Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

by Walter Isaacson

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Overview

Benjamin Franklin is the founding father who winks at us, the one who seems made of flesh rather than marble. In this authoritative and engrossing full-scale biography, Walter Isaacson shows how the most fascinating of America's founders helped define our national character.

In a sweeping narrative that follows Franklin's life from Boston to Philadelphia to London and Paris and back, Isaacson chronicles the adventures of the spunky runaway apprentice who became, during his 84-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.

Above all, Isaacson shows how Franklin's unwavering faith in the wisdom of the common citizen and his instinctive appreciation for the possibilities of democracy helped to forge an American national identity based on the virtues and values of its middle class.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780743258074
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 05/04/2004
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 608
Sales rank: 49,960
Product dimensions: 6.38(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Walter Isaacson, the president of the Aspen Institute, has been the chairman of CNN and the managing editor of Time magazine. He is the author of Kissinger: A Biography and the coauthor of The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and daughter.

Date of Birth:

May 20, 1952

Place of Birth:

New Orleans, LA

Education:

Harvard, B.A. in History and Literature, 1974; Oxford (Rhodes Scholar), M.A. in Philosophy, Politics, & Economics

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

Table of Contents

Chapter 1Benjamin Franklin and the Invention of America1
Chapter 2Pilgrim's Progress: Boston, 1706-17235
Chapter 3Journeyman: Philadelphia and London, 1723-172636
Chapter 4Printer: Philadelphia, 1726-173252
Chapter 5Public Citizen: Philadelphia, 1731-1748102
Chapter 6Scientist and Inventor: Philadelphia, 1744-1751129
Chapter 7Politician: Philadelphia, 1749-1756146
Chapter 8Troubled Waters: London, 1757-1762175
Chapter 9Home Leave: Philadelphia, 1763-1764206
Chapter 10Agent Provocateur: London, 1765-1770219
Chapter 11Rebel: London, 1771-1775252
Chapter 12Independence: Philadelphia, 1775-1776290
Chapter 13Courtier: Paris, 1776-1778325
Chapter 14Bon Vivant: Paris, 1778-1785350
Chapter 15Peacemaker: Paris, 1778-1785382
Chapter 16Sage: Philadelphia, 1785-1790436
Chapter 17Epilogue471
Chapter 18Conclusions476
Cast of Characters495
Chronology503
Currency Conversions506
Acknowledgments507
Sources and Abbreviations510
Notes515
Index563

Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Why does Walter Isaacson, in the opening pages of his biography, call Benjamin Franklin "the founding father who winks at us"? Why does he consider Franklin the most approachable of the founders, much less intimidating than other great figures of his time — Washington, Jefferson, or Adams?
2. Isaacson portrays Franklin as a man who has a particular resonance in 21st-century America. "We see his reflection in our own time," Isaacson writes. "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.'" Talk about how you think Franklin would react if he could be transported into our contemporary world. What aspects of American life today do you think would please him, and which would likely inspire his genial, mocking, or caustic wit?
3. "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," Isaacson writes. Were you surprised by the range and variety of Franklin's activities? In which of his many roles do you think Franklin had his most impressive accomplishments? Most of us learned when we were growing up about Franklin's flying a kite and discovering electricity and his invention of a lightning rod. Which of his many lesser known inventions or scientific experiments did you find especially interesting? Why?
4. "The essence of Franklin is that he was a civic-minded man. He cared more about public behavior than inner piety, and he was more interested in building the City of Man than the City of God," Isaacson writes. Talk about some of the community groups that Franklin founded and how they reflect his belief in civic virtue for the common good.
5. Ben Franklin, Isaacson tells us, "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.'" Discuss the ways in which Franklin helped to create, and to celebrate, a new ruling class of ordinary citizens — a new political order "in which rights and power were based not on the happenstance of heritage but on merit and virtue and hard work" Do you share Franklin's faith in the virtues and values of the middle class? Why or why not?
6. Benjamin Franklin was the only man who shaped all the founding documents of America: the Albany Plan of Union, the Declaration of Independence, the treaty of alliance with France, the peace treaty with England, and the Constitution. Discuss the unique stamp that Franklin left, or attempted to leave, on each of these documents? How might American history have unfolded differently had the colonial assemblies adopted Franklin's Albany Plan with its federalist concept? What is the significance of Franklin's edit of the Declaration of Independence, changing Jefferson's "We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable" to "We hold these truths to be self-evident"?
7. In what sense is Franklin "an exemplar of the Enlightenment"? Why did the French public consider Voltaire and Franklin to be soul mates? Why did Franklin abandon the Puritan/Calvinist theology that he had grown up with? How did his religious beliefs evolve over time?
8. What do you think of the way Franklin treated his common-law wife, Deborah, and his illegitimate son, William, the identity of whose mother remains unknown to this day? The book makes clear that for 15 of the last 17 years of Deborah's life, Franklin lived an ocean away, including when she died. Why do you think Isaacson still concludes: "Nevertheless, their mutual affection, respect, and loyalty — and their sense of partnership — would endure"? How do you think it is possible to reconcile Franklin's long absence and his behavior — his flirtations with many women, the surrogate familial relationships he would establish wherever he traveled, the intimate correspondence he exchanged with Polly, Caty Ray, and his female friends in Paris — with Isaacson's contention that he felt affection, respect, loyalty, and a sense of partnership with Deborah?
9. Why do you think that Franklin, so adept at compromise in negotiating treaties with other nations, was so unyielding in the breach with his own son? Contrast Franklin's relationship with William and his closeness with William's son, Temple.
10. Discuss the evolution of Franklin's thinking on the moral issue of slavery. How did Franklin's views change from the time when he personally owned a slave couple and facilitated the selling of slaves through ads in his newspaper to his emergence in later life as one of America's most active abolitionists?
11. Franklin came late to the Revolutionary cause. From 1760-1764 he remained an unabashed Royalist. Even after the British Parliament passed the notorious Stamp Act in March 1765 Franklin was slow to join the frenzy back home. What finally drove Franklin, who had long cherished a vision of imperial harmony in which Britain and America could both flourish in one great expanding empire, to cross the threshold to rebellion? Why do you think that Franklin who had wrestled for so long with his royalist loyalties was so unforgiving of William's?
12. Discuss the complicated mixture of resentment and respect, disdain, distrust, and grudging admiration that characterized the relationship between Franklin and John Adams. How might American and world history have taken a different turn had Adams rather than Franklin been sent to negotiate the alliance with France during the Revolutionary War?
13. In an interview after the hardcover edition of Benjamin Franklin was published, Isaacson revealed that he had first started reading about Franklin's diplomatic activities when he was working on his acclaimed biography of Henry Kissinger — because he wanted to understand the peculiar mixture of realism and idealism that has characterized American foreign policy. Do you think that the loyalty and gratitude that Franklin expressed for French support — which he believed was founded in morality as well as European power balances — was overly naïve as Adams intimated? Do you think that Franklin helped to set a tone for future American foreign policy? Should foreign policy have an idealistic component, or do you agree with Adams that it should be more coldly realistic, based on national interests?
14. Isaacson portrays Franklin as the Founding Father who intuitively was more comfortable with democracy than were most of his fellow founders. How did his democratic leanings reveal themselves in specific proposals at the Constitutional Convention? During his life, and since, Franklin has been lauded by his admirers and derided by his detractors as a pragmatist and a compromiser. "Compromisers may not make great heroes, but they do make democracies," Isaacson concludes. Do you agree or disagree? Why?
15. How did this book change your impressions of Benjamin Franklin? What was the most interesting discovery you made about Franklin from reading this biography? Do you admire him? Do you like him? Why or why not?

Introduction

Reading Group Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Why does Walter Isaacson, in the opening pages of his biography, call Benjamin Franklin "the founding father who winks at us"? Why does he consider Franklin the most approachable of the founders, much less intimidating than other great figures of his time — Washington, Jefferson, or Adams?

2. Isaacson portrays Franklin as a man who has a particular resonance in 21st-century America. "We see his reflection in our own time," Isaacson writes. "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.'" Talk about how you think Franklin would react if he could be transported into our contemporary world. What aspects of American life today do you think would please him, and which would likely inspire his genial, mocking, or caustic wit?

3. "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," Isaacson writes. Were you surprised by the range and variety of Franklin's activities? In which of his many roles do you think Franklin had his most impressive accomplishments? Most of us learned when we were growing up about Franklin's flying a kite and discovering electricity and his invention of a lightning rod. Which of his many lesser known inventions or scientific experiments did you find especially interesting?Why?

