The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin

The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin

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by H. W. Brands

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National Bestseller 

He was the foremost American of his day, yet today he is little more than a mythic caricature in the public imagination. Benjamin Franklin, perhaps the pivotal figure in colonial and revolutionary America, comes vividly to life in this masterly biography.

Wit, diplomat, scientist, philosopher, businessman, inventor, and


National Bestseller 

He was the foremost American of his day, yet today he is little more than a mythic caricature in the public imagination. Benjamin Franklin, perhaps the pivotal figure in colonial and revolutionary America, comes vividly to life in this masterly biography.

Wit, diplomat, scientist, philosopher, businessman, inventor, and bon vivant, Benjamin Franklin was in every respect America’s first Renaissance man. From penniless runaway to highly successful printer, from ardently loyal subject of Britain to architect of an alliance with France that ensured America’s independence, Franklin went from obscurity to become one of the world’s most admired figures, whose circle included the likes of Voltaire, Hume, Burke, and Kant. Drawing on previously unpublished letters and a host of other sources, acclaimed historian H. W. Brands has written a thoroughly engaging biography of the eighteenth-century genius. A much needed reminder of Franklin’s greatness and humanity, The First American is a work of meticulous scholarship that provides a magnificent tour of a legendary historical figure, a vital era in American life, and the countless arenas in which the protean Franklin left his legacy.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“H.W Brands has given us the authoritative Franklin biography for out time.” —Joseph J. Ellis author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Founding Brothers

“Like its subject, this biography is both solid and enchanting.” —The New Yorker

“[A] biography with a rich cast of secondary characters and a large and handsome stock of historical scenery.... Brands writes clearly and confidently about the full spectrum of the polymath’s interests.... This is a Franklin to savor.” —The Wall Street Journal

“Benjamin Franklin’s life is one every American should know well, and it has not been told better than by Mr. Brands.” —The Dallas Morning News

“A vivid portrait of the 18th-century milieu and of the 18th-century man.... [Brands is] a master storyteller.” —The Christian Science Monitor

“A thorough biography of Benjamin Franklin, America’s first Renaissance man.... In graceful, even witty prose.... Brands relates the entire, dense-packed life.” —The Washington Post

“A lively re-introduction to Franklin.... Rich in the descriptions of settings, personalities, and action.... [Brands] offers ... a succession of amusing anecdotes and vivid tales.” —The New Republic

“Comprehensive, lively.... [Brands] is a skilled narrator who believes in making good history accessible to the non-specializing book lover, and the general reader can read this book with sustained enjoyment.” —The Boston Globe
Just as he suggested the humble turkey as our national bird in lieu of the bald eagle, so it might be argued that, celebrated as he is, Benjamin Franklin's contributions to the forging of the young United States have gone underappreciated. His Zelig-like knack for being in and among the influential figures of the day, his lightning wit, his business acumen, his literary and journalistic accomplishments, his inventions, his skills at negotiation -- these qualities that so set Franklin apart in his day inspire a sort of astonished admiration today. Brands's engaging and insightful look at this latter-day Renaissance man is a welcome and overdue tribute.
Washington Post Book World
One of the more interesting rags-to-riches lives in the history of humanity.
Historian Brands illuminates Franklin's many facets in this informative biography. One can quibble with Brands' hyperbolic title (the term "first American" could apply to a dozen other figures), but not with Franklin's contribution to American history. Born into a colonial America still ruled by Great Britain and dominated by religious ideologues, he helped transform the loosely affiliated colonies into a united, freedom-loving opposition to the crown and later into a full-fledged nation. In retelling Franklin's life, Brands writes in a clear, lively, novelistic style and is especially good at revealing Franklin, the living, breathing, flawed human being. But when reporting on a life as rich as Franklin's, it's hard not to leave out as much interesting detail as one leaves in. Gossip lovers will no doubt be dismayed at how little space is devoted to the juicier moments in Franklin's life, such as his foolish middle-age dalliance with the twenty-three-year-old Katy Ray. Even at 759 pages, this book still ends too quickly.
—Jack Helbig

