Thursday, June 24, 2010


A review of Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (2003)

(Rating 5 of 5)

To say that Benjamin Franklin led an interesting life would be the understatement of the century. Dr. Franklin was the first American to be world famous. He was an American Revolutionary, a theorist on government, a scientist in nearly all fields, and a printer being his first profession. In the end, one can say that there is nothing that the man did not do in his lifetime. Walter Isaacson brings this extraordinary American to life, allowing the reader to explore the world that was with this incredible human being.

The thirteenth of sixteen children, and a youngest son of a youngest son for five generations, Ben Franklin learned early on that if he wanted to be noticed he would have to work hard. Franklin went to work at an early age as an indentured servant for his brother James’s print shop in Boston. He even get his first by-line, after getting in trouble with the state legislature and order to print no more work under his own name, James Franklin decides to publish everything under his brother’s.

However, life as an indentured servant is no fun even when your master is your own older brother. Ben Franklin decides to escape to Philadelphia, where he opens his own print shop. As a printer, Franklin has tremendous success, his paper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, was popular. He would also publish the famous Poor Richard’s Almanac. Franklin, however, does some things okay for his time, but now we would frown upon. For example he, from time to time, makes up stories or writes letters to the editor under pseudonym often to express a political point or to tell a funny tale.

“Like most other newspapers of the time, Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette was filled not only with short news items and reports on public events, but also amusing essays and letters from readers. What made his paper a delight was its wealth of this type of correspondence, much of it written under pseudonyms by Franklin himself. This gimmick of writing as if from a reader gave Franklin more leeway to poke fun at his rivals, revel in gossip, circumvent his personnel pledge to speak ill of no one, and test-drive his evolving philosophies.” p.65

Ben Franklin was also an accomplished scientist, even though he was not formally trained. His work in electricity would be revolutionary as his later political ideas. Franklin's most famous invention outside his silly stove was the Lighting Rod. He would also map the Gulf Stream, and would always be fascinated by oil’s effect on water.*

“In fact, these terms devised by Franklin are the ones we still use today, along with other neologisms that he coined to describe his findings: battery, charged, neutral, condense, and conductor. Part of Franklin’s importance as a scientist was the clear writing that he employed. ‘He has written equally for the uninitiated as well as the philosopher,’ the early nineteenth-century English chemist Sir Humphry Davy noted, ‘and has rendered his details as amusing as well as perspicuous.’” p.135

Ever a political and social creature he was member of local clubs and debating societies. He would marry Deborah Franklin after her first husband abandoned her. He would have also father an illegitimate son who he would personally raise**. As the colonial postmaster general, he would found the origins of what would become the post office.

(William Franklin)

Benjamin Franklin would spend almost an entire decade in Britain trying to be an advocate to the people of Pennsylvania on a variety of issues. He was an opponent of most the tax laws that Britain made during this time. When letters from the colonial Governor Thomas Hutchinson came to Franklin’s attention, he leaked them so that the Americans would see that the threat to their liberties was coming from home rather than the mother country. The Privy Council of George III however saw that event differently, and he was brought before them and ridiculed. After this misadventure, he went home and joined the Revolution. Joining the rebels would cause a permanent break with his son William that was never healed.

As a member of the Second Continental Congress, he was a strong advocate for Independence for America. He was part of the famous Committee of Five with future presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. There he aided in drafting what would become the Declaration of Independence.

Franklin was dispatched by the Congress to try to form an alliance with King Louis XVI of France. There after the Battle of Saratoga, Franklin negotiated the most important military alliance in the young history of the Republic. He would later take part in the signing of the Treaty of Paris the ended the American Revolutionary War.

“As he would prove in France, Franklin not only knew how to play a calculated balance-of-power game like the best practitioner of real-politik, but he also knew how to play with his other hand the rousing chords of American exceptionalism, the sense that America stood apart from the rest of the world because of its virtuous nature. Both the hard power that came from its strategic might and the soft power that flowed from the appeal of its ideals and culture would, he realized, be equally important in assuring its influence.” p.338

At the end of his life, Franklin would do two more things that are incredible. In 1787, he would take part in the writing of the Constitution of the United States; his plea for unity became a part of his legend. Two years later, as his life was about to end, he became the president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society and wrote letters to the First Congress urging an end to slavery.

Ben Franklin’s incredible life ended on April 17, 1790, he was the man who did it all. Everything written in this review and more is covered in Mr. Isaacson’s work, and I highly recommend this book to anyone.

*Which means Franklin would have quite a bit to say about this latest crisis in the Gulf of Mexico.

**William Franklin’s mother was most likely a prostitute.

{First video was posted by Rocketboom on Youtube, I think the young lady gives the best three minute description of Franklin. The second Walter Isaacson himself.

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