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Yale University Press
Benjamin Franklin / Edition 1

Benjamin Franklin / Edition 1

by Edmund S. MorganEdmund S. Morgan
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“The best short biography of Franklin ever written.”—Gordon S. Wood

Benjamin Franklin is perhaps the most remarkable figure in American history: the greatest statesman of his age, he played a pivotal role in the formation of the American republic. He was also a pioneering scientist, a bestselling author, the country’s first postmaster general, a printer, a bon vivant, a diplomat, a ladies’ man, and a moralist—and the most prominent celebrity of the eighteenth century.

Franklin was, however, a man of vast contradictions, as Edmund Morgan demonstrates in this brilliant biography. A reluctant revolutionary, Franklin had desperately wished to preserve the British Empire, and he mourned the break even as he led the fight for American independence. Despite his passion for science, Franklin viewed his groundbreaking experiments as secondary to his civic duties. And although he helped to draft both the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution, he had personally hoped that the new American government would take a different shape. Unraveling the enigma of Franklin’s character, Morgan shows that he was the rare individual who consistently placed the public interest before his own desires.

Written by one of our greatest historians, Benjamin Franklin offers a provocative portrait of America’s most extraordinary patriot.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300101621
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 08/11/2003
Series: Yale Nota Bene S
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 322,426
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Edmund S. Morgan is Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University. He has written more than a dozen books including Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America, which won the Bancroft Prize, and American Slavery, American Freedom, which won the Francis Parkman Prize and the Albert J. Beveridge Award. Cited as “one of America’s most distinguished historians,” Morgan was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2000.

Read an Excerpt

Benjamin Franklin


Copyright © 2002 Edmund S. Morgan.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-300-09532-5

An Exciting World

The first thing to do is to overcome the image of a man perpetually at his desk, scribbling out the mountain of words that confronts us. Because Franklin wrote so well and so much it is natural to think of him with pen in hand. But the man we will find in his writings likes to be in the open air, walking the city streets, walking the countryside, walking the deck of a ship. Indoors, he likes to be with people, sipping tea with young women, raising a glass with other men, playing chess, telling jokes, singing songs.

Don't start with his first surviving writings, the labored compositions of a precocious teenager, which he slyly introduced into his brother's newspaper under the facetious name of Silence Dogood. Instead, meet an athletic young man on a sailing ship, headed back to America from his first trip to England. He had gone there in 1724 with glowing promises of support from the then governor of Pennsylvania, who turned out to be something of a con man. When the governor's promises failed him, Franklin had used his skills as a printer to make his living in London for a year and a half, enjoying the sights and sampling the temptations of the big city. Now, with this behind him and still only twenty years old, he has boarded ship for the voyage back to Philadelphia, ready for whatever comes his way.

The ship has stopped at the Isle of Wight, trapped there bycontrary winds for several days. So young Franklin and some other passengers go ashore for a walk. Most of them stop for refreshment at a convenient tavern, but Franklin and two others keep going and make a hike of it. Overtaken by night they find they have to cross a tidal inlet to get back, and the owner of the only available boat refuses to stir from his bed to ferry them across. They decide to commandeer his boat, but it is moored to a stake that the incoming tide has surrounded, leaving the boat fifty yards from shore. Franklin strips to his shirt and wades out in the water and mud up to his waist but finds the boat chained and locked to a staple in the stake. He tries to wrench out the staple. No go. He tries to pull up the stake. No go. Back to shore, and the three start looking for a farmer's haystack to sleep in. But one of them has found a horseshoe. Maybe they can use it to pry the staple loose. Franklin is back in the water again, and this time he succeeds. He brings the boat ashore and they all climb aboard, but halfway across in the dark they stick in mud shallows. After breaking an oar and climbing out into the mud up to their necks, they finally drag the boat loose and use the remaining oar to paddle it to the opposite shore and tie it down. Muddy and wet, and perhaps a little shamefaced, they make their way back to their friends.

It was probably no accident that Franklin was elected to go into the water for the boat. This is a muscular young man, about five feet nine or ten, full of the energies—physical, intellectual, and sexual—of youth. In the London print shop he keeps in shape by carrying a double weight of type forms up and down stairs. In his leisure hours he enjoys a form of exercise that few people of his time dared to try: he swims, and he is good at it. He makes the Thames his playground and shows off to friends on a Boating excursion by jumping in and swimming from near Chelsea to Blackfriars, a distance of at least two miles, "performing on the Way many Feats of Activity, both upon and under water." Like many athletes, he put on weight when his life became more sedentary, and the multitude of Franklin portraits were all painted after he turned plump and middle-aged. By then his physical energy had flagged, his sexual energy remained alive but a little frustrated or at least constrained, while his intellect, never slowing down, had made him the figure that the whole world wanted to immortalize in paint and marble. But think of him first in his twenties and thirties, on his feet and ready to go. On this voyage home, when they finally got a favorable wind and put to sea, Franklin amused himself by diving off and swimming around the ship. He never gave up his enjoyment of swimming and was still teaching timid friends how to do it when he was in his seventies. He even experimented with attaching paddles to his hands and feet, like modern skin divers, to step up his speed.