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"Franklin's story is the story of a man--an exceedingly gifted man and a most engaging one. It is also the story of the birth of America--an America this man discovered in himself, then helped create in the world at large," says Texas A&M historian Brands (T.R.: The Last Romantic, etc.) in the prologue to his stunning new work. Franklin's father took him out of school at age 11, but the boy assiduously sacrificed sleep (while working as an apprentice printer) to read and learn, giving himself rigorous exercises to develop his ease with language and discourse, among other disciplines. In essence, as Brands vividly demonstrates, Franklin defined the Renaissance man. He made multiple contributions to science (electricity, meteorology), invention (bifocal lenses, the Franklin furnace) and civic institutions (the American Philosophical Society, the University of Pennsylvania, the U.S. Post Office). But Brands is primarily concerned with Franklin's development as a thinker, politician and statesman and places his greatest emphasis there. In particular, Brands does an excellent job of capturing Franklin's exuberant versatility as a writer who adopted countless personae--evidence of his gift for seeing the world through a variety of different lenses--that not only predestined his prominence as a man of letters but also as an agile man of politics. From Franklin's progress as a self-declared "Briton"--serving as London agent for Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and other colonies--to his evolution as an American (wartime minister to France, senior peace negotiator with Britain and, finally, senior participant at the Constitutional Convention), Brands, with admirable insight and arresting narrative, constructs a portrait of a complex and influential man ("only Washington mattered as much") in a highly charged world. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
In this new biography, Brands (history, Texas A&M Univ.; T.R.: The Last Romantic) sees Franklin's January 29, 1774 confrontation in Parliament with Alexander Wedderburn, first Earl of Rosslyn (1733-1805), as the formative moment in Benjamin Franklin's life. During those two hours in the "Cockpit," it was not just Wedderburn insulting Franklin, "it was also Britain mocking America." Franklin's story, as Brands sees and tells it, "is also the story of the birth of America--an America this man discovered in himself, then helped create in the world at large." Brands, a master storyteller himself, draws on letters to and by Franklin, as well as recollections of Franklin's contemporaries, to create an absorbing portrait of the 18th-century world that was the backdrop--and the stage--for America's multidimensional journalist, inventor, diplomat, propagandist, moralist, humorist, and revolutionary. Brands's eminently readable narrative is a worthy successor to Carl Van Doren's classic Pulitzer Prize-winning Benjamin Franklin. Recommended for public and academic libraries.--Robert C. Jones, Central Missouri State Univ., Warrensburg Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
This first biography of Benjamin Franklin in over 60 years brings to life one of the most delightful, bawdy, original, and important figures in American history. Draws on previously unpublished letters to and from Franklin, as well as recollections and anecdotes of Franklin's contemporaries, to create a portrait of the 18th-century genius who was America's first Renaissance man. Brands teaches history at Texas A&M University. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
New Yorker
Like it's subject, this biography is both solid and enchanting...Franklin emerges as a man with a passion to add to human happiness.
Kirkus Reviews
A rousing, firstrate life of a Founding Father.

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
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Product dimensions:
5.13(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.34(d)
Age Range:
14 - 18 Years

