"Much of a Beau"
. . . a base born Brat.
-- John Adams, Autobiography
The whole Circumstances of his Life render him too despicable for Notice.
--Reverend Mr. William Smith, May 20, 1756
TWO PSYCHIC DRIVES dominated William Franklin's life: a hankering for respectability because he was illegitimate, a hankering for power because power meant both communion with his father and proof of his own worth.
To be a bastard was by no means as damaging in eighteenth-century America as in Victorian England, but in British law (unlike Roman or canon law) the subsequent marriage of his parents could not legitimize a child born out of wedlock. Only a baby born after marriage might be called legitimate. Was this the case with William? Not only is the identity of his mother unknown but even the date of his birth is cloudy. It is generally ascribed to 1731 because Franklin wrote to his mother in April 1750 that William was nineteen, and William in July 1812 referred to himself as being in his eighty-second year. But this may have been no more than a face-saving date, meant to put his birth a few months at least, if not quite nine, after the date of Franklin's marriage, September 1, 1730. The chief objection to 1731 is the fact that William was commissioned an ensign in 1746, and fifteen seems an extraordinarily early age even in the days of abbreviated adolescence. When he found out about his status is not known; but once his father's political enemies got hold of this piece of information, they never let William forget it.
As if to make up for what he could not give his first-born child, Franklin lavished money and attention on his education. Compared to the struggles of Benjamin's own childhood, William had every advan-