The royal governor of New Jersey
at the time Proprietary House was
completed was
William Franklin
(c.1730-1813), the illegitimate son of
Benjamin Franklin.
Both Franklins remained in England until 1762, when King George III
appointed William royal governor of New Jersey. Before leaving for America
during the fall of 1762, William married Elizabeth Downes, daughter of a
wealthy Barbados planter. In February 1763, William was invested as NJ’s
royal governor on the steps of what today is Perth Amboy’s City Hall. For
most of his time as governor, William was held in high regard. He ran
lotteries to fund roads and bridges, introduced a farmers welfare program,
established America’s first Indian reservation at
Brotherton, NJ, and helped
to found Queen’s College, now
Rutgers University.
The Franklins didn’t move into Proprietary House until 1774. Their time
there would be short but fateful. With the outbreak of hostilities between
the colonies and Britain in 1775, high drama played out at the governor’s
mansion when Ben Franklin visited and tried in vain to win his Loyalist son
over to the cause of independence. But William remained loyal to the
crown. The NJ Assembly ordered the Governor held under house arrest at
Proprietary House in January 1776 and removed him for trial in June of the
same year. Soon convicted of treason, William was imprisoned in
Connecticut. He had been not only New Jersey’s last royal governor, but
also the last in the colonies still trying to cling to power.
Freed in a prisoner exchange in 1778, William Franklin fled to New York,
where he remained active in the Loyalist community. In 1782, William
moved to England, where he lived until his death in 1813. A staunch
Loyalist, William never reconciled with his father. After the Revolution,
father and son were to meet only once more, in a brief meeting when the
elder Franklin was in England in 1785. The two tied some loose
business ends, but could not heal the wounds between them.
Benjamin Franklin
William Franklin
During King George’s War, in 1746, William had
served in the
American Regiment and, in 1752,
he had accompanied his father during his
legendary kite experiment.  In 1757, William
joined Benjamin Franklin on an official mission
to Great Britain and stayed on to study law at
London’s Inns of Court.
During the Revolution, Proprietary House had been occupied by
both Patriot and British troops and, for a time, served as
headquarters for both American General Hugh Mercer and British
General Sir William Howe. After the war, Proprietary House was
abandoned, vandalized and nearly destroyed by fire. Exposed to
the elements, the ruins stood as mute witness to the wrenching
personal costs of the American Revolution. Yet, its fortunes
would be revived along with those of the new nation.
The December 9, 1782 issue of Boston's The Independent Ledger and
the American Advertiser
ran a piece about Franklin's return to London.
TOP: William Franklin's handwritten
instructions for decorating his new
house. BOTTOM: Franklin's sketch of
the monument to his wife.
June 19, 1776 was the last day William was ever to see his wife or his
Perth Amboy mansion. Elizabeth Franklin remained at Proprietary House
until June 1777, when British forces evacuated Perth Amboy and she
moved to Loyalist-held New York City. She died there just one month later
at the age of 48. William was not permitted to attend her funeral. But he
designed a plaque that later was installed in her memory at New York’s St.
Paul’s Chapel. Today, William’s hand-drawn sketch of the plaque is on
display at Proprietary House. Not only did William lose his wife, but
additionally all of the couple’s possessions from Proprietary House were
lost in a warehouse fire during the Revolution.