4. "The essence of Franklin is that he was a civic-minded man. He cared more about public behavior than inner piety, and he was more interested in building the City of Man than the City of God," Isaacson writes. Talk about some of the community groups that Franklin founded and how they reflect his belief in civic virtue for the common good.

5. Ben Franklin, Isaacson tells us, "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.'" Discuss the ways in which Franklin helped to create, and to celebrate, a new ruling class of ordinary citizens — a new political order "in which rights and power were based not on the happenstance of heritage but on merit and virtue and hard work" Do you share Franklin's faith in the virtues and values of the middle class? Why or why not?

6. Benjamin Franklin was the only man who shaped all the founding documents of America: the Albany Plan of Union, the Declaration of Independence, the treaty of alliance with France, the peace treaty with England, and the Constitution. Discuss the unique stamp that Franklin left, or attempted to leave, on each of these documents? How might American history have unfolded differently had the colonial assemblies adopted Franklin's Albany Plan with its federalist concept? What is the significance of Franklin's edit of the Declaration of Independence, changing Jefferson's "We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable" to "We hold these truths to be self-evident"?

7. In what sense is Franklin "an exemplar of the Enlightenment"? Why did the French public consider Voltaire and Franklin to be soul mates? Why did Franklin abandon the Puritan/Calvinist theology that he had grown up with? How did his religious beliefs evolve over time?

8. What do you think of the way Franklin treated his common-law wife, Deborah, and his illegitimate son, William, the identity of whose mother remains unknown to this day? The book makes clear that for 15 of the last 17 years of Deborah's life, Franklin lived an ocean away, including when she died. Why do you think Isaacson still concludes: "Nevertheless, their mutual affection, respect, and loyalty — and their sense of partnership — would endure"? How do you think it is possible to reconcile Franklin's long absence and his behavior — his flirtations with many women, the surrogate familial relationships he would establish wherever he traveled, the intimate correspondence he exchanged with Polly, Caty Ray, and his female friends in Paris — with Isaacson's contention that he felt affection, respect, loyalty, and a sense of partnership with Deborah?

9. Why do you think that Franklin, so adept at compromise in negotiating treaties with other nations, was so unyielding in the breach with his own son? Contrast Franklin's relationship with William and his closeness with William's son, Temple.

10. Discuss the evolution of Franklin's thinking on the moral issue of slavery. How did Franklin's views change from the time when he personally owned a slave couple and facilitated the selling of slaves through ads in his newspaper to his emergence in later life as one of America's most active abolitionists?

11. Franklin came late to the Revolutionary cause. From 1760-1764 he remained an unabashed Royalist. Even after the British Parliament passed the notorious Stamp Act in March 1765 Franklin was slow to join the frenzy back home. What finally drove Franklin, who had long cherished a vision of imperial harmony in which Britain and America could both flourish in one great expanding empire, to cross the threshold to rebellion? Why do you think that Franklin who had wrestled for so long with his royalist loyalties was so unforgiving of William's?

12. Discuss the complicated mixture of resentment and respect, disdain, distrust, and grudging admiration that characterized the relationship between Franklin and John Adams. How might American and world history have taken a different turn had Adams rather than Franklin been sent to negotiate the alliance with France during the Revolutionary War?

13. In an interview after the hardcover edition of Benjamin Franklin was published, Isaacson revealed that he had first started reading about Franklin's diplomatic activities when he was working on his acclaimed biography of Henry Kissinger — because he wanted to understand the peculiar mixture of realism and idealism that has characterized American foreign policy. Do you think that the loyalty and gratitude that Franklin expressed for French support — which he believed was founded in morality as well as European power balances — was overly naïve as Adams intimated? Do you think that Franklin helped to set a tone for future American foreign policy? Should foreign policy have an idealistic component, or do you agree with Adams that it should be more coldly realistic, based on national interests?

14. Isaacson portrays Franklin as the Founding Father who intuitively was more comfortable with democracy than were most of his fellow founders. How did his democratic leanings reveal themselves in specific proposals at the Constitutional Convention? During his life, and since, Franklin has been lauded by his admirers and derided by his detractors as a pragmatist and a compromiser. "Compromisers may not make great heroes, but they do make democracies," Isaacson concludes. Do you agree or disagree? Why?

