Royal Governor 1774 -1776
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.
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.
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 New Jersey’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, and established America’s first Indian reservation at Brotherton, near present-day Indian Mills in Burlington County. Franklin also 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 New Jersey 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.
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.
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.
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.