A Tale of Benjamin Franklin's Family
In the Days Leading up to The American Revolution
The dreaded day has come. Grandfather arrived this morning after two days in the coach. Moving around always puts him in a good mood. He was courteous in a slightly distant way to Elizabeth, rather affable with Father, all smiles to me. He even admired my new clothes.
— "I have good news," he announces. "Sally has been delivered of a baby girl, my first granddaughter. She is to be named Hannah, and Sally hopes you'll consent to be her godmother, Elizabeth.
Elizabeth smiles in acquiescence and we are off to a good start. Bless little Hannah for arriving at the right time to keep the conversation bland and safe! I ask every question I can think of about the baby's weight, size, coloring, and appetite. Grandfather who, in truth, does not have the answers, looks up at me in surprise, sees the royal couple staring down at him from the opposite wall, winces visibly but makes no comment.
Elizabeth had asked me what Grandfather's favorite dessert was and I told her that in London he often felt nostalgic for Indian pudding, impossible to procure there.
"You mean that horror made with yellow cornmeal?" she asked in disbelief.
"Now, now, my dear," said Father, "it can be very good when properly prepared. Our first settlers were really lucky to discover the corn that the Indians grew, but it hasn't reached England yet..."
"We feed corn to the pigs," retorted his wife in the contemptuous British way she adopts when under stress.
Anyway, the cook proclaimed he was an Indian pudding expert, we had it twice for practice, and I really liked it. Today's is the best ever, smooth and creamy. After two large helpings I decide that this visit will be pleasant, after all.
But then, just then, Grandfather, happily engaging the pudding, mildly asks his son how things are going in New Jersey.
— "Pretty well," answers Father. "New Jersey, luckily, is a conservative colony."
— "Glad to hear that" says Grandfather. "In Philadelphia they say that committees and provincial congresses are proliferating around here, and that power is rapidly slipping from your hands..."
Father interrupts him:
— "Let's go into my library if you want to talk politics. It's a topic my dear wife cannot stand and Temple is still too young to grasp..."
Too young to grasp! After excusing himself, Temple-the-still-too-young makes a beeline in the direction of his bedroom, but really toward a little annex behind the library from where he can eavesdrop in peace.
Their voices eventually rise to such a pitch that eavesdropping is hardly necessary and that, to Elizabeth's certain mortification, the neighbors cannot miss the quarrel taking place in the Governor's mansion.
Father and Grandfather are speaking at the same time, shouting, banging on the table. I cannot follow every word but I figure out that the night-long discussion with Galloway at his Trevose estate, back in May, must have been a disaster ... that the two younger men were totally at odds with the older one ... that no compromise was found, no common ground. Nothing but obstinacy all around, just as Uncle Richard had predicted that long ago day at the City Tavern.
Now I understand why Grandfather did not come down to bid us farewell when we took off for Perth Amboy, why Father had been so somber along the way, why he looked sad, later, when reminiscing about his happy adventures with Grandfather... so many alarm signals that I had missed while sliding, like a fool, into the bliss of an easy life.
At some point, this evening, Father sounds almost as if he were begging:
— "If our local Assemblies were recognized as co-equal with Parliament, wouldn't it still be possible to put an end to this unnatural dispute and join our English brothers in common loyalty to the King?"
— "You've lived in England, my son. What makes you believe that the King has a broader vision than his ministers and his Parliament? The King is a man of very modest abilities, a parochial, provincial man. We all know that. As to the members of Parliament, they don't see beyond the narrow interests of their constituents. They cannot even form a political party on a national scale."
— "What do you want the King to do, Father? To stand above Parliament? You know perfectly well that if he did that he would be immediately accused, even by the few friends of America, of returning to the days of the Stuart tyranny. Why do you think the English deposed their king in the 1640's? And again in 1688?"
— "Of course I know that" thunders Grandfather. "I also know that it is time the Americans made their break, their own revolution if they want to survive as free men."
— "If you design to set the colonies in a flame, Father, you should take care to run away by the light of it."
— "You may be the one who has to run away," says Grandfather. "William, I have come here to urge you to reconsider. Join the victorious side, my boy. Be loyal to me, to us, to your young son. It is his future as well as your own that you will jeopardize if you betray your own country and remain subservient to George III."
— "How can you urge me to abandon the King after all he has done for me?" Father's voice is low now. "Yes, done for me. You made me a bastard, fated for pain and shame. He made me Royal Governor."
— "William, the King does not care a fig about you. You know as well as I do who it was who made you a Governor and how it was obtained."
Now that is a question I have been asking myself repeatedly. Why was my father selected, still so young, for such a high position? I listen hard. All I hear is a long silence, then steps and the banging of a door.
Goodbye, daydream of a happy family dinner! I shall never summon you again. And goodbye also to my hope of discovering how Father became Governor.