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Written by one of our greatest historians, Benjamin Franklin offers a provocative portrait of America's most extraordinary patriot.
Author Biography: Edmund S. Morgan is Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University. He has written more than a dozen books including Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America, which won the Bancroft Prize, and American Slavery, American Freedom, which won the Francis Parkman Prize and the Albert J. Beveridge Award. Cited as "one of America's most distinguished historians," Morgan was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2000.
Nominated for the 2002 National Book Critics Circle Award, Biography/Autobiography.
The first thing to do is to overcome the image of a man perpetually at his desk, scribbling out the mountain of words that confronts us. Because Franklin wrote so well and so much it is natural to think of him with pen in hand. But the man we will find in his writings likes to be in the open air, walking the city streets, walking the countryside, walking the deck of a ship. Indoors, he likes to be with people, sipping tea with young women, raising a glass with other men, playing chess, telling jokes, singing songs.
Don't start with his first surviving writings, the labored compositions of a precocious teenager, which he slyly introduced into his brother's newspaper under the facetious name of Silence Dogood. Instead, meet an athletic young man on a sailing ship, headed back to America from his first trip to England. He had gone there in 1724 with glowing promises of support from the then governor of Pennsylvania, who turned out to be something of a con man. When the governor's promises failed him, Franklin had used his skills as a printer to make his living in London for a year and a half, enjoying the sights and sampling the temptations of the big city. Now, with this behind him and still only twenty years old, he has boarded ship for the voyage back to Philadelphia, ready for whatever comes his way.
The ship has stopped at the Isle of Wight, trapped there bycontrary winds for several days. So young Franklin and some other passengers go ashore for a walk. Most of them stop for refreshment at a convenient tavern, but Franklin and two others keep going and make a hike of it. Overtaken by night they find they have to cross a tidal inlet to get back, and the owner of the only available boat refuses to stir from his bed to ferry them across. They decide to commandeer his boat, but it is moored to a stake that the incoming tide has surrounded, leaving the boat fifty yards from shore. Franklin strips to his shirt and wades out in the water and mud up to his waist but finds the boat chained and locked to a staple in the stake. He tries to wrench out the staple. No go. He tries to pull up the stake. No go. Back to shore, and the three start looking for a farmer's haystack to sleep in. But one of them has found a horseshoe. Maybe they can use it to pry the staple loose. Franklin is back in the water again, and this time he succeeds. He brings the boat ashore and they all climb aboard, but halfway across in the dark they stick in mud shallows. After breaking an oar and climbing out into the mud up to their necks, they finally drag the boat loose and use the remaining oar to paddle it to the opposite shore and tie it down. Muddy and wet, and perhaps a little shamefaced, they make their way back to their friends.
It was probably no accident that Franklin was elected to go into the water for the boat. This is a muscular young man, about five feet nine or ten, full of the energies—physical, intellectual, and sexual—of youth. In the London print shop he keeps in shape by carrying a double weight of type forms up and down stairs. In his leisure hours he enjoys a form of exercise that few people of his time dared to try: he swims, and he is good at it. He makes the Thames his playground and shows off to friends on a Boating excursion by jumping in and swimming from near Chelsea to Blackfriars, a distance of at least two miles, "performing on the Way many Feats of Activity, both upon and under water." Like many athletes, he put on weight when his life became more sedentary, and the multitude of Franklin portraits were all painted after he turned plump and middle-aged. By then his physical energy had flagged, his sexual energy remained alive but a little frustrated or at least constrained, while his intellect, never slowing down, had made him the figure that the whole world wanted to immortalize in paint and marble. But think of him first in his twenties and thirties, on his feet and ready to go. On this voyage home, when they finally got a favorable wind and put to sea, Franklin amused himself by diving off and swimming around the ship. He never gave up his enjoyment of swimming and was still teaching timid friends how to do it when he was in his seventies. He even experimented with attaching paddles to his hands and feet, like modern skin divers, to step up his speed.
