Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

4.2 119
by Walter Isaacson

View All Available Formats & Editions

In this authoritative and engrossing full-scale biography, Walter Isaacson, bestselling author of Einstein and Steve Jobs, shows how the most fascinating of America's founders helped define our national character.

Benjamin Franklin is the founding father who winks at us, the one who seems made of flesh rather than marble. In a sweeping narrative


In this authoritative and engrossing full-scale biography, Walter Isaacson, bestselling author of Einstein and Steve Jobs, shows how the most fascinating of America's founders helped define our national character.

Benjamin Franklin is the founding father who winks at us, the one who seems made of flesh rather than marble. In a sweeping narrative that follows Franklin’s life from Boston to Philadelphia to London and Paris and back, Walter Isaacson chronicles the adventures of the runaway apprentice who became, over the course of his eighty-four-year life, America’s best writer, inventor, media baron, scientist, diplomat, and business strategist, as well as one of its most practical and ingenious political leaders. He explores the wit behind Poor Richard’s Almanac and the wisdom behind the Declaration of Independence, the new nation’s alliance with France, the treaty that ended the Revolution, and the compromises that created a near-perfect Constitution.

In this colorful and intimate narrative, Isaacson provides the full sweep of Franklin’s amazing life, showing how he helped to forge the American national identity and why he has a particular resonance in the twenty-first century.

Editorial Reviews
The Barnes & Noble Review
In this engaging biography, journalist Walter Isaacson captures the gregarious essence of Benjamin Franklin, the Founding Father who has earned a special place in the pantheon of American patriots by dint of sheer approachability.

Brilliant but not intellectual, principled but not priggish, Franklin was an original thinker whose genius lay less in profound thoughts than in practical ideas and homely wisdom. As he rose in station from impoverished young printer's apprentice to venerable statesman and man of means, he hobnobbed with aristocrats, royals, and some of the greatest thinkers of the Enlightenment; but he never lost touch with the common man whose standard he carried proudly throughout his long, eventful life.

Franklin's glittering accomplishments -- the famous experiments and inventions, the stirring articles and treatises, and the shrewd diplomatic coups -- were fueled by pragmatism, entrepreneurial energy, and self-promotion, all solid middle-class values. Isaacson shows us how the enterprising young tradesman exaggerated (particularly in his writings) bourgeois virtues like industriousness, frugality, and honesty to create a new American archetype -- the self-made man -- and how this persona, which was both a reflection and a caricature of Franklin's natural self, worked both for and against him in his personal relationships.

What emerges from this lively study is the fascinating portrait of a flawed and complicated man: a canny charmer, a brilliant inventor, a gifted diplomat, and a public-spirited citizen, but most of all a passionate populist with an unwavering faith in the wisdom of his fellow citizens, whose vision of America shaped his own age and continues to influence our own. Anne Markowski

The New York Review of Books
...Isaacson treats Franklin almost as if he were one of our contemporaries, an interesting American of great talent and sensible values whom we ough to get to know.
....During the past few years we have had several Franklin biographies, of which Walter Isaacson's is the most recent and the finest. — Gordon S. Wood
The Washington Post
Isaacson has crafted a wonderfully written biography, and his treatment of Franklin's youth and rise to prominence is insightful and imaginative. It sparkles as well in chronicling some areas of Franklin's life following his retirement, especially the evolution of his views on religion and slavery, and his troubled and insensitive relationships with members of his family. Indeed, readers likely will be thankful not to have been Franklin's warm friend (he broke off most such relationships), his competitor (he steamrolled most rivals) or a member of his family (he treated many with shabby indifference, if not cruelty). — John Ferling
If Ben Franklin were alive today, would he be enamored of flashy tech stocks? No, he'd have been attracted to value.

Frugality, humility, generosity. Benjamin Franklin was an extraordinary soul who was the paragon of these character traits. In reading Walter Isaacson's new biography, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (Simon & Schuster), I was struck by how this portrait of a man born in 1706 epitomizes the most basic tenets of successful investing today. The qualities of great companies often mirror the same qualities of great individuals like Franklin.

A man with diverse interests, numerous careers and a litany of titles--statesman, writer, inventor, scientist, poli-tician, musician, diplomat--Franklin was a true Renaissance man. Despite impressive credentials, he was so proud of his modest first job that he always introduced himself as "Benjamin Franklin, printer." Fond of pitching ideas under a pseu-donym, Franklin was always careful to credit his accomplishments to others, overlooking his ego in the name of team-work.

Although the complex and vibrant U.S. industrial economy arrived years after his death, Franklin's sense of business conduct underpins our modern system today. He knew that the pursuit of profit should not slight ethics. A capitalist system permeated by liars and cheats will fail. Isaacson writes of how Franklin believed "spiritual salvation and secular success need not be at odds, that industriousness is next to godliness."

This is the man who also said: "A penny saved is a penny earned." If the frugal Franklin were alive today, he would be a value investor. And I'll wager that old Ben would like these excellent companies, which are repositories of what hestood for.

Bob Evans Farms (31) is a veritable slice of Americana in your frying pan. Founded in 1953, Bob Evans has heeded Franklin's maxim: Make haste slowly. With revenue growth at a steady 4% five-year average, the company sells sausage and other food products to retail grocery chains and also operates 537 family-style restaurants. Although many of us are familiar with the company's catchy jingle, "down on the farm," Wall Street has been down on something else--the stock's valuation. Consistent and predictable not only with its classic menu but also with earnings, Bob Evans is the polar opposite of flashy and trendy.

At the tech bubble's high point in March 2000, Bob Evans hit a five-year low of $12. Confident in the com-pany's long-term prospects, though, management took this opportunity to eat its own cooking, so to speak, buying back stock at a discount and continuing to do so regularly. Since then the company has repurchased 15% of its shares out-standing. Now it sells for 15 times trailing and 14 times forward 12-month earnings and at an 11% discount to my $35 estimation of intrinsic worth.

The civic-minded Franklin knew how to foster communities, the bedrock of a nation. He bolstered Philadel-phia, where he spent most of his adult life, by creating a lending library, a volunteer fire department and a college. The same goes for Rouse Co. (45), which is helping rebuild America from the ground up. In the 1960s the company in-vented a modern planned community, Columbia, Md., an esthetically and environmentally friendly place that caters to a diverse population. More recently it purchased fast-growing Summerlin, Nev. With such projects as Baltimore's Har-borplace, Boston's Faneuil Hall and New York's South Street Seaport, Rouse has revitalized urban centers.

A real estate investment trust that mainly specializes in upscale shopping centers, Rouse operates 150 proper-ties, including retail, research and development, office and industrial space in 22 states. For the past decade Rouse has executed a disciplined plan to upgrade the quality of its malls, continually acquiring and building prime retail centers as it relentlessly prunes the weaker ones from the portfolio. Despite this company's proven record, its stock is undervalued. Shares sell for 11 times trailing and forward funds from operations (roughly, net income plus depreciation) and at a 4% discount to their intrinsic worth, which I estimate at $47.

