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Sunday, July 11, 2004

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

Eripuit coelo fulmen sceptrumque tyrannis - French statesman Turgot

This famous epigram translated "he snatched lightning from the sky and the scepter from tyrants" neatly summarizes the two sides of Franklin (1706-1790) that predominate in this recent biography of Franklin by Walter Isaacson. I had wanted to read this book when it first came out largely because of the relatively negative view of Franklin I had gotten from reading David McCullough's John Adams.

Although not as well written as the McCullough book Isaacson does a good job of covering the bases detailing Franklin's life in a strictly chronological portrait beginning with his family's background (and the interesting derivation of the Franklin name) in England before his father immigrated to America in 1683. He then traces Franklin from his earliest apprenticeship at his brother's print shop at the age of 10 to his decisive move at 17 from Boston to Philadelphia and his somewhat obsessive drive to make something of himself through industriousness. From there his life as an entrepreneur and "leather-apron" (a middle class merchant) in the printing industry takes Franklin to London and back as he grows in both wealth and influence through the publication of his yearly Poor Richard's Almanak starting in 1733 and his often satirical essays and letters. Isaacson details many of the pithy sayings Franklin became famous for and notes how many of them (more than 90% in Franklin's own estimation) were ancient sayings that Franklin was able to recast in his homespun manner. During this time Isaacson recounts how Franklin tried to bring organization to all his activities and how he acted out his personal theology that "serving your fellow man is the best service to God" in organizing public services projects that started with his own philosophical and business club called the "Junto" which later spread to starting a fire brigade, paving and lighting streets, creating a lending library, starting a hospital, and the University of Pennsylvania.

Franklin retired at the age of 42 to pursue his intellectual and scientific pursuits (he never had a formal education being denied attendance at Harvard by his frugal father) and there is a great chapter on his experiments with electricity and lightning, musical instruments, stoves, and other inventions. Of course Franklin's greatest fame came from his theories on electricity which resulted in his proposal for the invention of the lightning rod in 1750. One of the interesting aspects of the story well recounted in the book is that Franklin's proposal was translated into French after being published in England and was verified on May 10, 1752 a month before Franklin's own famous verification using a kite and key. Isaacson also does a good job explaining the significance of an invention that we all take for granted that saved large amounts of property and lives and even had theological implications. Although Franklin's scientific endeavors had theoretical impact, Isaacson stresses that Franklin was not a theorist and was best at discovering practical uses for his discoveries.

From Franklin's interest in public service projects (and his own self-interest in the circulation of his newspaper and almanacs) he became involved in the Pennsylvania Assembly and postal service and eventually became postmaster (a job that would expose him, more than any of the founding fathers, to the expanse of the colonies and give him a perspective on their unification). From here his political career was launched and he was first elected to the assembly in 1751. While in the assembly his natural distaste for authority led him into conflicts with the proprietors of Pennsylvania, the Penn family, over taxes and defense from Indians. This led eventually to his being appointed by the assembly as their spokesperson in London where he traveled in 1757. From that point on Franklin would only return to America twice, once in 1763-1764 and again at the crucial juncture 1775-1776, living in London and then in Paris until finally returning home for good in 1785. His dealings in London included his work for Pennsylvania and later Georgia with the court and parliament and his role in repealing the Stamp Act before his final humiliation before parliament in 1774. His role at the Continental Congress in 1776 is well told as well as his interaction with Jefferson and Adams in drafting The Declaration. His return to Paris in 1776 as one of the agents of the new Continental Congress was filled with intrigue and dissension with his fellow American commissioners as he was tasked with extracting money from the French court and eventually in 1783 helping broker the peace between Britain and the new republic. After returning home to great fanfare he played the wise sage and helped create the compromises necessary in forming the Constitution during the convention of 1787. Through it all, Isaacson portrays Franklin as a pragmatist who stood on a few solid principles but who was willing to negotiate.

A few of the other interesting tidbits in the book were:

  • Isaacson describes Franklin's often flirtatious and long-running relationships with younger women such as Catherine Ray and juxtaposes these with his contentious and short-lived relationships with men including his own illegitimate son William who was a Tory and royal governor of New Jersey

  • Isaacson does not act as an apologist for Franklin's rather shabby treatment of his wife, Deborah. Although Deborah refused to travel to Europe Franklin needlessly delayed his return to America until after Deborah had died despite her constant pleadings and reports of her poor health. He paints their relationship as one of mutual help but not intimacy. He also seemed to treat his faithful daughter Sally in a similar fashion

  • Isaacson also shows how Franklin setup for himself in London and again in Paris "surrogate families" complete with a doting maternal figure and a young lady on whom Franklin could dote and several small children including his own grandsons Temple and Benny

  • Another interesting thread that runs through the book is how Franklin's philosophy of conversation (a "velvet-tounged and sweetly passive style") which included asking questions rather than direct confrontation, an indirect style or persuasion, and using silence wisely. Isaacson argues that this style, while effective, sometimes garnered Franklin a reputation for being duplicitous in his dealings

  • Throughout the book Franklin's religious feelings and actions are brought out. He was a Deist but believed that God does work in the affairs of men (per his famous quote at the Constitutional Convention). Yet he seemed to think very little about the issues of salvation and redemption, instead preferring his pragmatic creed of helping others. He developed these beliefs very early in life (by the mid 1720s) and appears to have never wavered from them. This is the same undogmatic approach that identified him with the Enlightment thinker Voltaire, whom he famously met in France, and that served him well in his negotiating

  • The discussion of Franklin's role at the constitutional convention is interesting and it was enlightening to note that several of Franklin's preferred ideas including a unicameral legislature, the idea that office holders should not be paid (strangely undemocratic but one which Isaacson argues Franklin made to avoid the corrupting influence of money in politics), and an executive council instead of a President he gave up in order to reach consensus

  • As I expected the book contains a much more positive portrayal of Franklin's conduct in Paris than John Adams reported and was consequently reflected in McCullough's book. Adams viewed Franklin as lazy and loose with money (contrary to the ideals he preached in his almanacs), which Isaacson sidesteps instead giving the impression that Franklin was simply endearing himself to the court and French ambassadors. Certainly, Franklin's popularity in France (his face was put on everything from medallions to snuff boxes and in one instance on the bottom of a chamber pot presented to a courtier by Louis XVI) is what assisted America the most and without him the French monetary and military assistance and the peace treaty with Britain would not have been successful. Franklin though seemed to have a bit of blindspot for France but when it came time to work a deal for peace he deftly sidestepped the French and dealt directly with Britain to secure better terms

  • One of the final chapters interestingly reviews Franklin's image over the past 200 years and how it has changed with the times


  • I'd certainly recommend this book to anyone who wants to get a mental portrait of Franklin and although certainly positive in its overall take, it appears a fair portrayal. It has a good mix of his career, his personal relationships, and his intellectual pursuits.

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