Ruffin Franklin is related to James Franklin, Benjamin Franklin’s older brother — and he wants to set the record straight.
by Jim Jenkins | photography by Bob Karp
On a quiet cul-de-sac inside Raleigh’s Beltline, you’ll find him: Benjamin Franklin. He’s life-size in bronze, sitting on the end of a bench with a smile of ease. By any measure, it is a very nice statue indeed, one of only 30 cast from the original sculpture from the mid-2000s by Gary Price.
The work belongs to Dr. Ruffin Franklin, whose family has been deeply rooted in Wake County since the early 1800s. Prior to moving to the area, the family was active in the original colonies of New England.
Franklin’s family acquired the piece a couple of years ago to mark his retirement after more than 40 years of practicing as a pediatrician.
And yes, there’s a family connection: Ruffin Franklin is a direct descendant of James Franklin, recognized by no less than historian Walter Isaacson as the “father of freedom of the press” for his courage in founding and editing the Boston Courant.
Unlike other newspapers of the 1700s, the Boston Courant dared to differ with the British authorities ruling the colonies. It was no mean feat, and that kind of courage placed James Franklin in harm’s way.
He was, in other words, a notable figure in American history, and recognized as such. He also had a brother, Benjamin, whom you may have heard of. Younger by seven years, Benjamin caused James a lot of headache and heartache before becoming one of America’s Founding Fathers.
Benjamin didn’t do well in school, so he was apprenticed, which is what was commonly done in those days with those not inclined toward academic pursuits. His father tried to teach him candle making, but that didn’t work, so he was sent to his brother James.
“Benjamin did practically everything except what he was supposed to do,” says Ruffin. “When that happened, as was common then, James did switch Benjamin. He did not beat his younger brother. Switchings were common in that time.”
Unfortunately, when Benjamin Franklin had moved on to advise Washington and Madison and Jefferson and take his place as a Founding Father, he wrote in his memoirs that his older brother, James, had beaten him. The implication was that James was cruel and had driven him from home.
Ruffin emphatically differs, and one might say that his view of Benjamin Franklin, heated by Benjamin’s later harsh words for his older brother, is not exactly one of pride in a legendary uncle.
“Yes, I am trying to vindicate my ancestor,” Ruffin says. “But in fact, James should not be looked upon as the villain but as someone who helped mold Benjamin into the man he became.” Ruffin notes that Benjamin’s version of events has been inconsistent before. For example, Benjamin Franklin was a slave owner, though he pronounced himself an abolitionist.
For Ruffin, it’s a point of pride that his direct ancestors were not slave owners, nor were they in the Confederate army. Ruffin has done much research through the North Carolina State Archives and family records, and he believes his findings are accurate.
The James Franklin line of family history includes the founding of schools and the building of governments. For example, Franklin’s grandfather, Burrell Franklin III, was a county commissioner, justice of the peace, and one of the owners of Cary Academy, one of the high schools in the area during the 1800s when all such schools were private.
Burrell’s grandfather was one of the people who made it possible for the school to become what is now Cary High School, which claims to be the oldest public high school in North Carolina.
Ruffin has served on boards and donated property for greenways in his own right. He and his wife, Sandra, have four children and 10 grandchildren, some of whom, Ruffin believes, are well aware of and interested in their ancestor.
And Ruffin is blessed with the ability to see the humor in his statue and in his conflicted view of “Ol’ Ben,” as he sometimes calls him. He’s never giving up on correcting Benjamin’s harsh words about James. But he smiles when a visitor says — and if he’s heard it once, he’s heard it a thousand times — “You know, you look just like Ben Franklin.” “Hmmm…” he says. “Well, thanks.”
This article originally appeared in the January 2023 issue of WALTER magazine.