Franklin also published a newspaper and venerated the role of a free press in a democratic society. A key piece of this tradition today is cost-conscious Tribune Co. (49). With 13 dailies, including the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, the company is one of the nation's top newspaper publishers, as well as a broadcaster and Web site op-erator (50 of them). The stock sells for 24 times trailing earnings--in line with the industry average--and 20 times for-ward, and at a 33% discount to its $73 intrinsic worth.

Franklin wrote that "industry and frugality," two virtues that are too little seen these days, were "the means of procuring wealth." These three stocks exemplify these virtues.

John W. Rogers Jr. is chairman and chief executive officer of Chicago-based Ariel Capital Management, Inc., the adviser to the Ariel Mutual Funds. Visit his home page at
—John W. Rogers Jr.

The New York Times
It is a thoroughly researched, crisply written, convincingly argued chronicle that is also studded with little nuggets of fresh information... Instead of Franklin's Boswell, Isaacson comes across as his Edward R. Murrow, diligently and often deftly interrogating the man while sifting through the veritable mountain of scholarship that has accumulated around him over the past two centuries. --Joseph J. Ellis
Publishers Weekly
Most people's mental image of Ben Franklin is that of an aged man with wire-rim glasses and a comb-over, flying a kite in a thunder storm, or of the spirited face that stares back from a one-hundred-dollar bill. Isaacson's (Kissinger) biography does much to remind us of Franklin's amazing depth and breadth. At once a scientist, craftsman, writer, publisher, comic, sage, ladies' man, statesman, diplomat and inventor, Franklin not only wore many hats, but in many cases, did not have an equal. The most intriguing thing he invented, and continued to reinvent, according to Isaacson, was himself. Three-time Tony winner Gaines has an obvious interest and affinity for the material. His delivery of Isaacson's factual yet fascinating biography is informative and friendly with an instructional yet casual tone, like that of a gregarious narrator of an educational film. All things considered, Gaines is a good match for the material. He has the authority to deliver historical facts and the enthusiasm to keep listeners interested. Simultaneous release with the Simon & Schuster hardcover (Forecasts, May 12). (July) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Foreign Affairs
Benjamin Franklin was the most genial and engaging of the founders, and Isaacson has produced a biography to match. Franklin's life is a well-ploughed topic, but by concentrating on his relationships with family and friends, Isaacson sheds new light on America's first true world citizen. Not all of this light is flattering. Franklin was a cold and even brutal father; he missed the weddings of both his daughter and his son and was absent at the death of his wife. He seems to have valued sociability above intimacy; the qualities that made him so amiable to the world at large made him less than reliable in family relations. On the other hand, his genuine and generally chaste (Isaacson stoutly maintains) friendships with bright young women were marked by real interest in their opinions and respect for their intellectual qualities. Isaacson handles the twists and turns of Franklin's political views with sensitivity and understanding and makes an eloquent case for considering Franklin a major figure in the history of science. His discussion of Franklin's early prose works is charming and direct, as is his evident respect for historians such as Edmund Morgan and Bernard Bailyn whose earlier works on Franklin have set the bar for new biographies very high.
Library Journal
A former Time magazine managing editor and former CNN chair/CEO, now serving as Aspen Institute president, Isaacson (Kissinger: A Biography) here presents what he calls "a chronological narrative biography" of Benjamin Franklin. The result is an admirable work that takes its place among recently acclaimed biographies by H.W. Brands and Edmund Morgan as one with special appeal to a general audience. Isaacson considers the social activist and historical actor, focusing on Franklin as "a civic-minded man" who expressed the virtues and values of a rising middle class, America's new ruling class of ordinary citizens. He also highlights Franklin's personal relations with numerous individuals-including his common-law wife, Deborah Read-his famous moments and achievements, e.g., the kite-flying electricity experiment, and his evolving social thought on a range of issues, including slavery. Isaacson serves the needs of nonspecialists with three helpful sections: a "Chronology" of Franklin's life, a "Cast of Characters" of the most important men and women Franklin knew, and "Currency Conversions." A fine addition to the Franklin literature, this book is recommended mainly for public libraries.-Charles L. Lumpkins, Pennsylvania State Univ., State College Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Nicely done life of "the most accomplished American of his age." Benjamin Franklin may have been among the leading revolutionary firebrands of his time, but, suggests Aspen Institute president Isaacson (Kissinger, 1992), he wouldn’t be at all out of place in an office park or perhaps Rotary Club meeting today. That doesn’t mean to say that Franklin was a proto-Republican, but instead a practical-minded businessman who found much virtue in striking compromises, building consensus, and networking—and who pinched pennies with the best of them, adopting vegetarianism only so that the money saved on meat could go into his savings and studies. Yet, all that said, Isaacson reminds us that Franklin essentially retired, wealthy and content, in his early 40s and devoted the rest of his days to doing acts of public good, pressing the cause of meritocracy in the service of "social mobility rather than an established elite" and furthering the cause of American independence at considerable risk to his property and person. Isaacson charts the trajectory of Franklin’s political thought on all kinds of matters; he notes, for instance, that although Franklin enthusiastically accepted advertisements for slave sales in the newspapers he published and owned "one or two household slaves off and on for much of his life," he came to see the incompatibility of such commerce with the revolutionary ideals he espoused and ended his days as a committed abolitionist. Similarly, as the very exemplar of a self-made man, Franklin gave much thought to the inequalities wrought by inherited fortune, arguing "that the accumulation of excess wealth and the idle indulgence in frivolous luxuries should not be sociallysanctioned." Alas, Franklin’s arguments did not carry the day in most particulars, but he remains an ideal American type—and one well served by this sympathetic and admiring study. A little less sophisticated than H.W. Brands’s The First American, but a solid contribution to Frankliniana all the same. Agent: Amanda Urban/ICM
From the Publisher
The Washington Post Book World The most readable full-length Franklin biography available.

The New Yorker Energetic, entertaining, and worldly.

The New York Times In its common sense, clarity and accessibility, it is a fitting reflection of Franklin's sly pragmatism....This may be the book that most powerfully drives a new pendulum swing of the Franklin reputation.

The New York Times Book Review A thoroughly researched, crisply written, convincingly argued chronicle.

Product Details

Simon & Schuster
Publication date:
Sold by:
Sales rank:
File size:
22 MB
This product may take a few minutes to download.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: Benjamin Franklin and the Invention of America

His arrival in Philadelphia is one of the most famous scenes in autobiographical literature: the bedraggled 17-year-old runaway, cheeky yet with a pretense of humility, straggling off the boat and buying three puffy rolls as he wanders up Market Street. But wait a minute. There's something more. Peel back a layer and we can see him as a 65-year-old wry observer, sitting in an English country house, writing this scene, pretending it's part of a letter to his son, an illegitimate son who has become a royal governor with aristocratic pretensions and needs to be reminded of his humble roots.

A careful look at the manuscript peels back yet another layer. Inserted into the sentence about his pilgrim's progress up Market Street is a phrase, written in the margin, in which he notes that he passed by the house of his future wife, Deborah Read, and that "she, standing at the door, saw me and thought I made, as I certainly did, a most awkward ridiculous appearance." So here we have, in a brief paragraph, the multilayered character known so fondly to his author as Benjamin Franklin: as a young man, then seen through the eyes of his older self, and then through the memories later recounted by his wife. It's all topped off with the old man's deft little affirmation -- "as I certainly did" -- in which his self-deprecation barely cloaks the pride he felt regarding his remarkable rise in the world.

