William Temple Franklin, American Diplomat, grandson of Benjamin Franklin

 

 

William Temple Franklin (London, England, 1760 – Paris, France, May 25, 1823) was an American diplomat and real estate speculator. He is best known for his involvement with the American diplomatic mission in France during the American Revolutionary War serving as secretary to his grandfather Benjamin Franklin that agreed the Franco-American Alliance. He was secretary for the American delegation which negotiated American Independence at the Treaty of Paris in 1783. He traveled back to Philadelphia with his grandfather but found his prospects limited in the United States and later returned to Europe.

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William Temple Franklin-painted by John Trumbull (1790-1791)

William Temple Franklin was the illegitimate only son of William Franklin, last colonial governor of New Jersey, himself the illegitimate son of Benjamin Franklin. William Temple Franklin’s middle name derives from the fact that he was conceived while his father was studying at the Middle Temple; indeed, he may have been conceived on Temple grounds.[1] His father later married the daughter of a wealthy Barbados planter.[2]

In the 1770s his father took an increasingly Loyalist position and opposed American independence, leading to a split in the family. This meant Temple was for many years unable to see his father who was imprisoned, and later forced into exile in Britain.

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Painting by Benjamin West of the American commissioners who signed the Treaty of Paris. Temple Franklin is on the right. Left of him are Henry Laurens, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay. The British commissioners did not pose for West, and the picture was never finished.

Temple, as he was generally known, accompanied his grandfather to France in late 1776 and worked as secretary to the American diplomatic mission during the American Revolution. Benjamin hoped the trip would round out Temple’s education.[3] Along with his cousin Benjamin Franklin Bache, William received an education in France and Switzerland.

A bon vivant, Temple received his highest public appointment as Secretary to the American delegation at the Treaty of Paris in 1782-1783, largely through the influence of his grandfather, but never again attained a significant post. Benjamin Franklin unsuccessfully lobbied Congress in the hope that Temple would be given a diplomatic post and believed, in time, that he would succeed him as Ambassador to France.[4] This appeal was rejected for a variety of reasons, including political opposition to Benjamin Franklin and suspicions about Temple’s relations with his Loyalist father in London. To Temple, Thomas Jefferson commiserated over his failure to secure a post but wrote a letter to James Monroe raising questions about Temple’s temperament and abilities.[5]

During the negotiations for the Treaty of Paris Temple asked one of the British peace commissioners if something could be done for his father, pointing out his steadfast defense of the Stamp Act, and hoping that the British government might award him a diplomatic post.[6] During 1784 Temple went to London and reconciled with his father, continually lengthening his stay before returning to Paris at the end of the year.[7] In January 1785, Temple was the recipient of the first air mail in history when a letter from his father was brought across the English Channel by a hot-air balloon flown by Jean-Pierre Blanchard and John Jeffries.[8]

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Temple’s father William Franklin was Governor of New Jersey and a prominent Loyalist.

When Benjamin Franklin relinquished his post and sailed home to the United States in 1785, Temple accompanied him. He was sent by Benjamin Franklin to try to recover expenses owed to him for his time in Paris, but this was not granted. With his hopes of a diplomatic career at an end, Temple was advised by Benjamin Franklin to try to develop himself as a major landowner. By this stage he was disillusioned and observed that America was riven by faction and if a foreign power were to attempt to conquer the country they would doubtless be successful.[9]

After the elder Franklin died in 1790, Temple lived for a while with his father in England, and had an illegitimate child, Ellen (May 15, 1798 London – 1875 Nice, France) with a relative of his father’s second wife. He then moved to France, where he won and lost a fortune in real-estate speculation. By a mistress, Blanchette Caillot, he had a son who died young.

As the elder Franklin’s literary heir, he edited and published editions of Franklin’s writings, including his famous Autobiography (London and Philadelphia, 1816–1819).

He married his long-time mistress Hannah Collyer a few months before his 1823 death, in poverty, in Paris, where he is buried at Père Lachaise Cemetery.

Notes

  1. Stockdale, Eric and Randy J. Holland. Middle Temple Lawyers and the American Revolution. Thompson-West, 2007. p. 41.
  2. Schiff p. 377
  3. Schaeper p. 92
  4. Schiff pp. 332-335
  5. Schiff pp. 389-390
  6. Schiff p. 334
  7. Schiff pp. 375-477
  8. Schiff p. 377
  9. Schiff p. 390

Bibliography

  • Schaeper, Thomas J. France and America in the Revolutionary Era: The Life of Jacques-Donatien Leray de Chaumont, 1725-1803. Berghahn Books, 1995.
  • Schiff, Stacy. Benjamin Franklin and the Birth of America. Bloomsbury, 2006.
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