People at the time were under the illusion, as many still are, that getting cold and wet (swimming, walking in the rain, wearing damp clothes) was the way to "catch cold." There was not yet a germ theory of disease, but Franklin proved, to his own satisfaction at least, that people caught cold from one another and from "too full Living with too little Exercise," not from being chilled. He found that he could spend two or three hours in the water with no ill effects. So get out of the house and enjoy the fresh air, let it rain. Even when he had to be indoors Franklin wanted fresh air and dismayed everyone by opening his window at night. On a political mission with future president John Adams, when they had to share a room for the night, the two quarreled (as they did about a great many things) over opening the window. Adams ungraciously fell asleep while Franklin continued to lecture him about the virtues of fresh air.
An Insatiable Curiosity
If we watch Franklin in the fresh air for a while, we quickly become aware of his most conspicuous virtue, the thing that would earn him world-wide fame in his own lifetime: his insatiable curiosity. There was more to see outdoors than in, and Franklin could not see anything without asking himself what it was, how it got that way, what made it tick. He had that rare capacity for surprise that has made possible so many advances in human knowledge, the habit of not taking things for granted, the ability to look at some everyday occurrence and wonder why. See him still on that voyage from London back to America. He watches everything that happens, including the sharks that keep him from swimming for a while, and he hooks up some seaweed and notices little heart-shaped yellowish lumps. He counts forty of them on a single strand of the weed. Examining them he finds that some have an opening "thrusting out a set of unformed claws, not unlike those of a crab, but the inner part was still a kind of soft jelly." Then he notices a tiny crab walking around and conjectures that all the lumps are embryo crabs. By keeping the seaweed in salt water and finding another smaller crab in it the next day, he convinces himself "that at least this sort of crabs are generated in this manner."
He did not pursue his study of pelagic crabs, and since he was more often on land than at sea he found more things to wonder about there, but his travels kept him fascinated with water and its behavior, not only in the ocean but in rivers and lakes, even in jars and bottles. As we get to know him we find that his curiosity, once aroused, keeps him ever on the lookout. On another sea voyage he made himself an oil lamp to read by from a glass in which he floated the oil and a wick on water, hanging the glass from the ceiling of his cabin. Quickly he became more interested in the water and oil than in his book. As the ship rocked he noticed that the water was "in great commotion" compared to the oil. And after the oil burned away during the night to a thin film the water too stopped moving. Franklin as usual wondered why, and when he came ashore kept trying out the effects of differing amounts of oil on water. He could not explain what he found, and neither could learned friends he showed it to, who promised him that they would "consider it." They doubtless went home and quickly forgot what they had seen. But Franklin in a letter to a more sympathetic friend set down in a few words the attitude that made him what we would call a scientist. "I think it is worth considering," he said, "For a new appearance, if it cannot be explain'd by our old principles, may afford us new ones, of use perhaps in explaining some other obscure parts of natural knowledge."
Franklin never stopped considering things he could not explain. He could not drink a cup of tea without wondering why tea leaves gathered in one configuration rather than another at the bottom. He was always devising experiments to help him understand what he saw around him, but he made the whole world his laboratory. From pouring oil on water in a glass, he turned to pouring it on the surface of ponds and lakes and watched a tiny amount of it flatten out the ripples. He carried a bamboo cane with a vial of oil in its hollows to make experiments at every stream or lake he passed in his walks. He compared the way a drop of oil on a piece of glass stayed put, while on water it instantly spread out in an iridescent film too thin to measure. Why? At age sixty-seven we find him organizing an expedition on a windy day near Portsmouth, on the English Channel, to see whether oil would flattten the surf a quarter of a mile offshore. Pitching up and down in a small boat he could see that the oil poured from a bottle flattened the white caps but had little effect on the size of the waves. No matter. He was careful to record the details "even of an Experiment that does not succeed, since they may give Hints of Amendment in future Trials." And the experiment prompted him to new conjectures about the nature of the repulsion between oil and water and how it operated.