Benjamin Franklin is the founding father who winks at us. George Washington's colleagues found it hard to imagine touching the austere general on the shoulder, and we would find it even more so today. Jefferson and Adams are just as intimidating. But Ben Franklin, that ambitious urban entrepreneur, seems made of flesh rather than of marble, addressable by nickname, and he turns to us from history's stage with eyes that twinkle from behind those newfangled spectacles. He speaks to us, through his letters and hoaxes and autobiography, not with orotund rhetoric but with a chattiness and clever irony that is very contemporary, sometimes unnervingly so. We see his reflection in our own time.

He was, during his eighty-four-year-long 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 devised bifocal glasses and clean-burning stoves, charts of the Gulf Stream and theories about the contagious nature of the common cold. He launched various civic improvement schemes, such as a lending library, college, volunteer fire corps, insurance association, and matching grant fund-raiser. He helped invent America's unique style of homespun humor and philosophical pragmatism. In foreign policy, he created an approach that wove together idealism with balance-of-power realism. And in politics, he proposed seminal plans for uniting the colonies and creating a federal model for a national government.

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.

Partly, it was a matter of image. As a young printer in Philadelphia, he carted rolls of paper through the streets to give the appearance of being industrious. As an old diplomat in France, he wore a fur cap to portray the role of backwoods sage. In between, he created an image for himself as a simple yet striving tradesman, assiduously honing the virtues -- diligence, frugality, honesty -- of a good shopkeeper and beneficent member of his community.

But the image he created was rooted in reality. Born and bred a member of the leather-aproned class, Franklin was, at least for most of his life, more comfortable with artisans and thinkers than with the established elite, and he was allergic to the pomp and perks of a hereditary aristocracy. Throughout his life he would refer to himself as

"B. Franklin, printer."

From these attitudes sprang what may be Franklin's most important vision: an American national identity based on the virtues and values of its middle class. Instinctively more comfortable with democracy than were some of his fellow founders, and devoid of the snobbery that later critics would feel toward his own shopkeeping values, he had faith in the wisdom of the common man and felt that a new nation would draw its strength from what he called "the middling people." Through his self-improvement tips for cultivating personal virtues and his civic-improvement schemes for furthering the common good, he helped to create, and to celebrate, a new ruling class of ordinary citizens.

The complex interplay among various facets of Franklin's character -- his ingenuity and unreflective wisdom, his Protestant ethic divorced from dogma, the principles he held firm and those he was willing to compromise -- means that each new look at him reflects and refracts the nation's changing values. He has been vilified in romantic periods and lionized in entrepreneurial ones. Each era appraises him anew, and in doing so reveals some assessments of itself.

Franklin has a particular resonance in twenty-first-century America. A successful publisher and consummate networker with an inventive curiosity, he would have felt right at home in the information revolution, and his unabashed striving to be part of an upwardly mobile meritocracy made him, in social critic David Brooks's phrase, "our founding Yuppie." We can easily imagine having a beer with him after work, showing him how to use the latest digital device, sharing the business plan for a new venture, and discussing the most recent political scandals or policy ideas. He would laugh at the latest joke about a priest and a rabbi, or about a farmer's daughter. We would admire both his earnestness and his self-aware irony. And we would relate to the way he tried to balance, sometimes uneasily, the pursuit of reputation, wealth, earthly virtues, and spiritual values.

Some who see the reflection of Franklin in the world today fret about a shallowness of soul and a spiritual complacency that seem to permeate a culture of materialism. They say that he teaches us how to live a practical and pecuniary life, but not an exalted existence. Others see the same reflection and admire the basic middle-class values and democratic sentiments that now seem under assault from elitists, radicals, reactionaries, and other bashers of the bourgeoisie. They regard Franklin as an exemplar of the personal character and civic virtue that are too often missing in modern America.

Much of the admiration is warranted, and so too are some of the qualms. But the lessons from Franklin's life are more complex than those usually drawn by either his fans or his foes. Both sides too often confuse him with the striving pilgrim he portrayed in his autobiography. They mistake his genial moral maxims for the fundamental faiths that motivated his actions.

His morality was built on a sincere belief in leading a virtuous life, serving the country he loved, and hoping to achieve salvation through good works. That led him to make the link between private virtue and civic virtue, and to suspect, based on the meager evidence he could muster about God's will, that these earthly virtues were linked to heavenly ones as well. As he put it in the motto for the library he founded, "To pour forth benefits for the common good is divine." In comparison to contemporaries such as Jonathan Edwards, who believed that men were sinners in the hands of an angry God and that salvation could come through grace alone, this outlook might seem somewhat complacent. In some ways it was, but it was also genuine.

Whatever view one takes, it is useful to engage anew with Franklin, for in doing so we are grappling with a fundamental issue: How does one live a life that is useful, virtuous, worthy, moral, and spiritually meaningful? For that matter, which of these attributes is most important? These are questions just as vital for a self-satisfied age as they were for a revolutionary one.

Copyright © 2003 by Walter Isaacson

Chapter Three: Journeyman

Philadelphia and London, 1723-1726

Keimer's Shop

As a young apprentice, Franklin had read a book extolling vegetarianism. He embraced the diet, but not just for moral and health reasons. His main motive was financial: it enabled him to take the money his brother allotted him for food and save half for books. While his coworkers went off for hearty meals, Franklin ate biscuits and raisins and used the time for study, "in which I made the greater progress from that greater clearness of head and quicker apprehension which usually attend temperance in eating and drinking."

But Franklin was a reasonable soul, so wedded to being rational that he became adroit at rationalizing. During his voyage from Boston to New York, when his boat lay becalmed off Block Island, the crew caught and cooked some cod. Franklin at first refused any, until the aroma from the frying pan became too enticing. With droll self-awareness, he later recalled what happened:

I balanced some time between principle and inclination until I recollected that when the fish were opened, I saw smaller fish taken out of their stomachs. "Then," thought I, "if you eat one another, I don't see why we may not eat you." So I dined upon cod very heartily and have since continued to eat as other people, returning only now and then occasionally to a vegetable diet.

From this he drew a wry, perhaps even a bit cynical, lesson that he expressed as a maxim: "So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do."

Franklin's rationalism would make him an exemplar of the Enlightenment, the age of reason that flourished in eighteenth-century Europe and America. He had little use for the fervor of the religious age into which he was born, nor for the sublime sentiments of the Romantic period that began budding near the end of his life. But like Voltaire, he was able to poke fun at his own efforts, and that of humanity in general, to be guided by reason. A recurring theme in his autobiography, as well as in his tales and almanacs, was his amusement at man's ability to rationalize what was convenient.

At 17, Franklin was physically striking: muscular, barrel-chested, open-faced, and almost six feet tall. He had the happy talent of being at ease in almost any company, from scrappy tradesmen to wealthy merchants, scholars to rogues. His most notable trait was a personal magnetism; he attracted people who wanted to help him. Never shy, and always eager to win friends and patrons, he gregariously exploited this charm.

