Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, by Walter Isaacson

Five stars

Seeking to continue my trek to better understand the birth of America and its Founding Fathers, I tackled Walter Isaacson’s biography of Benjamin Franklin. The book offers not only a great examination of the man, but also a wonderful set of vignettes related to all the activities Franklin undertook in his life. This most eclectic of men, the fifth generation of the youngest son of the youngest son, dazzled many he met and Isaacson’s presentation surely will pull in many readers as well. In Isaacson’s examination, three themes emerge related to Franklin’s persona: a common man, the inquisitive thinker, and the great Founding Father. Using these themes and Isaacson’s strong narrative, the reader learns so much in this one tome, all of which helps better shape the view of this most varied of the early men who shaped America.

At no point did Ben Franklin make himself out to be anything other than a common man. He lived a simple life and grew up surrounded by sixteen siblings in a household where frugality was itself considered posh. Becoming self-sufficient at a young age, Franklin sought to make a name for himself in the Philadelphia region becoming a printer at a young age and beginning a career that would make him a household name before any of his Founding roles. He sought to educate the masses with the written word, from tracts to pamphlets and even into satirical books, proving that the pen has its might and can sway as effectively as the sword. Isaacson offers a dose of humanness to Franklin by discussing his dalliances that brought about a bastard son, William, but balances the scales when showing that Franklin did not shirk from his responsibilities. Franklin did marry and have a legitimate family of his own, but they seemed to take a secondary place to his work and eventually to his curiosities, as mentioned below. Franklin remained well rooted throughout his life, even when politics came knocking, differentiating himself from the likes of the military Washington or highly political Jefferson. A common man to the last of his days, Franklin always sought the best for his fellow man without pretentiousness or a sense of entitlement. 

That Franklin was always thinking appears to be a recurring thread in Isaacson’s narrative. Franklin never stopped wondering what was and what might be, given the chance. As early as when he began publishing, Franklin sought to better the lives of those around him by pushing the limits of the day and expressing a concrete desire to grow. Franklin printed his stories and ideas to force the common man to think about life and how he presents himself, hoping to open the mind up to new ideas or a better means of living the current one. Isaacson illustrates Franklin’s ideas which included fire brigades, property insurance, and even public lending libraries. He saw an opening and a need and simply presented a plan in the microcosm of Philadelphia, which blossomed into something most people take for granted. Moving into the world of science, Franklin espoused a greater interest in opening new channels of thinking, but always practical ideas rather than esoteric or theoretical ones. Franklin began discoveries of electrical conversion and conservation by creating primitive batteries, curiosities around electric fencing, and paved the way for future theoretical scientists to formulate some of the ideas Franklin found while tinkering. Isaacson presents Franklin’s ideas in such a way as to elevate his stature without leaving the reader to think he was better than anyone else, something biographers of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson fail to do in their respective tomes. Franklin did things for the curiosity of it and used that questioning spirit to help those around him. These ideas have, presently, become so ensconced in daily life that to learn of their inventor may leave the reader in awe.

Franklin’s concern for the common man and his innovative mind spawned a retired life where politics played a central role. Early in the tome, Isaacson mentions that Franklin was the only Founding Father who had a hand in all of the documents related to the eventual sovereignty of America. While he was strongly loyal to the British Crown, he did see some of the issues his fellow colonists felt, particularly in the realm of taxation and control of local affairs. Isaacson discusses Franklin’s plan to create a form of legislative agreement that would allow regional and even colonial issues to be handled within the region, while working with the Crown and permitting a British overseer. This idea could have, Isaacson posits, curtailed the need for the Revolutionary War and likely allowed a more Canadian-based solution to the colonial quagmire (the latter part of this point is not Isaacson’s but my political insight). It failed and Franklin stood firm with his colonial brothers in fighting for equality and representation. Franklin was elected to represent Pennsylvania at the bargaining table in London, but all his insight could not sway the likes of HRH George III, which precipitated the eventual War of Independence. With extensive sections of the tome dedicated to Franklin’s various diplomatic positions, in both London and Paris, during those years ahead of the War and the period of peace negotiations. Franklin stopped at nothing to secure America’s support from European allies and to temper the issues arising in the Mother Country. Isaacson does a masterful job at presenting this, as well as arguing that Franklin was likely the single man able to quell the size of the fight put up by the British during this colonial divorce proceedings. All this and the number of “who’s who” historical figures that Franklin encountered and liaised with will surely astound the reader to no end. Isaacson does not shy away from examining Franklin’s extensive work on constitutional documents, after Britain negotiated a settlement. While Franklin was elderly and not the greatest orator, his ideas were firmly rooted in democratic means, to benefit the people. Some ideas fell by the wayside when the consummate politicians scoffed at his empowering the common man, while others received strong consideration and eventually inclusion in the final constitutional documents. To call Franklin an important character in the political realm of America seems an understatement.

While Franklin showed a varied and pleasantly passionate side, a quasi-fourth theme emerges throughout the tome; Franklin’s complete abandonment of his family, particularly the women. Franklin galavanted throughout the colonies and into Europe with little regard for his wife, Deborah, penning letters to her on occasion and discussing how the woman whose home he shared while working in London had become so close to him. Franklin did not return when he discovered she’d had a stroke, nor did he rush back when she died. Franklin seemed to be divorced from his spousal responsibilities and did not give it a second thought. While he penned pleasant notes to his daughter and her husband, again, Franklin made little effort to attend her wedding or play any role in her life leading up to that point. Like the man always tinkering in the garage, Franklin had too much to do and too little time for those around him, unless they were as ensconced with his actions. Add to this, the aforementioned William, his bastard son, became a Royal Governor of New Jersey and thus put him opposite Franklin for much of the younger’s adult life. It is interesting to note that Franklin had a wonderful relationship with his grandchildren, as Isaacson shows throughout, no matter how poorly he treated his own children. This is an interesting theme, familial abandonment, and one that I have not seen in any of the previous Founding Father biographies. Very poignant and it does balance well against all the good that Franklin did in his life.

Isaacson’s biographical sketch of Franklin is both thorough and entertaining, keeping the reader away from the quagmires of the mundane while not skimming over key aspects. Full of wonderful insights throughout, Isaacson shows the attention to detail and extensive research he undertook to weave this together. With strong themes and exceptionally off the wall observations (that Franklin’s fathering of William led to two additional generations of bastard children begetting bastards) keep the reader pushing forward with interest and awe, rather than out of a sense of necessity. Like the previous figure Isaacson tackled that I have already read (Steve Jobs), the man appears to come alive through the author’s wonderful prose.

Kudos, Mr. Isaacson for your sensational biography. I cannot wait to sink my teeth into your other political juggernaut (Kissinger) or scientist (Einstein).