For Franklin the world was so full of strange things that it is hard to keep up with his efforts to understand them. The ocean continued to furnish surprises for him throughout his life. When he learned that the ocean voyage between England and America generally took two weeks longer going east than it did going west, he conjectured that the rotation of the earth was slowing down the eastward movement. But then he discovered the Gulf Stream. A Nantucket whaler roughed out the location of it for him on a map, which he then had engraved for the benefit of ship captains, because he calculated that the western flow of the current slowed down ships traveling eastward in it by as much as seventy miles a day and speeded up those headed west. He also found that he could help chart the course of the stream himself by keeping track of the ocean's temperature on his transatlantic voyages. The water in the Gulf Stream was warmer than the surrounding sea. Thereafter when he crossed the ocean he could be found on deck taking daily temperature readings to plot the course of the stream himself as the vessel crossed and recrossed it.
When he was seventy-eight years old, Franklin set down in a remarkable letter to a friend some of the ideas about ships and the sea that had come to him in the seven times he had crossed the Atlantic. The letter is full of suggestions that were never carried out and a few that were: new ways to rig a ship to reduce wind resistance, new designs for the hull to make it steadier and roomier, and new ways to propel it through the water or to stop or slow it down. Franklin's designs all assumed that the only power available besides wind would be human power, but even so he could propose not only new ways to use oars but also propellers operated by hand both in the air and the water as well as jet propulsion activated by hand pumps.
The fact that Franklin thought about doing things better with nothing but hand power tells us something both about him and about his time. He liked doing things himself. He was continually designing experiments and constructing apparatus to carry them out, but mostly they were things he could do by himself or that he could get some craftsman to do according to his directions. He must have been very good with his hands, and the world he knew was a world in which nearly everything was done by hand. That world was changing, even in his own lifetime, but in order to recapture his sense of wonder at the things he found in it, we have to keep in mind what he did not wonder about, what was not even there to wonder about, and the things even he took for granted.
We get a hint of the difference between his world and ours when he remarks in passing to a friend that "No Species or Genus of Plants was ever lost, or ever will be while the World continues." Franklin assumed, with most other people of the time, that God had created the world and all the creatures in it, and God would not be likely to create something and then change His mind and let it perish. Nor was He thought to have kept on creating new things. Charles Darwin had not yet turned the plants and animals Franklin knew into an unstable collection of organisms all in the process of becoming something else over immense expanses of time. The crabs Franklin found in the seaweed had a peculiar method of propagating themselves, but it was the way God had ordained for them on the day of Creation. The things that Franklin touched or felt, the water he swam in, the air he breathed, were made up of what he called particles. He assumed that they were too small to be seen by the naked eye, but he could have had no hint of the alarming forces hidden inside them. Water was water, oil was oil. Our world has grown more mysterious than his in a thousand ways, and the more mysterious the more we examine it. While the things we see and feel do look and feel to our senses much as they did to Franklin, we know in a way he could not that they are not what they seem and that with the proper instruments we would find them to be well beyond our everyday comprehension. Scientists have probed deeper and deeper into the dynamic structure of matter and its infinite explosion in what we still call the universe. As a result we cannot look meaningfully at anything in quite the way Franklin did.
But it is also easy to exaggerate the differences. Franklin had the same curiosity about the world that drives today's scientists. He was one of the succession of probers who have transformed our vision of what we see. And watching his probing brings us back to a time when the world could reveal profound secrets to an ordinary man armed only with the imagination to ask why familiar things happened the way they did. But of course ordinary men cease to be ordinary when they not only ask such questions but exert themselves to find the answers. And that is what Franklin continally did.
