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:
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.