Benjamin Franklin, An American Life

Walter Isaacson

Walter Isaacson is a major biographer.  For years I enjoyed his writings in TIME magazine.  More recently he has written major biographies of Kissinger, Einstein, Franklin, da Vinci, and Steven Jobs.  He is always worth reading.

Franklin was an unusual, fascinating and complicated man.  In some ways he did as much in the founding of the United States as anyone, with the exception of George Washington.  He accomplished so much in his own life of 84 years.  Born in 1706 and dying in 1790, he lived during years when he could shape so much of American life and American culture.  He was enormously influential in the Colonies, as well as in other countries around the world. 

Isaacson notes that during his lifetime, Benjamin Franklin was America’s best scientist, inventor, diplomat, writer and business strategist.  He was also a practical political thinker. 

He proved by flying a kite that lightning was electricity, and he invented a rod to tame it.  He devised bifocal glasses and clean-burning stoves, charts of the Gulf Stream and theories about the contagious nature of the common cold.  He launched various civic improvement schemes, such as a lending library, college, volunteer fire corps, insurance association, and matching grant fund-raiser.  He helped invent American’s unique style of homespun humor and philosophical pragmatism.  In foreign policy, he created an approach that wove together idealism with balance-of-power realism.  And in politics, he proposed seminal plans for uniting the colonies and creating a federal model for a national government (p. 2).  

Though he became wealthy and influential, for the rest of his life he considered himself a part of the middle class, not the upper class.  More than any of the other founding fathers, he was a true believer in democracy, as opposed to some sort of elitism or aristocracy.  He believed in the common people and the working class.  He helped create a country with a ruling class of ordinary citizens.

His writings were widely read during his own lifetime.  He was not a profound thinker, but he was a master of irony, fable, satire and humor.  He was famous for his Poor Richard’s Almanacks.

Isaacson notes that Franklin came to epitomize one strand of the American character: 

The side of pragmatism versus romanticism, of practical benevolence versus moral crusading.  He was on the side of religious tolerance rather than evangelical faith.  The side of social mobility rather than an established elite.  The side of middle-class virtues rather than more ethereal noble aspirations (p. 476).

In terms of his spiritual beliefs, Franklin was a deist, which was common among some of the other founding fathers, such as Jefferson.  He knew the Bible somewhat, but was not a follower of the Bible.  He was a little vague in exactly what he believed.  He often said that the best way to serve God is by serving man.  And it is true that he did do a lot of good. 

His religious beliefs, especially early in life, were largely a calculus of what credos would prove useful for people to believe, rather than an expression of sincere inner convictions.  Deism was appealing, but he discovered it was not all that helpful, so he gave it a moral gloss and seldom troubled his soul with questions about grace, salvation, the divinity of Christ, or other profound issues that did not lend themselves to practical inquiry (p. 486).

It is ironic that he was a close friend of George Whitefield for a long time, yet he never came to Whitefield’s evangelical faith.  Also I would say that Franklin lacked genuine humility.  He joked about lack of humility, but he seemed to glory in attention as well as in fame.  Also, unfortunately, he was not a devoted husband nor a devoted father.

It is impressive how much Franklin achieved in his lifetime and in such diverse fields. 

He was remarkably versatile in this service.  He devised legislatures and lightning rods, lotteries and lending libraries.  He sought practical ways to make stoves less smoky and commonwealths less corrupt.  He organized neighborhood constabularies and international alliances.  He combined two types of lenses to create bifocals and two concepts of representation to foster the nation’s federal compromise.  As his friend the French statesman Turgot said in his famous epigram, Eripuit caelo fulmen sceptrumque tyrannis, he snatched lightning from the sky and the scepter from tyrants (p. 492).

Franklin was the only founding father who helped shape all of the major documents of America:  The Declaration of Independence, The Treaty of Alliance with France, the Peace Treaty with England and the Constitution.  He was the main voice seeking to bring France into the Revolutionary War on the side of the Colonies.  And he was a key voice in brokering the peace treaty with Britain after the war. 

To sum up Franklin in the words of Isaacson: 

All of this made him the most accomplished American of his age and the most influential in inventing the type of society America would become.  Indeed, the roots of much of what distinguishes the nation can be found in Franklin:  its cracker-barrel humor and wisdom; its technological ingenuity; its pluralistic tolerance; its ability to weave together individualism and community cooperation; its philosophical pragmatism; its celebration of meritocratic mobility; the idealistic streak ingrained in its foreign policy; and the Main Street (or Market Street) virtues that serve as the foundation for its civic values.  He was egalitarian in what became the American sense: he approved of individuals making their way to wealth through diligence and talent, but opposed giving special privileges to people based on their birth (p. 492-493).

Let me be clear:  I do not consider Franklin a great man and I do not consider this a great biography.  However, Franklin is a fascinating man who did so much.  This is a superb biography on Franklin.