Read an Excerpt

A lesser man would have been humiliated.
Humiliation was the purpose of the proceeding.
It was the outcome eagerly anticipated by the lords of the Privy Council who constituted the official audience, by the members of the House of Commons and other fashionable Londoners who packed the room and hung on the rails of the balcony, by the London press that lived on scandal and milled outside to see how this scandal would unfold, by the throngs that bought the papers, savored the scandals, rioted in favor of their heroes and against their villains, and made politics in the British imperial capital often unpredictable, frequently disreputable, always entertaining. The proceeding today would probably be disreputable. It would certainly be entertaining.
The venue was fitting: the Cockpit. In the reign of Henry VIII, that most sporting of monarchs in a land that loved its bloody games, the building on this site had housed an actual cockpit, where Henry and his friends brought their prize birds and wagered which would tear the others to shreds. The present building had replaced the real cockpit, but this room retained the old name and atmosphere. The victim today was expected to depart with his reputation in tatters, his fortune possibly forfeit, his life conceivably at peril.
Nor was that the extent of the stakes. Two days earlier the December packet ship from Boston had arrived with an alarming report from the royal governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson. The governor described an organized assault on three British vessels carrying tea of the East India Company. The assailants, townsmen loosely disguised as Indians, had boarded the ships, hauled hundreds of tea casks to deck, smashed them open, and dumped their contents into the harbor forty-five tons of tea, enough to litter the beaches for miles and depress the company's profits for years. This rampage was the latest in a series of violent outbursts against the authority of Crown and Parliament; the audience in the Cockpit, and in London beyond, demanded to know what Crown and Parliament intended to do about it.
Alexander Wedderburn was going to tell them. The solicitor general possessed great rhetorical gifts and greater ambition. The former had made him the most feared advocate in the realm; the latter lifted him to his present post when he abandoned his allies in the opposition and embraced the ministry of Lord North. Wedderburn was known to consider the Boston tea riot treason, and if the law courts upheld his interpretagtion, those behind the riot would be liable to the most severe sanctions, potentially including death. Wedderburn was expected to argue that the man in the Cockpit today was the prime mover behind the outburst in Boston. The crowd quivered with anticipation.
They all knew the man in the pit; indeed, the whole world knew Benjamin Franklin. His work as political agent for several of the American colonies had earned him recognition around London, but his fame far transcended that. He was, quite simply, one of the most illustrious scientists and thinkers on earth. His experiments with electricity, culminating in his capture of lightning from the heavens, had won him universal praise as the modern Prometheus. His mapping of the Gulf Stream saved the time and lives of countless sailors. His ingenious fireplace conserved fuel and warmed homes on both sides of the Atlantic. His contributions to economics, meteorology, music, and psychology expanded the reach of human knowledge and the grip of human power. For his accomplishments the British Royal Society had awarded him its highest prize; foreign societies had done the same. Universities queued to grant him degrees. The ablest minds of the age consulted him on matters large and small. Kings and emperors summoned him to court, where they admired his brilliance and basked in its reflected glory.
Genius is prone to producing envy. Yet it was part of Franklin's genius that he had produced far less than his share, due to an unusual ability to disarm those disposed to envy. In youth he discovered that he was quicker of mind and more facile of pen than almost everyone he met; he also discovered that a boy of humble birth, no matter how gifted, would block his own way by letting on that he knew how smart he was. He learned to deflect credit for some of his most important innovations. He avoided arguments wherever possible; when important public issues hinged on others' being convinced of their errors, he often argued anonymously, adopting assumed names, or Socratically, employing the gentle questioning of the Greek master. He became almost as famous for his sense of humor as for his science; laughing, his opponents listened and were persuaded.
Franklin's self-effacing style succeeded remarkably; at sixty-eight he had almost no personal enemies and comparatively few political enemies for a man of public affairs. But those few included powerful figures. George Grenville, the prime minister responsible for the Stamp Act, the tax bill that triggered all the American troubles, never forgave him for single-handedly demolishing the rationale for the act in a memorable session before the House of Commons.
Grenville and his allies lay in wait to exact their revenge on Franklin. Yet he never made a false step. Until now. A mysterious person had delivered into his hands confidential letters from Governor Hutchinson and other royal officials in Massachusetts addressed to an undersecretary of state in London. These letters cast grave doubt on the bona fides of Hutchinson, for years the bête noire of the Massachusetts assembly. As Massachusetts's agent, Franklin had forwarded the letters to friends in Boston. Hutchinson's enemies there got hold of the letters and published them.
The publication provoked an instant uproar. In America the letters were interpreted as part of a British plot to enslave the colonies; the letters fueled the anger that inspired the violence that produced the Boston tea riot. In England the letters provoked charges and countercharges as to who could have been so dishonorable as to steal and publish private correspondence. A duel at swords left one party wounded and bothparties aching for further satisfaction; only at this point—to prevent more bloodshed—did Franklin reveal his role in transmitting the letters.
His foes seized the chance to destroy him. Since that session in Commons eight years before, he had become the symbol and spokesman in London of American resistance to the sovereignty of Parliament; on his head would be visited all the wrath and resentment that had been building in that proud institution from the time of the Stamp Act to the tea riot. Alexander Wedderburn sharpened his tongue and moved in for the kill.
None present at the Cockpit on January 29, 1774, could afterward recall the like of the hearing that day. The solicitor general outdid himself. For an hour he hurled invective at Franklin, branding him a liar, a thief, the instigator of the insurrection in Massachusetts, an outcast from the company of all honest men, an ingrate whose attack on Hutchinson betrayed nothing less than a desire to seize the governor's office for himself. So slanderous was Wedderburn's diatribe that no London paper would print it. But the audience reveled in it, hooting and applauding each sally, each bilious bon mot. Not even the lords of the Privy Council attempted to disguise their delight at Wedderburn's astonishing attack. Almost to a man and a woman, the spectators that day concluded that Franklin's reputation would never recover. Ignominy, if not prison or worse, was his future now.

