America The Divided? It's Been That Way Since Our Founding | Opinion

A statue of Benjamin Franklin is shown outside the Trump International Hotel August 10, 2017 in Washington, D.C. Win McNamee/Getty Images

"The partisan divide on political values grows even wider," read a recent Pew Research poll headline. It's a common meme with pundits, pollsters, and many in the political class—the American people have never been so divided.

But take a brief walk through time, and a tour of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and you'll soon be disabused of such notions.

Historians who have studied the matter differ as to the number of Americans who sided with the Patriots and the British Crown, but one thing is certain—Americans were deeply divided. And the consequences for choosing one side or another was not an ugly Facebook post. Or a tweetstorm.

"A pensive and awful silence pervaded the house as we were called up, one after another, to the table of the President of Congress," Benjamin Rush said, to sign "what was believed by many at that time to be our own death warrant."

Rush, who was there at our founding and signed our birth certificate, was right. "The British government," William Hogeland wrote in American History Magazine, "considered the Declaration of Independence a treasonous document. And treason was a capital crime."

How divided was America? One look at Benjamin Franklin's life tells the story. The printer, inventor, humorist, writer, newspaperman and diplomat was one of the driving forces of the American enlightenment, but his own home was torn apart by America's first civil war.

Franklin's son, William, was illegitimate, but that never stopped Benjamin from being the father his son deserved. Indeed, William wasn't told about his bastard-child status until he was 19 years old, old enough to absorb such a thing.

William had all of the advantages that any son of Ben Franklin could imagine. He had classes for everything, from Latin to dance, horsemanship to the art of conversation. William even moved to London to train for a life in the law, as his father demanded.

His father ultimately used his influence to secure his son William the royal governorship of New Jersey. Throughout the 1760s, the two men worked closely together. Neither could have imagined they'd one day be forced to choose between King and country. Family and country.

"Benjamin was one of the most reluctant of the colonies' reluctant revolutionaries," according to Shiela Kemp, who wrote a book about the Franklins. "But living for years in London as a colonial agent, he saw firsthand the artifice and chicanery of what he thought of as a corrupt regime."

The father, who'd been distrusted by many on the side of Revolution, joined the cause of the Patriots, and urged his son to join, too. But William chose to stay on the side of the Loyalists.

That choice would lead to William's arrest, and land him in his new home: the Litchfield Gaol, a prison that stood on the foothills of the Bantam River in Western Connecticut.

"It was infamous, a destination of last resort for outlaws condemned to be hanged, convicted murderers, and sodomites, reprobates and traitors who had dishonored their parole," wrote Daniel Epstein in his book The Loyal Son: The War in Ben Franklin's House.

"It smelled awful," Epstein wrote. "The room was empty except for a stoneware chamber pot. The plank wooden floor was strewn with straw. In the twilight from the high little window the prisoner searched the four corners in vain for a chair to sit or a pallet to lie upon."

"A most noisy, filthy room of I believe, the very worst gaol in America," William called his quarters.

The son of Benjamin Franklin—Governor of New Jersey—was living in a place that made Alcatraz look like the Ritz-Carlton. He would spend two years there.

After being released from jail in a prisoner exchange, William worked on behalf of the Loyalists for a few years before joining thousands of Americans who emigrated to England. He never to returned to his homeland.

A few years before his death, Ben Franklin received a letter from his son. William was hoping for a face-to-face meeting, and a chance at reconciliation. The father did not wait long to respond.

"Nothing has ever hurt me so much and affected me with such keen sensation 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," Ben Franklin replied.

A bit later in the same letter, Ben Franklin, who was in London at the time, concluded with these words: "I shall be glad to see you when convenient, but would not have you come here at present."

The two would never reconcile. Ben Franklin, who died a wealthy man, left his son virtually nothing in his will.

The political divide today is still about power and a distant city. But the city isn't London—it's Washington, D.C. Some Americans think our federal government has grown too vast and unaccountable to the people—especially the administrative state's bureaucracies. They want power dispersed to the states, and closer to the people. Others want more power granted to Washington, D.C. They want the federal government to do more for more people, in areas ranging from healthcare to education.

It's a fight we've been having since our founding.

As my family searched out a place to eat not far from Independence Hall on a sunny day in Philadelphia, all we could see around us were Americans of every conceivable race, class, age, color and ethnicity eating together peacefully in restaurants of all kinds—Burmese, Chinese, Indian, Italian, Jamaican, Lebanese—and yes, even a Philly cheesesteak joint. It was what our founders hoped for, that scene.

We may be a divided nation, but the story of the war in Ben Franklin's family is a stark reminder of what kind of division we've endured.

We've seen tougher times. But America always pulls through, somehow stronger. And better.

Lee Habeeb is a Vice President of Content at Salem Media Group, and is host of Our American Stories, a nationally syndicated radio show and podcast.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​