Benjamin Franklin : an American life

by Walter Isaacson

Hardcover, 2003

Status

Available

Publication

New York : Simon & Schuster, 2003.

Description

In this colourful and intimate narrative, Isaacson provides the full sweep of Franklin's amazing life, from his days as a runaway printer to his triumphs as a statesman, scientist and Founding Father.

User reviews

LibraryThing member ebnelson
The book was pretty good. Franklin certainly is a fascinating and noble character.

The last chapter was particularly insightful. Its details of criticism of Franklin's life and philosophies really gives food for thought. Particularly interesting was the Christian commentators who criticized Franklin for caring for people more than the population of heaven.… (more)
LibraryThing member LisaMaria_C
This was a pleasure and just the kind of biography I find trustworthy. The kind that acknowledges other views and controversies and with extensive notes and sources in the back. More than that, it's the rare biography that can inspire smiles and even giggles--I'd mark this up to five stars if I could credit Isaacson for that--but the source of the humor is the frequent quotes from Benjamin Franklin himself. Isaacson said in his introduction that "Benjamin Franklin is the Founding Father who winks at us" and that proved to be so--his pragmatism and humor is the keynote to his character. Before reading this, if someone asked me which Founding Father I'd chose to have dinner and conversation with I think I would have chosen Jefferson. After this it's hard not to name Franklin as a favorite and the one with the most winning personality--at least if you weren't married to him. Or one of his children.

Franklin has his faults, goodness knows, and Isaacson doesn't gloss over them, but they just make him all the more poignantly human. I've heard it said that the Revolutionary War was really a civil war given how the lines between Patriots versus Loyalists cut through families. Of all the Founding Fathers, the cut was sharpest with Benjamin Franklin--his own son was the King's Governor of New Jersey and chose the opposing side. I did know that before reading this biography but there was plenty I didn't know--for instance that this man so identified with Philadelphia was born and grew up in Boston and spent so many years in England as well as Paris. Isaacson, who wrote biographies of Einstein and Steve Jobs, does justice to not just Franklin the statesman but the inventor and scientist as well. And throughout and especially in his epilogue gives us not just an assessment of the man but the biography of how he was received by others such as Sinclair Lewis, D.H. Lawrence and John Updike. An engaging and lively biography.
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LibraryThing member Othemts
I've been learning more about this early American leader for my BBF walking tour and I find him increasingly fascinating the more I learn about him. Isaacson writes a lively narrative with a good balance between historical accuracy and popular history as well as warts & all without sensationalism.

I won't go into a detailed summary of the book but here are a few elements that stand out for me:

  • Isaacson goes beyond simple biographical details and makes a good attempt at an intellectual history of Franklin, especially in the earlier parts of the book.

  • Franklin, for all his virtues, was not above getting dirty in politics. It's interesting to compare to the recent book I read about Aaron Burr and how differently their posthumous reputations have been adjudged when they were both very much men of their times. Then there's the idolatrous manner in which the Founding Fathers are revered in comparison to today's "corrupt politicians" which just isn't realistic.

  • Franklin had an interesting habit of forming a surrogate family around him when he was away from home for extended periods, acting in an avuncular role for bright young women and his own grandsons. Yet he was often distant from his own children and spent many, many years separated from his wife.

  • Another interesting contrast: Franklin has been called "the first American" and famously wore frontier-style clothing when visiting the French court, yet he seemed to jump at any opportunity to go to Europe and lived abroad in London and Paris for extended portions of his life.