Meet the Author

H. W. Brands is Distinguished Professor of History at Texas A&M University. He lives in Austin, Texas.

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First American 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 28 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was so well written that I picked up the same author's biography of Teddy Roosevelt even though I am not particularly interested in TR's life. (But, I'm confident I will become interested with Brand's ability to relate a life.) This isn't the best-selling biography of Franklin since Brands doesn't have Time-Warner's advertising machine behind him. But having read both this and the current best seller, this is the best-written of the Franklin biographies. The difference between Brands and Isaacson's biographies is the difference between the novel and its sterile Cliff notes.
Guest More than 1 year ago
H.W. Brands masterfully breathes life into a complex, self-made Renaissance man who clearly deserves much more than the anecdotal remembrance that unfortunately stills exists today. Benjamin Franklin, though as imperfect as any human being, progressively spanned his wings to give full measure to his genius. Not only was Franklin an astute businessman and gifted writer but also an able statesman and brilliant scientist. Despite his evident flaws as a family man, Franklin was perhaps and foremost a humanist whose quest for knowledge and progress could not be satiated. Readers can only marvel at Franklin's inquisitive mind that could sometimes propel him so far ahead of his time as had done Leonard De Vinci's mind during his lifetime. Franklin was often wise enough to defer to others when he felt that he was not the best, most apt man. For these reasons, Franklin needs to be remembered as one of the key founding fathers of the nation.
InspiredCW More than 1 year ago
For many years I have been a "fan" of Benjamin Franklin and had high regard for the contributions he made to the early years of modern American History. I have to admit, however, that I didn't know the whole story. And, as with many historical figures, I had put him on an unrealistic pedestal in my mind forgetting that he was, above all things, a man. This work shows the human side of Franklin, the struggles he endured throughout his early years, the hard work he invested in becoming a leading contributor to our new nation, the failures and frustrations he overcame, his human frailty, his self-deprecating humility and his battle with pride in his successes. After reading this book I have a renewed respect for the man, a stronger appreciation for his influence on our democratic republic and I'm greatly impressed by his scientific and literary contributions as well.
DFH More than 1 year ago
Arguably author Brands best book. Highly detailed and well-documented, it provides an intimate portrait of one of the most important men in our country's earliest years. It deals with both the political and scientific aspects of Franklin's life and accurately show how involved Franklin was in the formative years of the United States. Brands loves the English language and occasionally sends his readers running to find a dictionary. Not a problem, however. For students of American history, this book is highly recommended.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am reading this book currently, and find it to be very well done. I can't imagine how hard it must be to do research on someone with little more than letters and memoirs. This is the case with most of our forefather's history, and Brands uses it to it's full potential. There are spots where the language gets a bit difficult to traverse, but this was the way of the period. The most important aspect of any biography is that the author must capture the individual's personality, along with their achievements. I feel Brands has done this admirably, as the reader is treated to several anecdotes and insight to the thoughts of such a great American. Highly recommended.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The book was ok, but it could have taken useless information, like his summer vacations out, and added more intresting things in, like his inventions, and more on how he influence different US documents. It was good, but could have been better
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is easily the most readable, most informative biography I've ever read. In addition to providing a glimpse into the life of one of the most influential of our Founding Fathers, Brands' book is an entertaining read. Very highly recommended - a must read for anyone with an interest in American history.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have read many Franklin books but the First American is the one that really captured me. I found it amazing. Although at first it seems long, a Franklin bio needs to be long-he did an simply astounding amount of things. I just can't put it down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read this book when it first came out and i lked it then. Just finished again today and loved it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Brings to life the life itself and the times of Franklin. One of the most interesting biographies I've ever read.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