On the evening of October 21, 1743, in Philadelphia, Franklin was preparing to watch the eclipse of the moon (checking out his own almanac) scheduled for nine o'clock, but by eight a northeast storm had covered the skies, and he had to give up. The storm was a bad one and lasted for two more days, the way nor'easters often do. In the coming week in the newspapers from other colonies, which he regularly exchanged with other publishers, he read of the damage inflicted by the storm up and down the coast from Virginia to New England. Then came a letter from his brother in Boston who had observed the lunar eclipse there. How could his brother have seen the eclipse before the storm hit, when Boston was well to the northeast of Philadelphia? Since it blew from the northeast, it should have come from there. Had the storm already passed in Boston? Anyone with less curiosity than Franklin might well have wondered a little about that and then forgotten it. But Franklin began stopping travelers passing through Philadelphia to ask when the storm first struck in different places. It soon became clear that the storm that blew from the northeast had come from the opposite direction. Subsequent simple observations showed him that all "N East Storms begin to Leeward and are often more violent there than farther to Windward." And he characteristically went on to try to account for the fact by speculations about warm air rising in the southwest and drawing in colder air from the northeast to produce storms and make them more violent the closer they were to the point where they originated. He did not have the apparatus of modern meteorology to check his conclusions or he would doubtless have done so and found them to be a little off the mark, but not far.
The movement of air interested him as much as that of water. (Waterspouts combined the two, and he was fascinated by them.) Everybody knew that hot air (heated by fire) rises and escapes through a chimney, some of it as smoke. But Franklin became an authority on stoves and chimneys because he stopped to ask where the air came from that went up the chimney with the smoke, it had to come from somewhere, from open doors or windows or from cracks in the walls. Once you recognized that fact, you could heat your house most efficiently by providing a direct access from the fireplace to the outside air and also by recirculating warm air within the house. He tried various ways of achieving that effect, not all of which worked, but neither do all of those that are still being tried.
Excerpted from Benjamin Franklin by EDMUND S. MORGAN. Copyright © 2002 by Edmund S. Morgan. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|1||An Exciting World||1|
|2||"A Dangerous Man"||47|
|3||An Empire of Englishmen||71|
|5||The Importance of Opinion||145|
|8||Representing a Nation of States||242|
|9||A Difficult Peace||272|
|Some of the People in Franklin's Life||317|
Posted May 16, 2013
Before I read this book, I had no idea what Franklin had done. This author explains everything that Benjamin has done and all of his accomplishments. The more of this book you read, the more you will understand. Morgan made all of his statements very clear for his readers.
The thing I did not like about this book is that the author(Morgan) does not tell you where Ben was born, his parents names, or if he had any siblings. To me, those are huge details that needed to be included. If you want to know about Franklin's personal life, then this is not the right book for you. This author does not take the time to tell you many if any of Benjamin's personal life facts. This author tried to stick with the main things Ben done in his life. How he was a typist and a lot of other accomplishments as well. If that is what you are looking for then this is a great book for you.
Posted December 10, 2006
Franklin at first a stranger to me, and now he is man that I now know as a scientist and a statesman. Edmund Morgan I believe wrote this book to tell us more about Franklin¿s political side. The author does this very well. He explains his duties and what he did when he was either in our country or in one of Europe¿s countries. As an author he got his points across clearly. Everything Edmund Morgan says you will get. The trick is though you may not get it right away, but you well get it as read on and learn more about Franklin. The need for a book like this was needed, but I am not sure that he needed to get into such detail. The book to me was okay. It is a book that does not explain his personal life a lot, but more of his public life. The most you will get if you are looking for his personal life is that he had many friends in the world. And even though he had so many friends he always would write them, no matter what. The author tells the story of Benjamin Franklin¿s political life very well and personal not so good. When I say he doesn¿t explain his personal life could I mean that very much. He doesn¿t tell you where he was born, parents name, or if he had any brothers or sisters. He doesn¿t also talk about his wives or kids that much. I think the only timed he mentioned anything about his kids is when his son took over a print shop. The author uses very little pictures to describe anything. The only pictures are of course paintings. In some cases he even uses unfinished paintings. The suck part though is that only two out of the maybe 15 are pictures of Benjamin Franklin. The rest are Benjamin Franklin¿s mistresses or friends. To this book I had very few personal connections. If I did have a connection is was emotionally. I never had done any of the people