All in all this is a great introduction to a fascinating and hard to understand man.
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LibraryThing member datrappert
Fascinating from beginning to end. If Franklin doesn't become one of your heroes after reading this book, well....I just don't know what to say. Imagine if people who actually had to make their way in the world and work for a living, like Franklin, were still able to run the country.
LibraryThing member dbeveridge
Such a fascinating life, such an okay treatment. Lacking a compelling narrative style or a rigorous academic approach, this is a well-researched bio, but ultimately Ben Franklin "for dummies." I'm glad for the opportunity to learn about Franklin, but Isaacson's newspaper background shows in his style. It reads more like an extended Sunday magazine piece than the great story that surely was Ben Franklin's life. In comparison to David McCullough, Joseph Ellis, or the great Robert Caro, this is historical biography "lite."I'm open to alternative Benjamins.… (more)
LibraryThing member gopfolk
I think we all grow up hearing, reading and being told about the founding fathers but rarely do any of us really read about them as individuals. Every time I do I’m amazed at what I read and how far ahead of their time they really were. Benjamin Franklin epitomizes this; printer, scientist, inventor, diplomat, politician and above it all human. This book gets into some of that nitty-gritty; the women, the ruthless businessman, more women, questionable husband and father.

The author does an amazing job walking us through Franklin’s life and showing us the brilliance of the man and the fallibility at the same time.

Wonderful read and would recommend it to everyone – just be prepared to devote some time to it.
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LibraryThing member TooBusyReading
While this biography isn't a quick, light read, it is as interesting and complex as the man himself must have been. Isaacson goes far beyond the cartoonish image that many of us have of an old guy flying a kite in a thunderstorm, and uncovers the real person, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Franklin had tremendous influence in the way the United States was formed, and the book covers the politics, Franklin's friends and enemies, and the negotiation and compromises that were necessary to accomplish so much of what he did. Just as interesting was Franklin's personal life. He was a charmer and had ladies fawning over him, sometimes for decades. But he was often cold to and unnecessarily judgmental of his own family, essentially abandoning some of them. As Poor Richard, he wrote so many well-known homilies but didn't always follow his own advice. His inventions were based on what he considered practical, not theoretical, and he wasy always interested in learning more.

Mr. Isaacson has included quotes from more obscure sources as well as documents that almost all Americans know. All in all, the book is well researched and informative, highly entertaining, and very readable.
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LibraryThing member SeriousGrace
"Benjamin Franklin is the founding father who winked at us" (p 2). What a great way to start a biography about a man whose life is such common knowledge you don't feel like you could read yet another one and get anything new out of it. It is Isaacson's writing style that sets him apart from all the other biographies. From the very beginning, Isaacson draws you into Franklin's world with such ease and humor. His style of writing is charming and winsome in a myriad of ways, but I liked that he used such words as "sassy" and "spunky" to describe people. A lot of Isaacson's information is drawn from Franklin's own words, either from his autobiography (even correcting Mr. Franklin from time to time) or from Franklin's personal letters. I particularly enjoyed Franklin's tongue in cheek research about the smell of farts correlating to the type of food one eats. But, Isaacson's playful account doesn't mean he refrains from personal critical opinion about our founding father's actions, especially concerning Franklin's treatment of his immediate family. He defends Franklin as much as he can concerning the relationships Franklin has with women other than his wife, claiming they were mostly nonsexual. However, Isaacson has sympathy for Franklin's family who spend nearly two decades without him. In addition to Franklin's personal life, Isaacson also is extremely thorough in detailing Franklin's civic contributions, political dealings and public life.… (more)
LibraryThing member cyderry
Ths biography of Benjamin Franklin really disappointed me. First of all I did not like the style of writing from W Issacson. It was very disjointed jumping from one thought process to another and back again. I felt that there were too many quotations in the early part of the book telling of his youth and his start in business. Toward the middle and end there were too many facts just put out like a grocery list. However, it was informative and I discovered that Mr. Franklin was indeed a remarkable Renaissance man with a sincere conscience that was geared to the benefit of all men.
Having been offered a patent for what is now known as the Franklin Stove by the Governor of PA , declining he stated "As we enjoy great advantages from the invention of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours and this we should do freely and generously."
Without his intercession at the Constitutional Congress, many believe that our government would not have been sucessful in developing as it did.
I can't say that I would recommend this book but I won't say that it was all bad.
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LibraryThing member RudyJohnson
I thought Walter Isaacson’s bio of Benjamin Franklin to be a fascinating read into this outstanding patriot. I always believed that Franklin was one of the cornerstones in the founding of our great nation. Mr. Isaacson does an excellent job of bringing out Franklin’s achievements both in the personal and political arena. It’s a great bio and if want to know about this patriot then I highly recommend this book.… (more)
LibraryThing member KirkLowery
Franklin is an American icon. Isaacson sees him as the quintessential American: self-made, independent, pragmatic, technical, anti-intellectual. Others view Franklin as a negative model, Isaacson is an apologist for him. Franklin was self-absorbed, narcissistic, destructive and dysfunctional in his personal relationships. It was always and only about Franklin. The author does a good job narrating how Franklin built his media empire, his wit and his love for the middle-class tradesman and his values. His fascination with science at the practical level would gain him the label "geek" if he were alive today. As a politician, he understood that the essence of politics is compromise: everyone gets something, no one gets everything they want. Isaacson's biography is an honest one, even if he gives Franklin a "pass" on moral matters. Definitely recommended as an excellent modern "read" of this prototypical American.… (more)
LibraryThing member dannywon
Truly enjoyed this one. you get a genuine sense of Franklin's eccentic nature, and spirit of adventure. Inventor, and diplomat, as well as postmaster. Enjouyed learning about his strained relationship with his bastard son, who becam governor of New Jeresey, and becasue of his son's loyalist stance, their relationshipo remained strained.… (more)
LibraryThing member Clueless
This is very slow going... not nearly as interesting as his Job's book. Chronology seems to be missing.

