Benjamin & William Franklin, Robert E. Lee & His Daughters and a Couple of Mistakes That Parent Make

The High Holidays are about recognizing our mistakes and trying to change. As we begin these days of reflection, I want to focus tonight on the mistakes that parents make with their adult children.

Before I do, I want to assure you that I know that children make many mistakes. They are often selfish. They are very often ungrateful for what their parents did for them. I have never recovered from reading The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, in which a parent is pictured as a tree who gives up all of its branches and leaves and even its trunk to an ungrateful child who takes and takes and gives nothing in return. As a parent, the mistakes I’ve made by being like that tree, giving my children too much, by sacrificing of myself too much, well, I can live with those mistakes and try to do better for myself. But what I have trouble living with is when I have thought too little about my own parents’ needs, when I have been so immersed in my own world that I forgot about theirs. That’s what I regret.

What do you do if your child breaks your heart? You love them anyway. You don’t have a choice; you love them if you want to or not, you love them whether they deserve it or not, so you might as well admit it. You hope that your constancy and consistency will encourage them to love you back. And if not, you hope that eventually, in some way, they’ll learn from your love and love others in the same way you loved them.

But rather than talk about the pain children cause their parents, I want to talk now about a couple of the mistakes that parents make. I want to tell you about two of the famous Americans in history and things they did as parents that I consider tragic mistakes.

Benjamin Franklin is known as one of our Founding Fathers. As we all know, he was a Renaissance man, a genius, an inventor, publisher, writer, diplomat, business strategist and humorist.  You may not know that Benjamin Franklin had an illegitimate son named William  whom he raised as a member of his family.  As a youth, William was always with his father, working with him at the print shop. In trying to find his way in the world, William used his father’s contacts, support and patronage.  William accompanied his father on several important missions, assisting him with efficiency. He spent years in England with his father and learned to love the mother country very much. They returned to the colonies and after holding different positions, William was sworn in as the royal governor of New Jersey at the age of 32.  As governor, William Franklin took up residence at a great mansion and entertained dinner guests, including George Washington. Despite his youth, Franklin was a well-educated and talented administrator and was well liked by the people of New Jersey.  But in the years before the Revolution, the office of Royal Governor was rapidly losing power. William actively worked to stem the tide of revolution  but when the spirit of America began to build, he was powerless to act against it.  While Benjamin Franklin was becoming a famous patriot, William remained loyal to the British crown. Ben Franklin openly split from his son. Eventually, the people of New Jersey took action against William Franklin.  In 1776, he was captured and questioned, and he was then held as a prisoner of war for 2ˍ years in horrible confinement. He was taken to Litchfield, Connecticut, where he was housed for eight months in a solitary cell under conditions I cannot describe here. While in jail, William lost his hair, his teeth, and his health. His wife got deathly sick. When she was on her deathbed, George Washington was moved enough to write Congress advocating William’s desperate request to see his wife one last time.  Ben Franklin would not support it and the request was denied. Eventually William was exchanged for another political prisoner and sailed for England and permanent exile in 1782.

Think about it from William Franklin’s point of view: He had been loyal to the ruling authority as he had always known it. He had been raised to love England and had lived there. Considering the causes of the American Revolution, which were not an uprising against murder or brutality or slavery, people could have honest differences of opinion. Indeed, a lot of the colonists, across the board, were loyal to the Crown.  Franklin forgave other loyalists but never forgave his son.  A few years before his death, Benjamin Franklin wrote in a letter to William, “Nothing has ever hurt me with such keen sensations, as to find myself deserted in my old age by my only son; and not only deserted, but to find him taking up arms against me in a cause wherein my good fame, fortune and life were all at stake.”

Father and son did meet again, in England, nearly a decade after they had last spoken.  Benjamin, nearing 80 and on his way to America for the last time, “brought all the warmth of a real estate settlement” to the encounter. Benjamin insisted that William sign over his American property in exchange for the forgiveness of debts that William owed his father.  William soon realized his father was making him pay for clothes and pocket money going back to his childhood.  They hardly saw each other after that; Benjamin slipped away on a ship bound for America, not even saying goodbye.