People at the time were under the illusion, as many still are, that getting cold and wet (swimming, walking in the rain, wearing damp clothes) was the way to "catch cold." There was not yet a germ theory of disease, but Franklin proved, to his own satisfaction at least, that people caught cold from one another and from "too full Living with too little Exercise," not from being chilled. He found that he could spend two or three hours in the water with no ill effects. So get out of the house and enjoy the fresh air, let it rain. Even when he had to be indoors Franklin wanted fresh air and dismayed everyone by opening his window at night. On a political mission with future president John Adams, when they had to share a room for the night, the two quarreled (as they did about a great many things) over opening the window. Adams ungraciously fell asleep while Franklin continued to lecture him about the virtues of fresh air.

An Insatiable Curiosity

If we watch Franklin in the fresh air for a while, we quickly become aware of his most conspicuous virtue, the thing that would earn him world-wide fame in his own lifetime: his insatiable curiosity. There was more to see outdoors than in, and Franklin could not see anything without asking himself what it was, how it got that way, what made it tick. He had that rare capacity for surprise that has made possible so many advances in human knowledge, the habit of not taking things for granted, the ability to look at some everyday occurrence and wonder why. See him still on that voyage from London back to America. He watches everything that happens, including the sharks that keep him from swimming for a while, and he hooks up some seaweed and notices little heart-shaped yellowish lumps. He counts forty of them on a single strand of the weed. Examining them he finds that some have an opening "thrusting out a set of unformed claws, not unlike those of a crab, but the inner part was still a kind of soft jelly." Then he notices a tiny crab walking around and conjectures that all the lumps are embryo crabs. By keeping the seaweed in salt water and finding another smaller crab in it the next day, he convinces himself "that at least this sort of crabs are generated in this manner."

He did not pursue his study of pelagic crabs, and since he was more often on land than at sea he found more things to wonder about there, but his travels kept him fascinated with water and its behavior, not only in the ocean but in rivers and lakes, even in jars and bottles. As we get to know him we find that his curiosity, once aroused, keeps him ever on the lookout. On another sea voyage he made himself an oil lamp to read by from a glass in which he floated the oil and a wick on water, hanging the glass from the ceiling of his cabin. Quickly he became more interested in the water and oil than in his book. As the ship rocked he noticed that the water was "in great commotion" compared to the oil. And after the oil burned away during the night to a thin film the water too stopped moving. Franklin as usual wondered why, and when he came ashore kept trying out the effects of differing amounts of oil on water. He could not explain what he found, and neither could learned friends he showed it to, who promised him that they would "consider it." They doubtless went home and quickly forgot what they had seen. But Franklin in a letter to a more sympathetic friend set down in a few words the attitude that made him what we would call a scientist. "I think it is worth considering," he said, "For a new appearance, if it cannot be explain'd by our old principles, may afford us new ones, of use perhaps in explaining some other obscure parts of natural knowledge."

Franklin never stopped considering things he could not explain. He could not drink a cup of tea without wondering why tea leaves gathered in one configuration rather than another at the bottom. He was always devising experiments to help him understand what he saw around him, but he made the whole world his laboratory. From pouring oil on water in a glass, he turned to pouring it on the surface of ponds and lakes and watched a tiny amount of it flatten out the ripples. He carried a bamboo cane with a vial of oil in its hollows to make experiments at every stream or lake he passed in his walks. He compared the way a drop of oil on a piece of glass stayed put, while on water it instantly spread out in an iridescent film too thin to measure. Why? At age sixty-seven we find him organizing an expedition on a windy day near Portsmouth, on the English Channel, to see whether oil would flattten the surf a quarter of a mile offshore. Pitching up and down in a small boat he could see that the oil poured from a bottle flattened the white caps but had little effect on the size of the waves. No matter. He was careful to record the details "even of an Experiment that does not succeed, since they may give Hints of Amendment in future Trials." And the experiment prompted him to new conjectures about the nature of the repulsion between oil and water and how it operated.

For Franklin the world was so full of strange things that it is hard to keep up with his efforts to understand them. The ocean continued to furnish surprises for him throughout his life. When he learned that the ocean voyage between England and America generally took two weeks longer going east than it did going west, he conjectured that the rotation of the earth was slowing down the eastward movement. But then he discovered the Gulf Stream. A Nantucket whaler roughed out the location of it for him on a map, which he then had engraved for the benefit of ship captains, because he calculated that the western flow of the current slowed down ships traveling eastward in it by as much as seventy miles a day and speeded up those headed west. He also found that he could help chart the course of the stream himself by keeping track of the ocean's temperature on his transatlantic voyages. The water in the Gulf Stream was warmer than the surrounding sea. Thereafter when he crossed the ocean he could be found on deck taking daily temperature readings to plot the course of the stream himself as the vessel crossed and recrossed it.