At about 40% in I found this quite tedious...Issacson jumps around illogically and repeats himself -- the last is quite confusing on a Kindle Touch because sometimes it will just leap forward chapters or pages...

I was surprised how much I didn't like Franklin as a person because of the way he neglected his immediate family.

Yes he was an amazingly accomplished man.

But.

I'm not sure that makes up for the way he acted personally.

But maybe he was just acting in tune with the times. I dunno.
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LibraryThing member Bookmarque
I can't really tell you why this biography took me a year to finish. Laziness on my part most likely rather than any fault of the author or his subject. After reading the exhaustive work on John Adams by David McCullough, I felt like I should read about Adams's contemporaries and when I noticed this book collecting dust at my mom's house, I took it home. I guess it was the known quantity aspect of the biography that made it slow going for me. In broad strokes I knew how things would turn out; that eventually we'd get France's reluctant backing in the separation from Britain, that we'd win the war and that Franklin's behind-the-scenes efforts to effect both outcomes were constant and often the only efforts.

Franklin the man was a sketch for me though, even if I did somewhat know him through the long tunnel of history. I knew of his scientific and inventing contributions, but didn't know how early on he made some of his discoveries - the popular motif of Franklin as an old man with a kite is way off base. I also had no idea of his origins, how he came to the Colonies or early civic activities and now I feel on better ground. Everything he did was motivated out of a desire for a practical benefit. This might not put him in the same league as theoretical or "pure" scientists, but it does make his contributions feel more lasting.

I also have a better understanding of his attitude toward setting up an independent state and his role in doing so. He was a master of diplomacy and compromise in the face of strong personalities with little patience for the process. His ability to work with others and get the best out of them proved invaluable to not only the Declaration of Independence and the diplomatic missions it spawned, but the Constitution itself - calling it as near perfect as it could be.

Isaacson presents his information in an ostensible chronological format, but often the facts he presents seem to be competing for attention. They come thick and fast and are sometimes difficult to digest before another one comes along. He does, however, try to present all sides of his subject, not just dwelling on the inventor or diplomat. I don't have enough experience with biographies or enough expertise on the academics that are thought of as proper, or research techniques thought of as rigorous, but I did not doubt that Isaacson gave us the facts as he saw them. I was glad for the information at the back about characters and sources.
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LibraryThing member Sandydog1
A great book! I deserve a dreaded blue flag (or something) for trying to review an audio abridgement, but I definitively enjoyed this account of an amazing genius with some typical human weaknesses. The political conflicts within his immediate family (son, grandson) were expected and well, shocking to read, nonetheless. Highly recommended.… (more)
LibraryThing member read.to.live
This book does a good job of highlighting Franklin's achievements, but often reads like an encyclopedia, especially in Franklin's early years. I would have appreciated more of an attempt to explore Franklin's motivations and inner life, even if some of it needed to be speculative.

