Sunday, March 15, 2009

Review: Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson. New York: Simon & Schuster. 2003. 608 pages.

As the Founding Father who spent most of the American Revolution in France, Benjamin Franklin often seems more caricature than patriot in today's American imagination. In children's cartoons, he's portrayed as an eccentric old man flying a kite in a thunderstorm. Adults think of him as a lusty old man charming the ladies of Paris. In Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, Walter Isaacson attempts to flesh out a man who defies description—a printer turned writer turned postmaster turned inventor turned Enlightenment scientist turned patriot turned diplomat. Franklin, a man of the "middling class," did as much to establish the American dream as to define American democracy.

If Thomas Jefferson bequeathed us with lofty philosophical prose, Franklin left us with his streamlined homilies and plans for personal improvement. Dale Carnegie and Stephen Covey would have felt at home with the practical and prudent Franklin, who, naturally did not always live up to his own standards. At times Franklin's business practices seemed questionable, his friendship with men many but shallow, and his marriage breezily detached. Strangest of all was his relationship with his son, William, who was firmly ensconced on the British side of the conflict. Each time William reached out to his father, the normally conciliatory Franklin rebuffed him, his loyalty to colonies and cause stronger than bonds of blood. Conscious of his place in history and eager to shape the future's opinion of him, Franklin intentionally distanced himself from William—yet positioned his autobiography as a letter to his son.

For the most part, the discoveries and inventions that established Franklin among his Enlightenment peers came in the prime of middle age, after his retirement from business. His accomplishments raised him in society, especially in France, above his middle-class roots. Compared to his fellow Founders, Franklin was well traveled and well connected. With his extroverted personality, pragmatic approach, and cachet as a scientist, Franklin was the natural choice to represent the rebellious colonies and to woo allies to their cause.

Franklin spent most of the war in France and did not have much face-to-face interaction with his fellow rebel leaders except those sent to Paris to assist him or to keep an eye on him. Isaacson cites numerous passages from his correspondence, describes his rocky relationship with the somewhat dubious John Paul Jones, and recounts highlights from his friendships with luminaries such as David Hume, Joseph Banks, Beaumarchais, Voltaire, and the duc de la Rouchefoucauld, yet Franklin and Franklin, both man and biography, seem distant from the action. As Isaacson notes, however, he was "instrumental in shaping the three great documents of the war: the Declaration of Independence, the alliance with France, and the treaty with England." Indeed, one of Franklin's small edits to the Declaration altered its tone; Jefferson's "We hold these truths to be sacred" became Franklin's "We hold these truths to be self-evident."

Benjamin Franklin illuminates much of what is fascinating about the birth of American-style democracy; a unique combination of personalities, backgrounds, beliefs, and temperaments came together to define and strive for freedom, with no consensus on what that meant. Washington brought natural leadership; Jefferson, an understanding of and appreciation for Enlightenment philosophy; Sam and John Adams, passion and fire; and Franklin the practical sensibilities of the middle class blended with worldly knowledge. They did not always get along (John Adams: "That I have no friendship for Franklin I avow. That I am incapable of having any with a man of his moral sentiments I avow.") Contrary to current popular belief, they did not agree on democracy. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts declared, "The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy," while Roger Sherman of Connecticut said the people "should have as little to do as may be possible about government." Franklin, according to Isaacson, "favored direct elections, trusted the average citizen, and resisted anything resembling elitism." His constitution for Pennsylvania "was the most democratic of the new states'." Years after Franklin's death, John Adams "even cast Franklin's lack of religious commitment, which he had once derided as verging on atheism, in a more favorable light: 'All sects considered him, and I believe justly, a friend to unlimited toleration.'"

Franklin, the middle-class espouser of middle-class virtues like prudence, frugality, and temperance, used his gifts to rise above his station, but didn't lose sight of it. When today's pundits talk about the intentions of the Founding Fathers (as though they were agreed on anything) and try to force an uncomfortable marriage between capitalist greed and religion, they might consider the real Benjamin Franklin, not the caricature: A self-made man who moved with ease among the ranks of the noble and the wealthy but never joined them and who believed in every man's right to practice his own religion in his own way.

Sunday, 15 March 2009.
Copyright © 2009 by Diane L. Schirf.

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