  I can’t.

Records of the Continental Congress

The Fate of Elizabeth Franklin

With her husband imprisoned in Connecticut and a new, rebel governor of New Jersey in office, William Livingston, Elizabeth fled to safety in New York City in the Fall of 1776. Occupied by British forces she was able to stay there without persecution. She wrote letters to her father-in-law asking him to have his son freed to join her. Benjamin Franklin never responded.

Sadly, she died in New York in 1778 before her husband was released in a prisoner exchange.

William  Franklin left America permanently in 1782 and settled in London. While there he commissioned the burial stone located to the right of the altar in St. Paul’s Chapel. It stands as a sad reminder of the tragedy of war.

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Karen Q