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A Family Riven by Revolution

by Tracy Lee Simmons

The Loyal Son: The War in Ben Franklin’s House, by Daniel Mark Epstein (Ballantine, 464 pp., $30)

Time was when a small but stout cross-section of educated Americans could identify the name of William Franklin. Now we count ourselves lucky if most people can identify his father, Benjamin. Yet William Franklin was one of the most consequential colonists of his time—just as savvy as his famous father, and in some ways more politically successful. He could conceivably have gone on to become president during the early Federal era, edging out Adams or Jefferson, but for the fact that, when the big break with Great Britain came in 1776, William remained loyal to the Crown while his father became one of the leading colonial revolutionists. The “loyal son” of this illuminating book’s title was a Loyalist, the bastard of the clan, a man who took a different path from the one that led to victory and so chose to be left behind, not exactly a man without a country but, in the end, one almost without a family.

This is not only the stuff of high political drama; it’s also, should one wish to treat it this way, a scintillating case study in family dysfunction. Daniel Mark Epstein opts for the first course, telling the story of how great global events shook one prominent family as he examines the intricate patchwork of high purposes, feints, misunderstandings, expensive allegiances, blunders, malicious violence, and low motives that accompanied the birth of a nation.

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