On his runaway journey, for example, he met the sole printer in New York, William Bradford, who had published editorials supporting James Franklin's fight against the "oppressors and bigots" in Boston. Bradford had no job to offer, but he suggested that the young runaway continue on to Philadelphia and seek work with his son Andrew Bradford, who ran the family print shop and weekly newspaper there.

Franklin arrived at Philadelphia's Market Street wharf on a Sunday morning ten days after his departure from Boston. In his pocket he had nothing more than a Dutch dollar and about a shilling in copper, the latter of which he gave to the boatmen to pay for his passage. They tried to decline it, because Franklin had helped with the rowing, but he insisted. He also gave away two of the three puffy rolls he bought to a mother and child he had met on the journey. "A man [is] sometimes more generous when he has little money than when he has plenty," he later wrote, "perhaps through fear of being thought to have but little."

From his first moments in Philadelphia, Franklin cared about such appearances. American individualists sometimes boast of not worrying about what others think of them. Franklin, more typically, nurtured his reputation, as a matter of both pride and utility, and he became the country's first unabashed public relations expert. "I took care not only to be in reality industrious and frugal," he later wrote, "but to avoid all appearances of the contrary" (his emphasis). Especially in his early years as a young tradesman, he was, in the words of the critic Jonathan Yardley, "a self-created and self-willed man who moved through life at a calculated pace toward calculated ends."

With a population of two thousand, Philadelphia was then America's second-largest village after Boston. Envisioned by William Penn as a "green country town," it featured a well-planned grid of wide streets lined with brick houses. In addition to the original Quakers who had settled there fifty years earlier, the city named for brotherly love had attracted raucous and entrepreneurial German, Scotch, and Irish immigrants who turned it into a lively marketplace filled with shops and taverns. Though its economy was sputtering and most of its streets were dirty and unpaved, the tone set by both the Quakers and subsequent immigrants was appealing to Franklin. They tended to be diligent, unpretentious, friendly, and tolerant, especially compared to the Puritans of Boston.

The morning after his arrival, rested and better dressed, Franklin called on Andrew Bradford's shop. There he found not only the young printer but also his father, William, who had come from New York on horseback and made it there faster. Andrew had no immediate work for the runaway, so William brought him around to see the town's other printer, Samuel Keimer -- a testament both to Franklin's charming ability to enlist patrons and to the peculiar admixture of cooperation and competition so often found among American tradesmen.

Keimer was a disheveled and quirky man with a motley printing operation. He asked Franklin a few questions, gave him a composing stick to assess his skills, and then promised to employ him as soon as he had more work. Not knowing that William was the father of his competitor, Keimer volubly described his plans for luring away most of Andrew Bradford's business. Franklin stood by silently, marveling at the elder Bradford's craftiness. After Bradford left, Franklin recalled, Keimer "was greatly surprised when I told him who the old man was."

Even after this inauspicious introduction, Franklin was able to get work from Keimer while he lodged with the younger Bradford. When Keimer finally insisted that he find living quarters that were less of a professional conflict, he fortuitously was able to rent a room from John Read, the father of the young girl who had been so amused by his appearance the day he straggled off the boat. "My chest and clothes being come by this time, I made rather a more respectable appearance in the eyes of Miss Read than I had done when she first happened to see me eating my roll in the street," he noted.

Franklin thought Keimer an "odd fish," but he enjoyed having sport with him as they shared their love for philosophical debate. Franklin honed the Socratic method he found so useful for winning arguments without antagonizing opponents. He would ask Keimer questions that seemed innocent and tangential but eventually exposed his logical fallacies. Keimer, who was prone to embracing eclectic religious beliefs, was so impressed that he proposed they establish a sect together. Keimer would be in charge of the doctrines, such as not trimming one's beard, and Franklin would be in charge of defending them. Franklin agreed with one condition: that vegetarianism be part of the creed. The experiment ended after three months when Keimer, ravenous, gave in to temptation and ate an entire roast pig by himself one evening.

Franklin's magnetism attracted not only patrons but also friends. With his clever mind, disarming wit, and winning smile, he became a popular member of the town's coterie of young tradesmen. His clique included three young clerks: Charles Osborne, Joseph Watson, and James Ralph. Ralph was the most literary of the group, a poet convinced both of his own talent and of the need to be self-indulgent in order to be a great artist. Osborne, a critical lad, was jealous and invariably belittled Ralph's efforts. On one of their long walks by the river, during which the four friends read their work to one another, Ralph had a poem he knew Osborne would criticize. So he got Franklin to read the poem as if it were his own. Osborne, falling for the ruse, heaped praise on it, teaching Franklin a rule of human nature that served him well (with a few exceptions) throughout his career: people are more likely to admire your work if you're able to keep them from feeling jealous of you.

An Unreliable Patron

The most fateful patron Franklin befriended was Pennsylvania's effusive governor Sir William Keith, a well-meaning but feckless busybody. They met as a result of a passionate letter Franklin had written to a brother-in-law explaining why he was happy in Philadelphia and had no desire to return to Boston or let his parents know where he was. The relative showed the letter to Governor Keith, who expressed surprise that a missive so eloquent had been written by a lad so young. The governor, who realized that both of the established printers in his province were wretched, decided to seek out Franklin and encourage him.

When Governor Keith, dressed in all his finery, marched up the street to Keimer's print shop, the disheveled owner bustled out to greet him. To his surprise, Keith asked to see Franklin, whom he proceeded to lavish with compliments and an invitation to join him for a drink. Keimer, Franklin later noted, "stared like a pig poisoned."

Over fine Madeira at a nearby tavern, Governor Keith offered to help Franklin set up on his own. He would use his influence, Keith promised, to get him the province's official business and would write Franklin's father a letter exhorting him to help finance his son. Keith followed up with invitations to dinner, further flattery, and continued encouragement. So, with a fulsome letter from Keith in hand and dreams of a familial reconciliation followed by fame and fortune, Franklin was ready to face his family again. He boarded a ship heading for Boston in April 1724.

It had been seven months since he had run away, and his parents were not even sure that he was still alive, so they were thrilled by his return and welcomed him warmly. Franklin had not, however, yet learned his lesson about the pitfalls of pride and of provoking jealousy. He sauntered down to the print shop of his jilted brother James, proudly sporting a "genteel new suit," a fancy watch, and £5 of silver coins bulging his pocket. James looked him up and down, turned on his heels, and silently went back to work.

Franklin could not refrain from flaunting his new status. As James stewed, he regaled the shop's young journeymen with tales of his happy life in Philadelphia, spread his silver coins on the table for them to admire, and gave them money to buy drinks. James later told their mother he could never forget nor forgive the offense. "In this, however, he was mistaken," Franklin recalled.

His family's old antagonist Cotton Mather was more receptive, and instructive. He invited young Franklin over, chatted with him in his magnificent library, and let it be known that he forgave him for the barbs that had appeared in the Courant. As they were making their way out, they went through a narrow passage and Mather suddenly warned, "Stoop! Stoop!" Franklin, not understanding the exhortation, bumped his head on a low beam. As was his wont, Mather turned it into a homily: "Let this be a caution to you not always to hold your head so high. Stoop, young man, stoop -- as you go through this world -- and you'll miss many hard thumps." As Franklin later recalled to Mather's son, "This advice, thus beat into my head, has frequently been of use to me, and I often think of it when I see pride mortified and misfortunes brought upon people by carrying their heads too high." Although the lesson was a useful counterpoint to his showy visit to his brother's print shop, he failed to include it in his autobiography.