When he was seventy-eight years old, Franklin set down in a remarkable letter to a friend some of the ideas about ships and the sea that had come to him in the seven times he had crossed the Atlantic. The letter is full of suggestions that were never carried out and a few that were: new ways to rig a ship to reduce wind resistance, new designs for the hull to make it steadier and roomier, and new ways to propel it through the water or to stop or slow it down. Franklin's designs all assumed that the only power available besides wind would be human power, but even so he could propose not only new ways to use oars but also propellers operated by hand both in the air and the water as well as jet propulsion activated by hand pumps.

The fact that Franklin thought about doing things better with nothing but hand power tells us something both about him and about his time. He liked doing things himself. He was continually designing experiments and constructing apparatus to carry them out, but mostly they were things he could do by himself or that he could get some craftsman to do according to his directions. He must have been very good with his hands, and the world he knew was a world in which nearly everything was done by hand. That world was changing, even in his own lifetime, but in order to recapture his sense of wonder at the things he found in it, we have to keep in mind what he did not wonder about, what was not even there to wonder about, and the things even he took for granted.

We get a hint of the difference between his world and ours when he remarks in passing to a friend that "No Species or Genus of Plants was ever lost, or ever will be while the World continues." Franklin assumed, with most other people of the time, that God had created the world and all the creatures in it, and God would not be likely to create something and then change His mind and let it perish. Nor was He thought to have kept on creating new things. Charles Darwin had not yet turned the plants and animals Franklin knew into an unstable collection of organisms all in the process of becoming something else over immense expanses of time. The crabs Franklin found in the seaweed had a peculiar method of propagating themselves, but it was the way God had ordained for them on the day of Creation. The things that Franklin touched or felt, the water he swam in, the air he breathed, were made up of what he called particles. He assumed that they were too small to be seen by the naked eye, but he could have had no hint of the alarming forces hidden inside them. Water was water, oil was oil. Our world has grown more mysterious than his in a thousand ways, and the more mysterious the more we examine it. While the things we see and feel do look and feel to our senses much as they did to Franklin, we know in a way he could not that they are not what they seem and that with the proper instruments we would find them to be well beyond our everyday comprehension. Scientists have probed deeper and deeper into the dynamic structure of matter and its infinite explosion in what we still call the universe. As a result we cannot look meaningfully at anything in quite the way Franklin did.

But it is also easy to exaggerate the differences. Franklin had the same curiosity about the world that drives today's scientists. He was one of the succession of probers who have transformed our vision of what we see. And watching his probing brings us back to a time when the world could reveal profound secrets to an ordinary man armed only with the imagination to ask why familiar things happened the way they did. But of course ordinary men cease to be ordinary when they not only ask such questions but exert themselves to find the answers. And that is what Franklin continally did.

On the evening of October 21, 1743, in Philadelphia, Franklin was preparing to watch the eclipse of the moon (checking out his own almanac) scheduled for nine o'clock, but by eight a northeast storm had covered the skies, and he had to give up. The storm was a bad one and lasted for two more days, the way nor'easters often do. In the coming week in the newspapers from other colonies, which he regularly exchanged with other publishers, he read of the damage inflicted by the storm up and down the coast from Virginia to New England. Then came a letter from his brother in Boston who had observed the lunar eclipse there. How could his brother have seen the eclipse before the storm hit, when Boston was well to the northeast of Philadelphia? Since it blew from the northeast, it should have come from there. Had the storm already passed in Boston? Anyone with less curiosity than Franklin might well have wondered a little about that and then forgotten it. But Franklin began stopping travelers passing through Philadelphia to ask when the storm first struck in different places. It soon became clear that the storm that blew from the northeast had come from the opposite direction. Subsequent simple observations showed him that all "N East Storms begin to Leeward and are often more violent there than farther to Windward." And he characteristically went on to try to account for the fact by speculations about warm air rising in the southwest and drawing in colder air from the northeast to produce storms and make them more violent the closer they were to the point where they originated. He did not have the apparatus of modern meteorology to check his conclusions or he would doubtless have done so and found them to be a little off the mark, but not far.

The movement of air interested him as much as that of water. (Waterspouts combined the two, and he was fascinated by them.) Everybody knew that hot air (heated by fire) rises and escapes through a chimney, some of it as smoke. But Franklin became an authority on stoves and chimneys because he stopped to ask where the air came from that went up the chimney with the smoke, it had to come from somewhere, from open doors or windows or from cracks in the walls. Once you recognized that fact, you could heat your house most efficiently by providing a direct access from the fireplace to the outside air and also by recirculating warm air within the house. He tried various ways of achieving that effect, not all of which worked, but neither do all of those that are still being tried.


Excerpted from Benjamin Franklin by EDMUND S. MORGAN. Copyright © 2002 by Edmund S. Morgan. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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