Review

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

by Walter Isaacson

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Excerpt




Benjamin Franklin was one of those rare people whose influence on
American life was so wide-ranging that we keep meeting up with him
today at every turn, despite the fact that he has been dead for 213
years.

Walter Isaacson tells us in this detailed and insightful biography
that each time we patronize a lending library, smile at a political
cartoon, accept home delivery of our mail or contribute to a
matching-fund drive, we are building on something that Ben Franklin
started. And not surprisingly the barometer of Franklin's
posthumous reputation, which has gone up and down with changes in
American fortunes, is still in flux today. The commentators
Isaacson cites, both pro and con, range from Franklin's own
contemporaries to John Updike, Thomas Pynchon and Groucho
Marx.

Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute and author of a
biography of Henry Kissinger, sees Franklin as the perfect exemplar
of American middle-class virtues. He was, says Isaacson, a "natural
shopkeeper" and "quintessential networker" who valued hard work and
frugality while dreading alike "rabble rule" and titled elites. He
was a practical artisan-experimenter rather than a deepthink
theorist. He found religion useful mainly because it tended to make
men act virtuously rather than for any of its claims --- to him
highly doubtful --- of divine sanction. He was the American
proconsul for the French Enlightenment.

He was a sexual dabbler but not, at least provably, a libertine.
His relations with his own wife and children were oddly distant and
dispassionate. In politics he looked for what worked rather than
what suited high-flown theories of government. Isaacson sums up
this aspect of Franklin's life work in a pithy sentence:
"Compromisers may not make great heroes, but they do make
democracies."

His attitude as his country drifted toward revolution was also
pragmatic. At first he was a loyal British subject, insisting that
whatever differences arose across the Atlantic divide were between
two branches of one indissoluble family. Only quite late in the
game did he convert to the revolutionary cause --- and then, with
typical insight and energy, he worked to get the 13 colonies to
unite as one body instead of continuing to act as 13 individual and
mutually suspicious entities. Our nation's first political cartoon
was his famous drawing of a snake divided into 13 parts labeled
with the names of the colonies under the slogan "Join or
Die."

Franklin's own marriage, which lasted some 44 years, was a
common-law union without benefit of any ceremony. He spent 15 of
the last 17 years of his life an ocean apart from his wife, and he
did not attend the weddings of either of his two children. The sad
tale of his estrangement from his illegitimate son William, who
remained a British loyalist during the Revolution, is told here in
detail. Isaacson makes a further remark that goes a goodly way to
illuminate Franklin's personality and character: "He would lose
many male friends, but he never lost a female one."

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN is vividly written and packed with quotable
anecdotes. Isaacson has mined Franklin's writings for all sorts of
juicy tidbits and spread them out for us like dishes at a
delightful picnic buffet. My favorite lesser-known maxim from POOR
RICHARD'S ALMANAC: "There are more old drunkards than old doctors."
He also gives due credit to Franklin's gift as a homespun humorist,
quoting with relish some of the pamphlets that he produced under
pseudonyms to poke fun at ideas he thought were ridiculous.

This fine biography sets Franklin before us in a fully rounded
portrait, with due notice paid to his shortcomings and those
occasions on which he acted with more guile than wisdom. All of the
familiar Franklin set pieces are here: Poor Richard, the famous
kite-flying experiment, his diplomatic feats at home and abroad.
But Isaacson's canvas is much wider, and he fills it out with
gusto.

The next time you're lucky enough to look at a $1,000 bill, take
note of the Franklin portrait that graces it. If Walter Isaacson is
right, Ben may wink back at you.

Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on January 21, 2011

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life
by Walter Isaacson

  • Publication Date: November 30, -0001
  • Genres: Biography, History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 589 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 0684807610
  • ISBN-13: 9780684807614