A selection of Benjamin Franklin’s writings, with an introduction and commentary by renowned author Walter Isaacson.
Selected and annotated by the author of the acclaimed Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, this collection of Franklin’s writings shows why he was the bestselling author of his day and remains America’s favorite founder and wit. Includes an introductory essay exploring Franklin’s life and impact as a writer, and each piece is accompanied by a preface and notes that provide background, context, and analysis.
Walter Isaacson, University Professor of History at Tulane, has been CEO of the Aspen Institute, chairman of CNN, and editor of Time magazine. He is the author of Leonardo da Vinci; The Innovators; 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. Facebook: Walter Isaacson, Twitter: @WalterIsaacson
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
Read an Excerpt
When he was a young teenager working as an apprentice at his brother's printing shop in Boston, Benjamin Franklin, America's original apostle of self improvement, devised a wonderful little method to teach himself how to be a powerful and persuasive writer. He would read the essays of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele in The Spectator, the irreverent London daily that flourished in 1711-12, take notes, jumble them up, set them aside, and then return to them a few days later to see how well he could replicate the original. Sometimes he would even turn the notes into poetry, which helped him expand his vocabulary by forcing him to search for words with the right rhythm or rhyme, before trying to recreate what Addison and Steele had written.
When he found his own version wanting, he would correct it. "But I sometimes had the pleasure," he recalled, "of fancying that in certain particulars of small import I had been lucky enough to improve the method or the language, and this encouraged me to think that I might possibly in time come to be a tolerable English writer, of which I was extremely ambitious."
More than making himself merely "tolerable," he became the most popular writer in colonial America. He may also have been, as the great literary historian Carl Van Doren has flatly declared, "the best writer in America" during his lifetime. (The closest rival for that title would probably be the preacher Jonathan Edwards, author of such vivid sermons as "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," who was certainly more intense and literary, though far less felicitous and amusing.) Franklin's self-taught style, as befitting a protégé of Addison and Steele, featured a direct and conversational prose, which was lacking in poetic flourish but was powerful in its directness and humor.
Franklin's father had originally intended to send the last of his sons to Harvard to study for the ministry, but observing his cheeky impertinence, especially about matters of religion, he decided that it would be a waste of money. Instead, he decided to apprentice the young boy at age 12 to his older brother James, who had learned the print trade in London and returned to Boston to open up shop and start the first feisty and independent newspaper in the colonies.
The print trade was a natural calling for young Franklin. "From a child I was fond of reading," he recalled, "and all the little money that came into my hands was ever laid out in books." Indeed, books were the most important formative influence in his life, and he was lucky to grow up in Boston where libraries had been carefully nurtured since the Arabella brought fifty volumes along with the town's first settlers in 1630.
Franklin was able to sneak books from the other apprentices who worked for booksellers, as long as he returned the volumes clean. "Often I sat up in my room reading the greatest part of the night, when the book was borrowed in the evening and to be returned early in the morning, lest it should be missed or wanted."
His favorite was John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, the saga of the tenacious quest by a man named Christian to reach the Celestial City, which was published in 1678 and quickly became popular among the Puritans and other dissenters who settled Boston. As important as its religious message, at least for Franklin, was the refreshingly clean and sparse prose style it offered in an age when writing had become clotted by the richness of the Restoration. "Honest John was the first that I know of," Franklin correctly noted, "who mixed narration and dialogue, a method of writing very engaging to the reader."
A central theme of Bunyan's book -- and of the passage from Puritanism to Enlightenment, and of Franklin's life -- was contained in its title: progress, the concept that individuals, and mankind in general, move forward and improve based on a steady increase of knowledge and the wisdom that comes from conquering adversity. Christian's famous opening phrase sets the tone: "As I walked through the wilderness of this world..." Even for the faithful, this progress was not solely the handiwork of the Lord but also the result of a human struggle, by individuals and by communities, to triumph over obstacles.
Likewise, another Franklin favorite -- and one must pause to marvel at a twelve-year-old with such tastes in leisure pursuits -- was Plutarch's Lives, which is also based on the premise that individual endeavor can change the course of history for the better. Plutarch's heroes, like Bunyan's Christian, are honorable men who believe that their personal strivings are intertwined with the progress of mankind. History is a tale, Franklin came to believe, not of immutable forces but of human endeavors.
His writing style, as well as his belief in the power of the written word to encourage useful civic endeavors, was also influenced by two books he borrowed from his father's little library shelf: Daniel Defoe's Essay on Projects and Cotton Mather's Bonifacius: Essays to Do Good. Throughout his life as an author and publisher, he believed that writing should primarily be judged by its practical effects and usefulness. He had little use for the ethereal artistic and sublime poetic aspirations of the Romantic period that was beginning to flower near the end of his life. Instead, he was an avatar of the Enlightenment, with its belief in reason, practicality, direct prose and earthly enquiry. To that he added the wit he found in Addison, Steele, Defoe and later Jonathan Swift.
His first significant published writings came when he was only sixteen and he invented the pseudonym Silence Dogood to get himself published in his brother's paper. (His jealous brother would not have printed them if he had known the true author.) Like many other witty writers of the Enlightenment, he was partial to pseudonyms and hoaxes, and he wrote his last such piece, a purported speech by a member of the divan of Algiers defending the enslavement of Christians, on his deathbed at eighty-four.
After running away from his apprenticeship in Boston at 17, Franklin settled in Philadelphia, where he soon launched his own print shop and newspaper. He perfected various tricks of the trade to build circulation: gossip, sex, crime and humor. But he also used his pen to encourage worthy civic endeavors and, later, to push his political views. His Poor Richard's almanacs combined humor and his penchant for self-improvement to become far and away the best-selling books of the era. And he used his talent to create a great media empire that included franchised print shops and newspapers throughout the colonies and then a distribution system, the colonial postal service, that tied them all together and helped give an advantage to his own content.
His output was wondrously diverse and prolific. He wrote pointed tales and humorous hoaxes, amusing essays, letters both chatty and sophisticated, scientific treatises, detailed charters for civic associations, political tracts, plans for uniting the colonies, propaganda pieces supporting the American cause in Britain and then France, and bagatelles to his French female friends. All together his writings fill what will be forty-two volumes, each averaging about seven hundred pages, of which thirty-seven have already been published by the masterly editors of his papers at Yale University.
In this book, I have assembled some of his most revealing, amusing and significant works. I tried to pick those that gave the best insight into Franklin's personality and into his influence on the American character. I also chose a few of them, I must admit, simply because I found them delightful, and I want to convey what a fun (although complex) person Franklin was.
I have presented the pieces chronologically, for the most part, because they thus provide an insight into the evolution of his own life and thinking. To put them in context, they are accompanied by short introductions or explanations that draw from the biography I wrote, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. One exception to the chronological order is the Autobiography. He wrote it in four installments, beginning in 1771 and ending in 1789 a year before his death, and I have included it all as one coherent narrative, as he intended, at the end of this volume.
Franklin's writings likewise flow together to give a narrative of both his own pilgrim's progress and that of the new nation he helped to shape. He was the greatest inventor of his time, but the most interesting thing that he 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 truth. 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, first and foremost, as a printer and writer. And it was through these crafts that he was able to influence, more than any of the other Founders, the character and personality of the American nation.
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