Why am I telling you this sad story? I believe that Benjamin Franklin, for all of his sagacity and wisdom, made a terrible mistake when it came to his son.
I absolutely understand how Franklin felt. For this great patriot to have a son who was a Loyalist was bad enough; to have a son in such a public and powerful position must have been a source of great embarrassment and anger. But he hadn’t lost his child. And his child certainly was punished in other ways. William Franklin certainly suffered for his decision. He went to prison. His career was smashed. He wasn’t allowed to see his wife before she died. When William wanted to reconcile with his father, his father should have reconciled with him. Remember, we’re talking about Benjamin Franklin, loved by all on two continents. His side had won. He could have tried a little forgiveness.

I distinguish between a parental/child conflict that is personal and a conflict that is about an honest difference of opinion. It was Benjamin Franklin who had veered away from the world in which he had raised his son. William was not rebelling; his father was. Ben Franklin was putting a lot of his own ego into his split with his son. I’ll read a sentence from that letter again, “To find him taking up arms against me in a cause wherein my good fame, fortune and life were all at stake.” Franklin makes it seem as if William did everything he did as an act of rebellion against his father. Parents feel that they are allowed to change their interests and pursue their own desires wherever they may lead, and that their children must come with them wherever they go and whatever they do.

In Judaism, Franklin would be called wrong under what I call the Law of Return. The Law of Return in Israel says that anyone who is Jewish can come to Israel and become a citizen. The idea of return is beautiful here: If you’re Jewish, your people came from that land. To go there is to return there. While in recent years, you’ve heard about it as a subject of controversy , ignore that right now as we think about the Law of Return between parents and children.  On the First Day of Rosh Hashanah we will read how Abraham’s son Ishmael, rejected into the desert, came back and was welcomed home by his family later on. There was such reconciliation that Ishmael was one of the two principal mourners at Abraham’s funeral.  That’s how I believe it should be: short of a terrible sin or crime, there should be the possibility of return. Whenever I speak like this, people disagree with me, but most of the time, their reasons are not adequate. Teshuvah, repentance, is the same word as return. If there is repentance, there should be the possibility of reconciliation. That is the Law of Return.  I believe in the Law of Return.

I’ll turn from mistakes parents make when they don’t forgive to another, more common example of a parental mistake, again from a famous figure in American history. This one is from the life of the great Confederate general, Robert E. Lee. Robert E. Lee had two sons and four daughters.   Robert E. Lee was a wonderful father to his young children. He taught them to ride and swim, competed in their jumping contests and was intensely involved in their studies. He told them entertaining stories. When they grew up, he worked hard to make sure that his sons got happily married. But it was different for the daughters. He wrote his daughter Mildred: “Experience will teach you that notwithstanding all appearances to the contrary, you will never receive such a love as is felt for you by your father and mother…. Your own feelings will teach you how it should be returned and appreciated.” When Agnes went to a friend’s wedding ceremony, Robert E. Lee wrote: “I hope that this is the last wedding that you will attend.” When Agnes became involved in another friend’s marriage arrangements, Lee wrote a relative that he needed to extricate her from this wedding planning because he was afraid it would be contagious.

Lee called the youngest of the four daughters, Mildred, by a nickname, “Precious Life.” He later shortened it to “Life.” I am not even going to go into what it must have been like for the other children to have their father call the youngest by the name “Life.” Think instead what it says about Lee that he would call a child by that name.