15. How did this book change your impressions of Benjamin Franklin? What was the most interesting discovery you made about Franklin from reading this biography? Do you admire him? Do you like him? Why or why not?

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 Benjamin Franklin: An American Life and of Kissinger: A Biography, and the coauthor of The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and daughter.

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Benjamin Franklin: An American Life 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 136 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.
Othemts on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I've been learning more about this early American leader for my BBF walking tour and I find him increasingly fascinating the more I learn about him. Isaacson writes a lively narrative with a good balance between historical accuracy and popular history as well as warts & all without sensationalism.I won't go into a detailed summary of the book but here are a few elements that stand out for me:Isaacson goes beyond simple biographical details and makes a good attempt at an intellectual history of Franklin, especially in the earlier parts of the book.Franklin, for all his virtues, was not above getting dirty in politics. It's interesting to compare to the recent book I read about Aaron Burr and how differently their posthumous reputations have been adjudged when they were both very much men of their times. Then there's the idolatrous manner in which the Founding Fathers are revered in comparison to today's "corrupt politicians" which just isn't realistic.Franklin had an interesting habit of forming a surrogate family around him when he was away from home for extended periods, acting in an avuncular role for bright young women and his own grandsons. Yet he was often distant from his own children and spent many, many years separated from his wife.Another interesting contrast: Franklin has been called "the first American" and famously wore frontier-style clothing when visiting the French court, yet he seemed to jump at any opportunity to go to Europe and lived abroad in London and Paris for extended portions of his life.All in all this is a great introduction to a fascinating and hard to understand man.
ebnelson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The book was pretty good. Franklin certainly is a fascinating and noble character. The last chapter was particularly insightful. Its details of criticism of Franklin's life and philosophies really gives food for thought. Particularly interesting was the Christian commentators who criticized Franklin for caring for people more than the population of heaven.
PointedPundit on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A Sweeping View of the Life of Benjamin FranklinDuring his 84 year life, Benjamin was his country¿s best scientist, inventor, diplomat, writer, business strategist, and perhaps, its most practical political thinker.Walter Isaacson, formerly CNN Chairman and Time Magazine Editor, provides us with a 590 page portrait of the Founding Father who winks at us. This revolutionary leader prized pragmatics, religious tolerance and social mobility. Isaacson pictures a man with a vision for his new country that was based on middle class virtues and values. He pictures a man instinctively comfortable with the strength and wisdom of the country¿s shopkeepers. He pictures a man who based his morality on leading a ¿good¿ life, serving his country and on the belief that salvation would be achieved by good works.Franklin was a complex person. And Isaacson succeeds in drawing lessons from his life that are more complex that those usual drawn by founding father¿s foes and fans. I, for one, am grateful author had the time to thoughtfully explore them. These lessons are as vital today as they were during the revolutionary time in which Benjamin Franklin lived.
cyderry on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Ths biography of Benjamin Franklin really disappointed me. First of all I did not like the style of writing from W Issacson. It was very disjointed jumping from one thought process to another and back again. I felt that there were too many quotations in the early part of the book telling of his youth and his start in business. Toward the middle and end there were too many facts just put out like a grocery list. However, it was informative and I discovered that Mr. Franklin was indeed a remarkable Renaissance man with a sincere conscience that was geared to the benefit of all men. Having been offered a patent for what is now known as the Franklin Stove by the Governor of PA , declining he stated "As we enjoy great advantages from the invention of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours and this we should do freely and generously."Without his intercession at the Constitutional Congress, many believe that our government would not have been sucessful in developing as it did.I can't say that I would recommend this book but I won't say that it was all bad.
inkstained on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I devoured the first half of this book, and then had to put it down to deal with real life for awhile. I haven't picked it up again yet, but that's only because I know that if I did, the next time I put it down again another two weeks would have passed and my life would be in chaos. Walter Isaacson is a genius of a writer, and only someone as genius as he is could possibly make any of the founding fathers as absorbingly interesting as this. I mean, I like history and all, but this was more like having ole' Benjy on my Tivo like reruns I can't resist--next thing I know it's 5AM and I forgot to eat dinner.
bherner on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A great biography. I've never been much of a fan of biographies. Isaacson is a master of the form though.
