Walter Isaacson’s 2003 Ben Franklin An American Life makes a wonderful complement to the 1938 Pulitzer Prize winning Benjamin Franklin by Carl Van Doren. Van Doren’s book is dense and exhaustive and admiring of both the man and his work. Isaacson is thorough as well, but more readable, and more critical, especially of Franklin’s personal life. It’s been several years since I read the Van Doren book, and I don’t plan to go back for a point-by-point analysis, but if you want to read just one, I’d say go for Walter.
Pretty much everyone knows something about Franklin’s Horatio Alger beginnings and about his role as a signer of the Declaration of Independence and framer of the Constitution. Folks connect his name with Poor Richard and the Almanac, the Franklin Stove, the lightning rod, and bifocals. Many fewer, probably, know of his business acumen, how he turned one small Philadelphia print shop into a multi-colonial string of franchises that enabled him to retire at age forty-two (1747) to pursue projects of scientific and community betterment.
He used his “leisure” time to lead the world in the discovery and use of electricity, invent a musical instrument (the Armonica) which became enough of an orchestral standby to warrant compositions by Beethoven and Mozart, correspond with scientists and philosophers worldwide on a huge range of subjects, write the constitution of Pennsylvania, organize fire departments, raise and lead a militia, and organize a postal service that achieved a twenty-four hour turnaround on letters between New York and Philadelphia. All this before the revolution was even a glimmer in Samuel Adams’ eye.
So, why would a man of so many talents and obviously superior intellect be labeled “bourgeois”? Because he was the quintessential Rotarian. He never worked alone. Practically everything he did involved an organization of some sort, usually an organization he founded. Isaacson focuses on Franklin as the community do-gooder. He was neither a Newton nor a Voltaire, would never have invented Calculus or delved deeply into the nature of God. Instead, he loved to gather data and put it to use; and religion was fine as long as it was used to make for better lives and helped people to be kind to one another. You can find his calculations of the speed and patterns of the Gulf Stream Currents on the NASA website. He called his collection of Leyden jars to store electricity a “battery”, and we still use the word. The terms “positive” and “negative” for electrical poles are his invention. All very interesting knowledge and theory, he would say, now let’s put it to use. Let’s cook a turkey (he did) with electrical current, or fashion a pointed metal rod to keep lightning from destroying your house. He never patented anything, preferring to make his inventions available to the widest possible array of the population. This isn’t even a smidgen of the whole picture. If you wanted to think about it or philosophize about it, talk to someone else. If you want to use it to improve your life, talk to Franklin.
The same went for his advice as for his inventions. Nearly all Poor Richard’s aphorisms (many of them reworked from other sources) are pragmatic hints for getting along in the here and now–”He’s a fool that makes his doctor his heir;” “necessity never mad a good bargain;” “diligence is the mother of good luck;” “no gains without pains;” “there’s a time to wink as well as to see.” There’s little of the spiritual or abstract. This is the part of Franklin the world knows best and that draws the fire of romantics and theorists who want grand ideas and passions from him instead of the concrete stuff of the daily grind.
And in many ways, Franklin was indeed short on grand and intimate passion and guilty of neglecting familial ties. He acknowledged and cared for his illegitimate son, but was never close to him. In fact, rejected William savagely when he refused to join the revolution. He had an affectionate forty-nine-year marriage (common law because there was no concrete evidence of the death of Deborah’s disappeared husband). But he spent fifteen of the last seventeen years of that marriage abroad and made no effort to get home after she had a stroke and took nearly a year to die. He was more affectionate to some members of the surrogate family he gathered around him in England than to his flesh-and-blood American relatives. He attended the wedding of neither his natural son nor daughter, but made great pains to attend the wedding of his English landlady’s daughter. He engaged in numerous flirtations that seemed never to be consummated, always conducting them with a humorous irony that avoided closing that last intimate gap. He was a rationalist who never opened his heart all the way.
In addition, he never till the end of his life came to terms with slavery. He owned slaves most of his adult life even though he was friends with abolitionists. By the time he became committed to abolition, he was too old to employ any of his acumen to doing anything about it. It seemed that, like his family, it was an issue that he wanted to keep at arm’s length because it stirred emotions that were too intense or unresolveable.
Thus, his family never got out of this giant of the age of reason the closeness or affection they wanted. Two possible exceptions: First–Grandson Temple, the illegitimate son of his own illegitimate son, William, the one from whom he became so bitterly estranged. But you could argue that BF indulged Temple to the extent that he spoiled the boy, and he never made good use of his grandfather’s largesse. Second exception–Great-grandson Benjy, Temple’s illegitimate son, whom Franklin set up in the printing business and who made a good name for himself at his great-grandfather’s trade. Outside the family, however, Franklin was a great master at bettering lives and societies wherever he went, and not just with his clever inventions.
Not many of us know in any detail his feats as a statesman. His years in Paris are legendary for how he took society by storm. Less known is the decade he spent in London trying hard via America’s English sympathizers to keep the bridges between America and England from burning. He was one of the last to sign on for the revolution, up to and beyond the last minute hoping and working for ways to keep the colonies in the Empire. He endured a terrible drubbing in House of Commons in 1775 over the proper relationship of colonies to masters. Once the war began, however, there was no greater zealot.
He became Congress’ first ambassador to France at age seventy. As celebrated and accomplished as his life had been to that point, his most monumental achievements occurred when he was an old man.
His work in France was far more than social, though it probably couldn’t have been accomplished without the celebrity he cultivated. The 1778 treaties of alliance and commerce were masterpieces of diplomacy and saved America’s bacon without a doubt. After Yorktown, the final peace treaties could not have been completed without his ameliorating influence over the bellicose tantrums of John Adams and the hard-as-nails obdurance of John Jay. And finally, at the age of eighty-three, fully twice the median age of the other members of the Constitutional Convention, he more than any other individual, made possible the compromises that resulted in our governing document. By changing his own positions to help resolve several conflicts (He fought hard for a unicameral legislature, for example) and by persuading others that rigidity was the enemy of a working republic, he became the model for the document the convention eventually shaped. In the concluding address of the final session, he said, “I consent. . . to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best.“ Not a ringing sales endorsement, but emblematic of the attitude many of us in this strident, opinionated age would do well to copy. We humans can never be as certain as we’d like to be that we’re right.
All of this history Isaacson relates in a lively prose that keeps one’s nose between the pages long after curfew. Clever phrasing such as “the back-channel fandango” (describing some of the maneuvering going on during the negotiations at the end of the War) keep the drama moving without trivializing the gravity of the events. His descriptions of Franklin as the original image-maker and spinmeister are as entertaining as BF himself must have been. They make you want to sit in one of those London or Philadelphia coffee houses, warmed by a Franklin Stove, sipping Madeira, watching the old man read a treatise or article through his bifocals and commenting with one of his parables. It’s a delicious read that makes a legendary figure as down-home and familiar as any neighborhood storyteller.