Also, I don't quite trust that Isaacson has completely addressed the key points of Franklin's life and legacy, or put them in the appropriate context. For example, in the section on the Treaty of Paris, there is no mention of the secret codicil about Florida, which caused so much consternation in Congress (and is discussed in depth in Ketcham's biography of Madison). There is no mention of how Congress was split between those who trusted France and saw Franklin as their hero, and those who distrusted France and Franklin by extension. There is no exploration of whether the lack of public mourning for Franklin was due to his petition against slavery (as speculated by Chernow). It is surprising to me that biographies of these other founding fathers have information about Franklin that Isaacson does not even mention, much less explore.

Another example that made me worry about whether I could trust what I was reading was this line from Isaacson: "Jefferson was all too familiar with the darkness that infected Adams." This is a fairly strong statement, and seems quite out of line with the Jefferson-Adams relationship portrayed in McCullough. The only support from Isaacson for Jefferson's opinion was one sentence in a letter from Jefferson to Madison: "He hates Franklin, he hates Jay, he hates the French, he hates the English -- to whom will he adhere?"

So, I looked up the original letter. In the very next sentences, Jefferson went on to say, "His vanity is a lineament in his character which had entirely escaped me. His want of taste I had observed. Notwithstanding all this he has a sound head on substantial points and I think he has integrity. I am glad therefore that he is of the commission & expect he will be useful in it. His dislike of all parties, and all men, by balancing his prejudices, may give the same fair play to his reason as would a general benevolence of temper. At any rate honesty may be extracted even from poisonous weeds."

I just don't think Jefferson's first sentence, in context, supports a "darkness" "infecting" Adams. Moreover, the overall context of Jefferson's letter may be that since Madison already really doesn't like Adams, Jefferson is trying to argue against Madison's most negative opinions in the least confrontational way possible, by seeming to agree with Madison's negative viewpoint perhaps more than he actually does. So, why would Isaacson make such a strong statement based on such flimsy support? He can't actually share Madison's antipathy of 200 years ago. Was it just sloppy research? I looked up the footnote to Isaacson's paragraph, and found that Isaacson's Jefferson quote was taken not from the original Jefferson letter, but from a secondary source. Was this book just assembled from other popular histories, instead of from primary sources and academic histories?
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LibraryThing member MichaelHodges
Benjamin Franklin: An American Life
by Walter Isaacson published in June 2004

This book is just my cup of tea, but, I must admit a couple of times at least I tired of reading this biography, however every time I returned to read this book, I quickly re-engaged. In essence the language is fluid and throughout is easy to comprehend. The biographical time line is straight from birth to death covering the years from 1706 to 1790. The final chapter, a verdict on our current perception of his life is a great finale. Ben was a remarkable workaholic and was a great scientific experimentalist. Ben was a pragmatic tinkerer who invented the first lightning conductors that still today are used to protect our buildings from fire by lightening. Ben truly was one of the major US founding fathers and retired as a successful business entrepreneur at age 42, and then mostly spent his time as a Statesman, first for the State of Pennsylvania, and then later as the first US Ambassador to France. Ben spent a total of 16 years in London and 9 years in Paris. Ben sailed across the Atlantic a total of 8 times. This book was a great follow on to my recent study of the peculiarities of the US Constitution resulting from the conference of 1787. Ben was unique in that his signature is attached to the four major documents of his time, namely, the Declaration of Independence, the 1783 Treaty of Paris that concluded the Peace Conference with the British, the Treaty of Alliance with France and the US Constitution. The Isaacson book is a history buff’s dream as it includes a 2 page chronology of Ben’s life time, a short life summary of all the individuals referenced, an extensive listing of all the sources employed and an extensive index. The text of the biography itself extends over 493 pages. The reference pages add another 115 pages. This is a truly top notch academic work as well as a great read.
21 August 2013
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LibraryThing member ZoharLaor
Benjamin Franklin: An American Life is bar-none the best biography I have ever read.