in the book did. Now to get to the part were I talk good about the book. One thing that I did really like about the book is how the author would keep you guessing what he was going to explain about Benjamin Franklin next. Another good thing he did was divide the book up. I liked how he would have chapters pertaining to just a couple years. Another thing though that I did not like is how he would not explain current events. When I was in the part of the book near the American Revolution nothing was said about it. Edmund Morgan would kind of give you hints about current events but he never just said it. This sometimes really irritated me. Another thing that irritated me was that he did talk about the Declaration of Independence. He also did not talk about how Franklin died. He just never used dates and he just used how old Franklin was which ways annoying at times. So in the end I did enjoy the book. There were just some parts that annoyed me. My favorite part of the book is when Franklin was in another country. Another one of my favorite parts of the book is when it is beginning to wrap up. Because that is when it is talking about his retired life in Pennsylvania. My least favorite part of the book is when they are in the time period of the American Revolution. I didn¿t like it because during that time it was like no one could trust another person. It also just felt like everyone was stabbing each other in the back. Another reason why I don¿t like is because Franklin had some friends that turned on him. What I mean is that they said they believed in the American cause but then they didn¿t. Besides those people also tried to get Ben Franklin in trouble. They tried to get him in trouble with the British officials that were in America. If I could change anything in the book it would to be to have the author talk more about Franklin¿s personal life. At times the author will bore you, but he will never anger you, but he will most definitely confuse you. I would recommend this book to people who would want to know about his political life. I think you would have to be in high school or above to understand this book, it¿s not that he uses too many big words or anything.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 16, 2004
Benjamin Franklin is my favorite historical personality, and yet I found Mr. Morgan's book a bit dry and academic for my taste. I respect Mr. Morgan's analysis, but as a biography, the book lacks too many details about Franklin's personal life to be very engaging. If you are going to read one biography on Franklin, I would make it Walter Isaacson's. You will walk away with a better understanding of who benjamin Franklin was.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 11, 2002
I have to confess that I was almost totally ignorant about Benjamin Franklin before picking up this lovely book by Edmund Morgan. My knowledge of Franklin stopped with the basics--trained as a printer in colonial Boston, made his way to Philadelphia while still very young, published Poor Richard's Almanac, proved that lighting was electrical, represented the American colonies in England and newly independent America in France. In slightly more than 300 elegantly written pages, Yale historian Morgan transforms this skeleton into a complex, living breathing man. Although Morgan based this brief history on a wealth of primary documents, he tells Franklin's story effortlessly. I felt as though I had taken a long walk with a very interesting companion, and come away with a whole new understanding of a brilliant and ultimately enigmatic figure. Morgan devotes most of the book to uncovering Franklin's central role in the long series of calculations and miscalculations that pushed thirteen loyal and tractable British colonies into revolution and forged them into the United States. Franklin, we learn, was there at every step, usually behind the scenes, but always extremely influential, a potent catalyst to one of history's great moments. It's as fascinating to follow the evolution of Franklin's own thoughts and feelings about the British Empire (which he loved) and the future of America as it is to follow the fateful steps in Britain and the colonies that led to the American revolution. Just one caveat--Franklin's scientific accomplishments are mentioned now and again, but largely as a side issue. In this, Morgan seems to be following Franklin's own lead; we learn that he viewed the scientific accomplishments that won him universal acclaim as less important than his far-sighted, patient, often personally painful political work. It's hard to imagine a more readable, edifying or enjoyable introduction to Benjamin Franklin. I recommend it highly. Robert Adler Author of Science Firsts: From the Creation of Science to the Science of Creation (Wiley, 2002).Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 26, 2002
This effort does convey valuable information in a short book. However, this biography is poorly written and does not engage the reader. With such a rich life and historical context to draw from, I expected much better. My general impression was that this book seemed like a quick attempt to get a book on Franklin out on the shelves: significant typographical errors and childish composition throughout was just disappointing. I hope Edmund Morris will turn his attention to Franklin after he finishes with Teddy Roosevelt, for Morgan is a poor substitute.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 30, 2010
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Posted December 6, 2009
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