Governor Keith's letter and proposal surprised Josiah Franklin. But after considering it for a few days, he decided it was imprudent to fund a rather rebellious runaway who was only 18. Though he was proud of the patronage his son had attracted and the industriousness he had shown, Josiah knew that Benjamin was still impudent.

Seeing no chance of a reconciliation between his two sons, Josiah did give his blessing for Benjamin to return to Philadelphia, with the exhortation "to behave respectfully to the people there...and avoid lampooning and libeling, to which he thought I had too much inclination." If he was able by "steady industry and prudent parsimony" to save almost enough to open his own shop by the time he was 21, Josiah promised he would help fund the rest.

Franklin's old friend John Collins, entranced by his tales, decided to leave Boston as well. But once in Philadelphia, the two teenagers had a falling-out. Collins, academically brighter than Franklin but less disciplined, soon took to drink. He borrowed money from Franklin and began to resent him. One day, when they were boating with friends on the Delaware, Collins refused to row his turn. Others in the boat were willing to let it pass, but not Franklin, who scuffled with him, grabbed him by the crotch, and threw him overboard. Each time Collins swam up to the boat, Franklin and the others would row it away a few feet more while insisting that he promise to take his turn at the oars. Proud and resentful, Collins never agreed, but they finally allowed him back in. He and Franklin barely spoke after that, and Collins ended up going to Barbados, never repaying the money he had borrowed.

In the course of a few months, Franklin had learned from four people -- James Ralph, James Franklin, Cotton Mather, and John Collins -- lessons about rivalry and resentments, pride and modesty. Throughout his life, he would occasionally make enemies, such as the Penn family, and jealous rivals, such as John Adams. But he did so less than most men, especially men so accomplished. A secret to being more revered than resented, he learned, was to display (at least when he could muster the discipline) a self-deprecating humor, unpretentious demeanor, and unaggressive style in conversation.

Josiah Franklin's refusal to fund his son's printing venture did not dampen Governor Keith's enthusiasm. "Since he will not set you up, I will do it myself," he grandly promised. "I am resolved to have a good printer here." He asked Franklin for a list of what equipment was necessary -- Franklin estimated it would cost about £100 -- and then suggested that Franklin should sail to London so that he could personally pick out the fonts and make contacts. Keith pledged letters of credit to pay for both the equipment and the voyage.

The adventurous Franklin was thrilled. In the months leading up to his planned departure, he dined frequently with the governor. Whenever he asked for the promised letters of credit, they were not ready, but Franklin felt no reason to worry.

At the time, Franklin was courting his landlady's daughter, Deborah Read. Despite his sexual appetites, he was practical about what he wanted in a wife. Deborah was rather plain, but she offered the prospect of comfort and domesticity. Franklin offered a lot as well, in addition to his husky good looks and genial charm. He had transformed himself from the bedraggled runaway she first spotted wandering up Market Street into one of the town's most promising and eligible young tradesmen, one who had found favor with the governor and popularity with his peers. Deborah's father had recently died, which put her mother into financial difficulty and made her open to the prospect of a good marriage for her daughter. Nevertheless, she was wary of allowing her to marry a suitor who was preparing to leave for London. She insisted that marriage wait until he returned.


In November 1724, just over a year after arriving in Philadelphia, Franklin set sail for London. Traveling with him was the boy who had replaced Collins as his unreliable best friend, the aspiring poet James Ralph, who was leaving behind a wife and child. Franklin still had not received the letters of credit from Governor Keith, but he was assured that they would be sent on board in the final bag of dispatches.

Only after he arrived in London, on Christmas Eve, did Franklin discover the truth. The flighty governor had supplied no letters of credit nor recommendation. Franklin, puzzled, consulted a fellow passenger named Thomas Denham, a prominent Quaker merchant who had befriended him on the voyage. Denham explained to Franklin that Keith was incorrigibly capricious, and he "laughed at the idea of the Governor's giving me a letter of credit, having, as he said, no credit to give." For Franklin, it was an insight into human foibles rather than evil. "He wished to please everybody," Franklin later said of Keith, "and having little to give, he gave expectations."

Taking Denham's advice, Franklin decided to make the best of his situation. London was enjoying a golden age of peace and prosperity, one particularly appealing to an intellectually ambitious young printer. Among those then brightening the world of London letters were Swift, Defoe, Pope, Richardson, Fielding, and Chesterfield.

With the dreamy wastrel Ralph under his wing, Franklin found cheap lodgings and a job at a famous printing house, Samuel Palmer's. Ralph tried to get work as an actor, then as a journalist or clerk. He failed on all fronts, borrowing money from Franklin all the while.

It was an odd-couple symbiosis of the type often found between ambitious, practical guys and their carefree, romantic pals: Franklin diligently made the money, Ralph made sure they spent it all on the theater and other amusements, including occasional "intrigues with low women." Ralph quickly forgot his own wife and child in Philadelphia, and Franklin followed suit by ignoring his engagement to Deborah and writing her only once.

The friendship exploded, not surprisingly, over a woman. Ralph fell in love with a pleasant but poor young milliner, moved in with her, then was finally motivated to find work as a teacher in a village school in Berkshire. He wrote Franklin often, sending installments of a bad epic poem along with requests that Franklin look after his girlfriend. That he did all too well. He lent her money, comforted her loneliness, and then ("being at the time under no religious restraint") tried to seduce her. Ralph returned in a fury, broke off their friendship, and declared that the transgression released him from the duty of paying back any debts, which amounted to £27.

Franklin later concluded that the loss of money he was owed was balanced by the loss of the burden of having Ralph as a friend. A pattern was emerging. Beginning with Collins and Ralph, Franklin easily made casual friends, intellectual companions, useful patrons, flirty admirers, and circles of genial acquaintances, but he was less good at nurturing lasting bonds that involved deep personal commitments or emotional relationships, even within his own family.

Calvinism and Deism

While at Palmer's, Franklin helped print an edition of William Wollaston's The Religion of Nature Delineated, an Enlightenment tract that argued that religious truths were to be gleaned through the study of science and nature rather than through divine revelation. With the intellectual spunk that comes from being youthful and untutored, Franklin decided that Wollaston was right in general but wrong in parts, and he set out his own thinking in a piece he wrote early in 1725 called "A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain."

In it, Franklin strung together theological premises with logical syllogisms to get himself quite tangled up. For example: God is "all wise, all good, all powerful," he posited. Therefore, everything that exists or happens is with his consent. "What He consents to must be good, because He is good; therefore evil doth not exist."

Furthermore, happiness existed only as a contrast to unhappiness, and one could not exist without the other. Therefore, they balanced out: "Since pain naturally and infallibly produces a pleasure in proportion to it, every individual creature must, in any state of life, have an equal quantity of each." Along the way, Franklin disproved (to his own satisfaction at least) the concept of an immortal soul, the possibility of free will, and the fundamental Calvinist tenet that people are destined to be either saved or damned. "A creature can do nothing but what is good," he declared, and all "must be equally esteemed by the Creator."