After the Civil War ended, none of the girls were married. Lee became the president of Washington College, now called Washington and Lee University. For relaxation, Lee and one of the daughters, usually Mildred/Precious Life, would go riding, with Lee on the famous Traveller. When he would come home at night Lee would call out, “Where is my little Miss Mildred? She is my light-bearer, the house is never dark when she is in it.” Living in a college town with his daughters, there were plenty of young eligible professors. Callers came in squads. But every evening before ten, Lee would come and stare, and everyone would clear out. If a suitor did not leave, Lee would come and sit next to him until he did. None of the young men ever became a serious suitor for any of the daughters. That one might never seemed to enter Lee’s mind. He assumed that his daughters would always remain with their parents, sewing and collecting eggs from the chicken coop. Mildred liked the chickens a lot, but wrote a friend, “I am often dreadfully lonely.” Lee died in 1870, his wife and daughter Agnes three years later. Mildred looked old from grief at age 27. She wrote, “Most women when they lose such a Father replace by husband and children. I have had nothing.” She understood the cause of her loneliness only too well: “To me,” she wrote, “He seems a hero—and all other men small in comparison.” Mary became a world traveler, and spent a lot of time with two nieces, children of her brother Robert Jr. She wrote of them: “My two precious nieces occupied my entire time and heart. One must have something to love in this world.” None of the daughters ever married. All four daughters are buried with their father.   

This is a terrible, terrible story. Lee made a horrendous mistake of possessiveness. Remember, we’re talking about one of the great men of American history. He was honored and respected by all, even his former enemies. You would think that his ego would be satisfied without the constant attentions of his daughters. We don’t blame him for loving them. We do blame him for not encouraging his daughters to get married and have children themselves.

Parents sometimes worry more about themselves than their children. Even parents are human; they worry about their own needs, beginning with their own loneliness. Sometimes they say that they want the best for their children, but what they’re really worrying about is what is best for them.

Again, I go back to the story of Abraham and Ishmael. Abraham does not want to let Ishmael go. He wants to hold on to him. But G-d tells Abraham that Ishmael has to leave home to pursue his destiny out there in the desert. Abraham does not want to send Ishmael away because he loves him and cannot bear to see him go. But G-d tells him: You must let him go.

Abraham’s experience as a parent was unique. The rest of us don’t have G-d telling us what to do at every step; we stumble through life, falling back on our feelings, opinions and general principles that we try to apply to specific situations. And we make a lot of mistakes.

Robert E. Lee is the worst example I know of holding on too tight. Why do some parents hold on with such might? Parents do not only care about their children; they also care about themselves.

This whole business of getting older is legitimately scary. We want our children to be there for us. But there’s a pattern I’ve been seeing of parents who demand far too much, who hold on too hard. I know only a few Benjamin Franklins who will not forgive and reconcile. But I know many Robert E. Lees who attempt to control their children’s lives to the detriment of the children. Not everything in this world is the fault of ungrateful children.
There are parents who play G-d. I don’t blame them for their needs nor for their fear. But I do blame them for their tactics.

The two stories of Franklin and Lee are both are about parents trying to direct their children’s lives. There’s got to be a happy medium between the egotism and lack of forgiveness of Benjamin Franklin, and the selfish possessiveness of Robert E. Lee, all on the one hand, and the Giving Tree parents on the other. There’s got to be a happy medium between controlling our children’s lives and accepting everything and anything they do. There’s a whole range of a happy medium. We must not hold on too tight.

Holding on and letting go. In the last couple of months, I’ve thought a lot about Robert E. Lee and his daughters. As I’ve married off a daughter and sent a son off to college, I’ve waited for the crash of letting go. To my surprise, the crash hasn’t happen. Of course I was emotional. You don’t love them less because the child is moving on to the next stage. It’s ok to have mixed feelings as you let go.

I’m trying to encourage my children to follow their dreams.  My four children will clearly lead four different lives, all of them very different from mine. I am not egotistical enough to want them to lead my life, because I have made plenty of mistakes. But the mistakes I’ve talked about tonight, of failing to forgive and failing to let go, are two I hope to avoid.

But here’s the uplifting thing: I think that they would say that by letting go, I have, paradoxically, held them closer than ever. And I have become more determined than ever to realize that as I change, they may not change in the same direction. I have become more determined than ever not to spoil their lives by trying to get them to fill my needs. I don’t want to be Benjamin Franklin. I don’t want to be Robert E. Lee. But I do, very much, want to be a good father.

Again, the paradox is that by letting go you can hold them closer than ever. Our children cannot be our Precious Lives. Life is too precious for that. Our own lives, their lives, are too precious in themselves for that. So forgive them and they may forgive us. Let them go so that we can hold them close.