Benjamin Franklin is the Founding Father who winks at us. An ambitious urban entrepreneur who rose up the social ladder, from leather-aproned shopkeeper to dining with kings, he seems made of flesh rather than of marble. In bestselling author Walter Isaacson's vivid and witty full-scale biography, we discover why Franklin seems to turn to us from history's stage with eyes that twinkle from behind his new-fangled spectacles. By bringing Franklin to life, Isaacson shows how he helped to define both his own time and ours. He was, during his 84-year life, America's best scientist, inventor, diplomat, writer, and business strategist, and he was also one of its most practical -- though not most profound -- political thinkers. He proved by flying a kite that lightning was electricity, and he invented a rod to tame it. He sought practical ways to make stoves less smoky and commonwealths less corrupt. He organized neighborhood constabularies and international alliances, local lending libraries and national legislatures. He combined two types of lenses to create bifocals and two concepts of representation to foster the nation's federal compromise. He was the only man who shaped all the founding documents of America: the Albany Plan of Union, the Declaration of Independence, the treaty of alliance with France, the peace treaty with England, and the Constitution. And he helped invent America's unique style of homespun humor, democratic values, and philosophical pragmatism. But the most interesting thing that Franklin invented, and continually reinvented, was himself. America's first great publicist, he was, in his life and in his writings, consciously trying to create a new American archetype. In the process, he carefully crafted his own persona, portrayed it in public, and polished it for posterity. Through it all, he trusted the hearts and minds of his fellow "leather-aprons" more than he did those of any inbred elite. He saw middle-class values as a source of social strength, not as something to be derided. His guiding principle was a "dislike of everything that tended to debase the spirit of the common people." Few of his fellow founders felt this comfort with democracy so fully, and none so intuitively. In this colorful 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. He chronicles Franklin's tumultuous relationship with his illegitimate son and grandson, his practical marriage, and his flirtations with the ladies of Paris. He also shows how Franklin helped to create the American character and why he has a particular resonance in the twenty-first century.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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.
Into so many things — shells/stoves to French
Benjamin Franklin is the Founding Father who winks at us. An ambitious urban entrepreneur who rose up the social ladder, from leather-aproned shopkeeper to dining with kings, he seems made of flesh rather than of marble. In bestselling author Walter Isaacson's vivid and witty full-scale biography, we discover why Franklin seems to turn to us from history's stage with eyes that twinkle from behind his new-fangled spectacles. By bringing Franklin to life, Isaacson shows how he helped to define both his own time and ours.