Franklin's "Dissertation" does not belong in the annals of sophisticated philosophy. Indeed, it was, as he later conceded, so shallow and unconvincing as to be embarrassing. He printed a hundred copies, called it an "erratum," and burned as many as he could retrieve.

In his defense, philosophers greater and more mature than Franklin have, over the centuries, gotten lost when trying to sort out the question of free will and reconcile it with that of an all-knowing God. And many of us can perhaps remember -- or would cringe at being reminded of -- our papers or freshmen dorm disquisitions from when we were 19. Yet even as he matured, Franklin would never develop into a rigorous, first-rank philosopher on the order of such contemporaries as Berkeley and Hume. Like Dr. Johnson, he was more comfortable exploring practical thoughts and real-life situations than metaphysical abstractions or deductive proofs.

The primary value of his "Dissertation" lies in what it reveals about Franklin's fitful willingness to abandon Puritan theology. As a young man, he had read John Locke, Lord Shaftesbury, Joseph Addison, and others who embraced the freethinking religion and Enlightenment philosophy of deism, which held that each individual could best discover the truth about God through reason and studying nature, rather than through blind faith in received doctrines and divine revelation. He also read more orthodox tracts that defended the dogmas of Calvinism against such heresies, but he found them less convincing. As he wrote in his autobiography, "The arguments of the deists which were quoted to be refuted appeared to me much stronger than the refutations."

Nevertheless, he soon came to the conclusion that a simple and complacent deism had its own set of drawbacks. He had converted Collins and Ralph to deism, and they soon wronged him without moral compunction. Likewise, he came to worry that his own freethinking had caused him to be cavalier toward Deborah Read and others. In a classic maxim that typifies his pragmatic approach to religion, Franklin declared of deism, "I began to suspect that this doctrine, though it might be true, was not very useful."

Although divine revelation "had no weight with me," he decided that religious practices were beneficial because they encouraged good behavior and a moral society. So he began to embrace a morally fortified brand of deism that held God was best served by doing good works and helping other people.

It was a philosophy that led him to renounce much of the doctrine of the Puritans and other Calvinists, who preached that salvation came through God's grace alone and could not be earned by doing good deeds. That possibility, they believed, was lost when Adam rejected God's covenant of good works and it was replaced by a covenant of grace in which the saved were part of an elect predetermined by God. To a budding rationalist and pragmatist like Franklin, the covenant of grace seemed "unintelligible" and, even worse, "not beneficial."

A Plan for Moral Conduct

After a year at Palmer's, Franklin got a better-paying job at a far larger printing house, John Watts's. There the pressmen drank pint after pint of watery beer throughout the day to keep them fortified. With his penchant for temperance and frugality, Franklin tried to convince his fellow workers that they could get their nourishment better by eating porringers of hot-water gruel with bread. Thus he became known as the "Water American," admired for his strength, clear head, and ability to lend them money when they had used up their weekly pay at the alehouses.

Despite his abstinence, the workers at Watts's insisted that he pay a five-shilling initiation fee used for drinks. When he was promoted from the pressroom to the composition room, he was called on to pay yet another initiation, but this time he refused. As a result, he was treated as an outcast and subjected to small mischiefs. Finally, after three weeks, he relented and paid up, "convinced of the folly of being on ill terms" with his workmates. He promptly regained his popularity, earning the reputation of "a pretty good riggite," someone whose jocularity and ability as a "verbal satirist" earned him respect.

One of the least shy men imaginable, Franklin was as sociable in London as he had been in Boston and Philadelphia. He frequented the roundtables hosted by minor literary luminaries of the day, and he sought out introductions to various interesting people. Among his earliest surviving letters is one he sent to Sir Hans Sloane, secretary of the Royal Society. Franklin wrote that he had brought from America a purse made of asbestos, and he wondered if Sloane might want to buy it. Sloane paid a call on Franklin, brought the lad back to his Bloomsbury Square home to show off his collection, and bought the purse for a handsome sum. Franklin also made a deal to borrow books from a neighborhood bookseller.

Ever since, as a young boy, he had invented some paddles and flippers to propel himself across Boston harbor, Franklin had been fascinated by swimming. He studied one of the first books on the subject, The Art of Swimming, written in 1696 by a Frenchman named Melchisedec Thevenot, which helped to popularize the breaststroke. (The crawl did not catch on for more than another century.) Franklin perfected variations on the motions for swimming both on the surface and underwater, "aiming at the graceful and easy as well as the useful."

Among the friends he taught to swim was a fellow young printer named Wygate. One day, during a boat trip on the Thames with Wygate and others, Franklin decided to show off. He stripped, leaped into the river, and swam back and forth to the bank using a variety of strokes. One member of the party offered to fund a swim school for Franklin. Wygate, for his part, "grew more and more attached" to him, and he proposed that they travel around Europe together as journeymen printers and teachers. "I was once inclined to it," Franklin recalled, "but, mentioning it to my good friend Mr. Denham, with whom I often spent an hour when I had leisure, he dissuaded me from it, advising me to think only of returning to Pennsylvania, which he was now about to do."

Denham, the Quaker merchant Franklin had met on the voyage over, was planning to open a general store once back in Philadelphia, and he offered to pay Franklin's passage if he would agree to sign on as his clerk at £50 a year. It was less than he was making in London, but it offered him the chance both to return to America and to become established as a merchant, a vocation more exalted than that of printer. Together they set sail in July 1726.

Franklin had been burned in the past by his attraction to romantic rogues (Keith, Collins, Ralph) of dubious character. Denham, on the other hand, was a man of integrity. He had left England years earlier deeply in debt, made a small fortune in America, and on his return to England threw a lavish dinner for his old creditors. After thanking them profusely, he told them all to look under their plates. There they discovered full repayment plus interest. Henceforth, Franklin would find himself more attracted to people who were practical and reliable rather than dreamy and romantic.

To perfect the art of becoming such a reliable person, Franklin wrote out a "Plan for Future Conduct" during his eleven-week voyage back to Philadelphia. It would be the first of many personal credos that laid out pragmatic rules for success and made him the patron saint of self-improvement guides. He lamented that because he had never outlined a design for how he should conduct himself, his life so far had been somewhat confused. "Let me, therefore, make some resolutions, and some form of action, that, henceforth, I may live in all respects like a rational creature." There were four rules:

1. It is necessary for me to be extremely frugal for some time, till I have paid what I owe.

2. To endeavor to speak truth in every instance; to give nobody expectations that are not likely to be answered, but aim at sincerity in every word and action -- the most amiable excellence in a rational being.

3. To apply myself industriously to whatever business I take in hand, and not divert my mind from my business by any foolish project of suddenly growing rich; for industry and patience are the surest means of plenty.

4. I resolve to speak ill of no man whatever.

Rule 1 he had already mastered. Rule 3 he likewise had little trouble following. As for 2 and 4, he would henceforth preach them diligently and generally make a show of practicing them, though he would sometimes be better at the show than the practicing.