RudyJohnson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I thought Walter Isaacson¿s bio of Benjamin Franklin to be a fascinating read into this outstanding patriot. I always believed that Franklin was one of the cornerstones in the founding of our great nation. Mr. Isaacson does an excellent job of bringing out Franklin¿s achievements both in the personal and political arena. It¿s a great bio and if want to know about this patriot then I highly recommend this book.
ck2935 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Ok, another audio book that I really enjoyed. Franklin is simply facinationg. He is an inspiration and a great representation of the American spirit.
Bookmarque on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I can't really tell you why this biography took me a year to finish. Laziness on my part most likely rather than any fault of the author or his subject. After reading the exhaustive work on John Adams by David McCullough, I felt like I should read about Adams's contemporaries and when I noticed this book collecting dust at my mom's house, I took it home. I guess it was the known quantity aspect of the biography that made it slow going for me. In broad strokes I knew how things would turn out; that eventually we'd get France's reluctant backing in the separation from Britain, that we'd win the war and that Franklin's behind-the-scenes efforts to effect both outcomes were constant and often the only efforts.Franklin the man was a sketch for me though, even if I did somewhat know him through the long tunnel of history. I knew of his scientific and inventing contributions, but didn't know how early on he made some of his discoveries - the popular motif of Franklin as an old man with a kite is way off base. I also had no idea of his origins, how he came to the Colonies or early civic activities and now I feel on better ground. Everything he did was motivated out of a desire for a practical benefit. This might not put him in the same league as theoretical or "pure" scientists, but it does make his contributions feel more lasting.I also have a better understanding of his attitude toward setting up an independent state and his role in doing so. He was a master of diplomacy and compromise in the face of strong personalities with little patience for the process. His ability to work with others and get the best out of them proved invaluable to not only the Declaration of Independence and the diplomatic missions it spawned, but the Constitution itself - calling it as near perfect as it could be.Isaacson presents his information in an ostensible chronological format, but often the facts he presents seem to be competing for attention. They come thick and fast and are sometimes difficult to digest before another one comes along. He does, however, try to present all sides of his subject, not just dwelling on the inventor or diplomat. I don't have enough experience with biographies or enough expertise on the academics that are thought of as proper, or research techniques thought of as rigorous, but I did not doubt that Isaacson gave us the facts as he saw them. I was glad for the information at the back about characters and sources.
TooBusyReading on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
While this biography isn't a quick, light read, it is as interesting and complex as the man himself must have been. Isaacson goes far beyond the cartoonish image that many of us have of an old guy flying a kite in a thunderstorm, and uncovers the real person, the good, the bad, and the ugly.Franklin had tremendous influence in the way the United States was formed, and the book covers the politics, Franklin's friends and enemies, and the negotiation and compromises that were necessary to accomplish so much of what he did. Just as interesting was Franklin's personal life. He was a charmer and had ladies fawning over him, sometimes for decades. But he was often cold to and unnecessarily judgmental of his own family, essentially abandoning some of them. As Poor Richard, he wrote so many well-known homilies but didn't always follow his own advice. His inventions were based on what he considered practical, not theoretical, and he wasy always interested in learning more.Mr. Isaacson has included quotes from more obscure sources as well as documents that almost all Americans know. All in all, the book is well researched and informative, highly entertaining, and very readable.
ZoharLaor on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Benjamin Franklin: An American Life is bar-none the best biography I have ever read.Walter Isaacson takes us on a journey with Benjamin Franklin from the cradle to the grave, through decades and generations of scientifically and personal achievements, setbacks and misfortunes.The book itself is easy to read, told through chronological glimpses at Benjamin Franklin's life rather than working towards an overall swiping grand achievement, a mistake, I believe, which is done by many biographers.Think of you own life?Do you want think that there is only one story of grand achievement to tell or many little stories which might give the reader a new perspective and an opportunity to know more about you than just a footnote in history.We all know Benjamin Franklin from history classes and the teacher might have mentioned his other notable achievements, however Mr. Franklin had many notable achievements - far too many to mention in a 45 minute classroom. This biography is a terrific sweeping read and full of insights.One of the best points about this book is that Benjamin Franklin, even though a loyal subject to the crown for most of his life, is a contemporary American - or certainly what we think of ourselves as and what we like to achieve: hard working, inventive, brave, curious, a PR maven and rich.A recommended read and a wonderful gift.
denmoir on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A balanced portrayal of a complex and extraordinary man.