The author gives a great visual of the 18th century, with statistics and documents. Dr. Franklin was certainly the best american that has ever lived. I admire his creativity and all that he gave back to the community. This is probably the best book you're gonna find on Franklin.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am not a reader of biographies. I got turned off by them with the first one I attempted as a child -- a 'biography' of Marco Polo that intermingled fact and fiction in a way that I found abhorrent. I like my fiction and my non-fiction straight up. I did enjoy Boswell's biography of Samuel Johnson, but the handful of other efforts at reading biographies and autobiographies all annoyed me. Some were self-serving or politically motivated. Others attempted to liven things up with the thoughts of the subject or with dialogs -- invented by the biographer. And some were simply tedious to read, requiring me as the reader to have so much interest in the subject that I'd forgive a plodding narrative. This biography is simply perfect -- no made-up conversations, no peeks into Franklin's thoughts except via quotes from his writings, and -- best of all -- a mastery of narrative on the part of the biographer. The biographer himself is not at all obtrusive, but he also isn't that annoyingly non-present scribe character that some academics jump into while they're writing. His personality peeps out every so often to go beyond a dry recital of the facts to indulging himself in some wry observations about the facts. Never intrusive, the glimpses of the biographer's personality simply add to the enjoyment of the read. Franklin was a fascinating character. This biographer keeps him fascinating by his great eye for those details that we'd like to see. (The sixteen-year old Franklin posing as a widowed mother in letters to the editor is a riot. I wasn't expecting some laughs!) In short, the book is fun -- well-written, lively, factual, and free of the gimmickry that detracts from the feeling that one is getting history rather than entertainment and a low-wattage version of creativity. You can learn about Franklin and thoroughly enjoy it, not a bad combination.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Full of details and rich story line, this book takes you through the life of the great Benjamin Franklin. So many interesting details and analysis are provided that you really get a good picture of the man. I did find it a bit slow in the beginning but then it took off. Definitely a good read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A wonderfully written history of Dr. Franklin and his role in American British politics. If you're looking for your first in-depth exposure to Dr. Franklin you must read this book. It provides a refreshing perspective of the American Revolution seen from afar. Franklin's efforts in Britain to effect a peaceful settlement, his ultimate surrender to the inevitable and his untiring efforts on behalf of his country are beautifully told. A man of great genius and humility who labored long for his country. Highly recommended.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If any of us could travel to the 18th Century, armed with the knowledge of modern life, I still think none would approach Ben Franklin's mastery over such a wide array of arts and sciences plus carrying it all off with great humor and humanism. This biography was so well conceived that the reader could actually see Franklin clearly in the narrative instead of spending hundreds of pages sifting through footnotes and asides in order to unmask the true Franklin. The true Franklin was a man bound to his curiousity above everything. His achievements afforded him the international respect necessary for a diplomat wanting to be taken seriously as few colonial Americans were. Brands is a gifted writer and this work is as engrossing as any historical work I've ever read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you are looking for an interesting, long term reading book, This is the book for you. There is so much to learn about this eccentric forefather. I was extremely pleased with it's prose and informational content. Brands did a very good job researching and producing a very pleasant reading book. I have recommended it at the B&N store I work at.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have been a revolutionary war reader for years. I always wanted to read a good book about B.Franklin for years and this is it. It was wonderful.
Guest More than 1 year ago