On his voyage home, the 20-year-old Franklin indulged what would be a lifelong scientific curiosity. He experimented on the small crabs he found on some seaweed, calculated his distance from London based on the timing of a lunar eclipse, and studied the habits of dolphins and flying fish.

His journal of the voyage also reveals his talent for observing human nature. When he heard the tale of a former governor of the Isle of Wight who had been considered saintly yet was known to be a knave by the keeper of his castle, Franklin concluded that it was impossible for a dishonest person, no matter how cunning, to completely conceal his character. "Truth and sincerity have a certain distinguishing native luster about them which cannot be perfectly counterfeited; they are like fire and flame, that cannot be painted."

While gambling at checkers with some shipmates, he formulated an "infallible rule," which was that "if two persons equal in judgment play for a considerable sum, he that loves money most shall lose; his anxiety for the success of the game confounds him." The rule, he decided, applied to other battles; a person who is too fearful will end up performing defensively and thus fail to seize offensive advantages.

He also developed theories about the sociable yearnings of men, ones that applied particularly to himself. One of the passengers was caught cheating at cards, and the others sought to fine him. When the fellow resisted paying, they decided on an even tougher punishment: he would be ostracized and completely shunned until he relented. Finally the miscreant paid the fine in order to end his excommunication. Franklin concluded:

Man is a sociable being, and it is, for aught I know, one of the worst punishments to be excluded from society. I have read abundance of fine things on the subject of solitude, and I know it is a common boast in the mouths of those that affect to be thought wise that they are never less alone than when alone. I acknowledge solitude an agreeable refreshment to a busy mind; but were these thinking people obliged to be always alone, I am apt to think they would quickly find their very being insupportable to them.

One of the fundamental sentiments of the Enlightenment was that there is a sociable affinity, based on the natural instinct of benevolence, among fellow humans, and Franklin was an exemplar of this outlook. The opening phrase of the passage -- "Man is a sociable being" -- would turn out to be a defining credo of his long life. Later in the voyage, they encountered another vessel. Franklin noted:

There is really something strangely cheering to the spirits in the meeting of a ship at sea, containing a society of creatures of the same species and in the same circumstances with ourselves, after we had been long separated and excommunicated as it were from the rest of mankind. I saw so many human countenances and I could scarce refrain from that kind of laughter which proceeds from some degree of inward pleasure.

His greatest happiness, however, came when he finally glimpsed the American shore. "My eyes," he wrote, "were dimmed with the suffusion of two small drops of joy." With his deepened appreciation of community, his scientific curiosity, and his rules for leading a practical life, Franklin was ready to settle down and pursue success in the city that, more than Boston or London, he now realized was his true home.

Copyright © 2003 by Walter Isaacson

Meet the Author

Walter Isaacson, the CEO of the Aspen Institute, has been chairman of CNN and the managing editor of Time magazine. He is the author of The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution; Steve Jobs; Einstein: His Life and Universe; Benjamin Franklin: An American Life; and Kissinger: A Biography, and the coauthor of The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made. He lives in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter @WalterIsaacson.

Brief Biography

Date of Birth:
May 20, 1952
Place of Birth:
New Orleans, LA
Harvard, B.A. in History and Literature, 1974; Oxford (Rhodes Scholar), M.A. in Philosophy, Politics, & Economics