Walter Isaacson takes us on a journey with Benjamin Franklin from the cradle to the grave, through decades and generations of scientifically and personal achievements, setbacks and misfortunes.

The book itself is easy to read, told through chronological glimpses at Benjamin Franklin's life rather than working towards an overall swiping grand achievement, a mistake, I believe, which is done by many biographers.
Think of you own life?
Do you want think that there is only one story of grand achievement to tell or many little stories which might give the reader a new perspective and an opportunity to know more about you than just a footnote in history.

We all know Benjamin Franklin from history classes and the teacher might have mentioned his other notable achievements, however Mr. Franklin had many notable achievements - far too many to mention in a 45 minute classroom. This biography is a terrific sweeping read and full of insights.

One of the best points about this book is that Benjamin Franklin, even though a loyal subject to the crown for most of his life, is a contemporary American - or certainly what we think of ourselves as and what we like to achieve: hard working, inventive, brave, curious, a PR maven and rich.

A recommended read and a wonderful gift.
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LibraryThing member carterchristian1
A good first book to start an extended study of Franklin.
LibraryThing member denmoir
A balanced portrayal of a complex and extraordinary man.
LibraryThing member PointedPundit
A Sweeping View of the Life of Benjamin Franklin

During his 84 year life, Benjamin was his country’s best scientist, inventor, diplomat, writer, business strategist, and perhaps, its most practical political thinker.

Walter Isaacson, formerly CNN Chairman and Time Magazine Editor, provides us with a 590 page portrait of the Founding Father who winks at us. This revolutionary leader prized pragmatics, religious tolerance and social mobility. Isaacson pictures a man with a vision for his new country that was based on middle class virtues and values. He pictures a man instinctively comfortable with the strength and wisdom of the country’s shopkeepers.

He pictures a man who based his morality on leading a “good” life, serving his country and on the belief that salvation would be achieved by good works.

Franklin was a complex person. And Isaacson succeeds in drawing lessons from his life that are more complex that those usual drawn by founding father’s foes and fans. I, for one, am grateful author had the time to thoughtfully explore them. These lessons are as vital today as they were during the revolutionary time in which Benjamin Franklin lived.
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LibraryThing member bherner
A great biography. I've never been much of a fan of biographies. Isaacson is a master of the form though.
LibraryThing member lesserbrain
Isaacson has created a very interesting form of biography, what I am calling the academic-beach style. He has written a complete life of Franklin, citing every source imaginable but done so in a very lively fashion. Anyone looking for a complete picture of the eldest founding father look no further.
LibraryThing member Z49YR
Warmly written, this is an incredibly engaging biography of Franklin not only as an American founder, but as a citzen of the world.
LibraryThing member EpicTale
Isaacson’s biography of Benjamin Franklin is a welcome antidote for the madness and vulgarity of what passes for contemporary American political discourse. Isaacson takes the reader back to the formative years of American society and the many key moments and personalities associated with our nation’s founding and independence. He paints Franklin as an amazing contributor to civic and political life as well as a polymath with an inveterate curiosity about science.

At the same time, however, Isaacson is careful not to paint an overly rosy picture. He makes the case, for example, that Franklin’s personal relationships with members of his nuclear family (especially his brother, wife, son, and daughter) were rather wanting, cold, and shallow. Franklin seemed more interested in and energized by intellectual banter with friends and famous names, his grandchildrens’ adoration, and flirting with lady friends. That said, how many of us possess unblemished characters which the scrutiny of a biographer’s close analysis of our lives and letters would fail to find personal shortcomings and inadequacies?

Franklin was a great man, all things considered, who contributed with arguably unmatched impact to shaping our nation at a pivotal time. Isaacson’s biography was fun, carefully researched, well written, interest-filled, and balanced.
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