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 119 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you are interested in history or politics, this book is a fantastic read about one of our Founding Fathers. It delves deeply into Mr. Franklin's personality and the reasons behind his behavior. It also talks about his alleged affairs in England and France. Whereas Mr. Franklin is a great thinker and wise, this books shows how he could be quite a scoundrel. Not only is a great book about Mr. Franklin, it is a great book about the the 'colonies' and the early United States. If you are not a fan of US history or politics, you may not enjoy this book as much.
ConnecticutRichard More than 1 year ago
As someone with an unusually deep background in early American history, I almost passed up this book because, of course, we all know as much as we care to know about Ben Franklin. What a surprise! This is one of the most entertaining and informative books I have ever read. I kept looking up and saying, "I never knew that!" The author, Walter Isaacson, pushes past the cardboard image of the fat little sage with the witty sayings and the dangerous kite. The real Franklin steps from the pages with so many dimensions and so many (often overlooked) accomplishments that it is difficult to conceive how they could all be packed into one life. He was a man of towering achievements in science, civic organization, politics and diplomacy. He also had his demons and he was hated and loved with passion. His family life was bizarre and his evolution to revolution was painful. The story of how England turned an ardent supporter into an implacable foe holds lessons with modern relevance. If you enjoyed David McCullough's "John Adams," you will love this book. The research is as deep and it is much more readable.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Issacson's thoroughly researched and eloquently written book about one of the most amazing figures in American history is both educational and thought-provoking. From his timeless life advice, to his many inventions, to his role in the American Revolution, the reader can't help but label Franklin a genius. The writing style appeals to those simply interested in learing more about Franklin and is not just for history buffs. Highly recommended.
Mark93552 More than 1 year ago
Very interesting read. Isaacson uses many of Benjamin Franklin's own letters, published papers and other writings to emphasise and enhance the story. This is a must read for history buffs or students of American history. After reading more than half of the book I have a much better understanding and appreciation of Benjamin Franklin and understand how important a role he played in the creation of the U.S.
WillyTO1 More than 1 year ago
First, about Franklin himself, I had NO idea how prolific he was with ideas. And how much involvement he had in forming our nation. Secondly, the book is well-written. 80% of the book kept me turning page after page, wanting to know what happens next. Around the start of the second half of the book, Franklin's life was more 'tame' and wasn't quite as interesting to me. It was after his early successes and before the confrontations with the British. The author could probably have condensed this section a bit, but it's a nit. Overall, this is a good read, very informative, and gives me a new appreciation for the First American.
Stu-in-Flag More than 1 year ago
There may be better biographies on Franklin, but this one is a great blend of entertainment and knowledge. It moves along very nicely. Isaacson has digested Franklin's life into small focused periods. With short episodic looks at each period, Franklin's image becomes clear. So complex and made so easy to understand.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is incredible reading, learning many things about how the United States was formed from the 13 colonies, Ben Franklin was a master printer, columnist, ambassador and politician. Long hours of research has gone into writing this book and the attention to detail is appreciated.
Guest More than 1 year ago
ADED 5510 Book Review Isaacson, W. (2003). Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. New York, New York: Simon & Schuster Introduction Walter Isaacson¿s biographical work Benjamin Franklin: An American Life is conveyed as well-researched, orderly in a chronological sense, and filled with subtle insights into the life of one of nation¿s most recognized colonial and revolutionary characters. While the text presents itself well as a thoughtful and thought-provoking scholarly work replete with the sophistication in language structure one might expect, it is nonetheless easy to read and entertaining as well as enlightening. Major Themes A core ¿flavor¿ to the message being presented by the book is made apparent within the first few pages of the text, as the author extracts passages from a Franklin manuscript the displays with reflection and pride the story of person born into middle-class values and surroundings. The self-deprecating humor displayed by Benjamin Franklin from page one of the book and throughout the text provided evidence of the internal pride of the person. Even at moments when committing the indiscretions of youth, Franklin couches the scene as one that displays leadership (p.16). Thus, one theme of the text is internal pride and confidence in his inherent abilities. A second major theme of the text involves the industrious nature of his middle-class family and ancestry. The influence of his surroundings and family are carried forth throughout Franklin¿s life in his work, belief is civic involvement for social and personal betterment, and faith in the common sense and abilities of the middle class citizenry. Necessity and frugality were core fibers of the person in that circumstance. While not destitute, there was not an abundance of financial or material resources to waste and waste itself was such an unnecessary and ignorant act, contrary to the early Puritan social fabric Benjamin Franklin existed in during his formidable years. A third major theme of the text is the spirit of natural curiosity and independence displayed by Franklin from his impressive consumption of written works including major literary works of his time. This is made evident throughout his life and noted in the book from a passage describing the titles he was reading even at age twelve (p. 25). It is important to depart for a moment here from the book to consider that remarkable literacy in the colonial times of the early 1700s. The independence of this intellectual being is also put forth in the passages that point to a recurrent point that Franklin did not lack ability to work hard and apply himself, but consistently displayed a resistance to be trapped into the norm of a rout occupation. While he had the greatest respect for and faith in all of the occupations and trades, he gravitated toward those occupational outlets that permitted his own expression and tinkering. A fourth thematic consideration is displayed in Franklin¿s pragmatic ability of rationalization in terms of business or as humorously displayed when passenger he was passenger upon a becalmed boat during his early stint into vegetarianism. The only meal that presented itself was fish caught be the crew. Franklin was able to rationalize the situation he was presented and he ate the fish (p. 36). As the text points out early, the traits of the Puritan values and the Enlightenment of Locke were combined in the character of Franklin. The middle class pragmatism and lack formal higher education of Franklin would follow him throughout life as evident in his notoriety as one of the foremost scientist of his time. His importance on how nature worked versus why in work is further evidence of his internal synthesis of ideas and inventions as a scientist (p. 144). As Isaacson points out much earlier in the book, Franklin¿s scholastic deficit would condemn him to be merely the most ingenious scientist of his era rather than transcending into the p
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
dragonsscape More than 1 year ago
"Benjamin Franklin" is engrossing. Franklin was a colonial innovator, publisher, writer, inventer,scientist, radical, genius. And his life was long & eventful. He was a common man who crossed the paths of the other Fouding Fathers during the momentous days of the American Revolution & played a prominent role in the creation of the American nation. He was a man of letters who entertained & was intimate with the intellectuals of Europe (Voltaire & his brethern). And, in this fascinating & brillant biography we meet the Benjamin Franklin who was perhaps the closest to a Renaissance Man as ever lived in America. It is entertaining, educational, provocative & reminds us that Franklin never lost the common touch yet walked the stage with some of the greatest men who ever lived. My favoirte story of Franklin comes upon the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention when, after being asked what form of nation the Founding Fathers had created, he replied "A Republic Madam,if you can keep it." This is a wonderful biography of a likeable, loveable rascal that rightfully belongs among the best biographies ever written.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Walter Isaacson¿s book, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, is an insightful and impeccably researched piece of scholarly work. This biography transports the reader right into the world of one of America¿s best-known and loved founding fathers. Isaacson¿s writing is clear, concise soundly documented, and readable. The book overflows with interesting facts previously unknown or forgotten. The reader will learn of Franklin and a young America the struggle for independence from England. Franklin¿s life was a very intricate one, but Isaacson successfully unravels and separates fact from fiction to show the reader Franklin¿s impressive successes and poignant failures. Franklin is rightfully given credit for his participation in the political and philosophical ideas that shaped America. His resolve helped create an accord with France that was crucial to America¿s negotiations with England. Walter Isaacson¿s 493 page book is a heavy read that takes getting into, but it is very much worth the effort. It covers Franklin, the inventor, philosopher, entrepreneur, philanthropist, diplomat, husband, father, friend and rebel. The book is brimming with important insights into a beloved American. Benjamin Franklin is at times called our ¿first American¿, and Walter Isaacson¿s biography demonstrates why. Isaacson¿s book is the definitive account of Benjamin Franklin¿s life and should be read by all red, white and blue Americans.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I knew that Franklin was an integral part of the American Revolution and I knew that there were some shady things regarding his personality. But when it comes to sheer enjoyment aka entertainment, this book is the best. It will give you knowledge you never thought possible of Ben Franklin. On top of being one of my favorite biographies of anybody, this book cements in place Ben Franklin as my favorite person to study. There is none better!
Guest More than 1 year ago
We all have a 'saying' or two, Benjamin Franklin had many. He was much more complex then I once realized. I knew Ben was(sometimes)the originator of many popular maxims, flew a kite with a key attached to one end and has appeared on the 100 dollar bill. In my opinion Ben was and still is the quentessential 'American'. Ben Franklin played a very important role in the forming of our nation. We should learn from his ideals as they are the ideals which every American should espouse. Ok, enough rhetoric, I have not read a book I liked this much since I read David McCulloughs biography of John Adams.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I think it is so far so good it is very long but biographs are not always short so have way more Pages
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
vb0 More than 1 year ago
lolololololololololololololololololololololololololololololololololol koryenn hello
KB_Goldfish More than 1 year ago
Hello. Plz reply. ;)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Andrew_of_Dunedin More than 1 year ago
It's taken me approximately 10 years since my visit to Independence Hall to dive into my souvenir from the trip -  Walter Isaacson's excellent biography of Philadelphia's favorite son (albeit adopted from his native Boston, I learned), Benjamin Franklin.  I was a fool to have waited so long!  (I confess: I didn't read the actual book I bought, but instead borrowed the Audio version from the library and listened to the book being read to me on 21 CDs.) We all know that Ben Franklin was a multifaceted individual, and this book devotes time and space to all of those interests and expertises.  Printer (which is how Franklin referred to himself).  Author / Philosopher.  Scientist / Inventor.  Revolutionary / Politician / Diplomat.  Incorrigible flirt.  And, most importantly, image consultant – Franklin was well aware of who he wanted to be perceived as in order to gain the most advantage for himself and his causes. This is not a short book – but it is definitely a worthwhile investment of the time it'll take you to read (or listen to) it.   RATING: 5 stars.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I picked up this book at a Barnes and Noble with the idea that having never read a book about Ben Franklin this might be a good place to start. When I think of Franklin, I immediately think of an old man flying a kite and discovering electricity. This book has really enlightened me. Benjamin Franklin was a genius. Franklin was a fascinating man and well ahead of his time. The more I read the book the book I became involved with the story of Benjamin Franklin. Mr. Isaacson wrote a biography that was not boring and very entertaining. He brought the great man to life. Highly recommend if you are a history buff. Now when I see a picture of Franklin, I will smile and think "another great American" to add to my list. Is there anyone like him today? Not that I can think of.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
rckrr More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone interested in the early history of the United States. Benjamin Franklin had an amazing life and I will spare you his long list of achievements, but suffice it to say that he did a lot more than become one of the most influential founders of the United States. I fell in love with BF while reading this book. I was disappointed that he did not spend more time with his wife Deborah in the last years of her life, but as amazing as he was he was human.