Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Review: Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life
From Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, by Walter Isaacson
Open quote 

'Mankind divides into two classes,' the Nation magazine declared in 1868: the 'natural-born lovers' and the 'natural-born haters' of Benjamin Franklin."

After the jump, my review.

Grade: B+

Count me on Team "Natural-Born Haters." At least that was my team before I read this biography. For too long I had pigeon-holed Benjamin Franklin into a caricature of the man, the author of too smug, too pat bromides like "Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise." Walter Isaacson's biography reveals a breadth and depth to this man, a sense of his importance in shaping the character of America, that it's impossible for me not to join Team "Natural-Born Lovers."

Franklin's c.v. details are well known: scientist, inventor, author, publisher, community organizer, politician, diplomat. You know the type: jack of all trades, master of none. But in Franklin's case, he was truly a master of all. He wasn't just a scientist. He was America's best known scientist, feted all over Europe. He wasn't just a diplomat. He obtained an alliance with France and funds and military help to go along with it without which the United States of America wouldn't be. In all his endeavors, he rose to the top.

Except one: he was a mediocre poet. He was too practical for lofty visions. He was focused on keeping busy, being useful, and self-improvement. Franklin was the first in an honored tradition of American self-help gurus: Horatio Alger, Dale Carnegie, Stephen Covey. And that was the crux of the problem for the natural-born haters. Franklin was painted as a man not of soaring moral principles but of business efficiency, a "penny saving prig" in short.

But that short changes the man. If he seems too focused on main street values, it is because no one else was. He was the great champion of the middle class. Before Franklin, there were the aristocrats and the farm workers. To the extent that America's greatness rose out of its growing middle class, its shopkeepers and tradesmen, we have Franklin to thank, not Washington or Adams or Hamilton. He was more interested in work than prayer. It was he who separated "work ethic" from its "Protestant work ethic" origins among the Puritans. It was he who brought Puritanism "into an Enlightenment era that exalted tolerance, individual merit, civic virtue, good deeds, and rationality."

Franklin was a practical man intent on getting things done. And did he ever get things done. Lending libraries, volunteer fire departments, social insurance, an efficient continental postal service, there was little that Franklin didn't have a hand in. He was the first to promote the coming together of the thirteen colonies into some kind of unified whole with his Albany Plan in 1754 three decades before the Constitution was adopted. And he was a key conciliator during the Constitutional Convention who helped forge the compromises in that document. Contrast that with, say, today's Congress in which "compromise" is a dirty word and obstructionism is a gloried goal and how can one not gravitate towards Team "Natural-Born Lovers?"

Isaacson does an excellent job of resurrecting Franklin (for me). He doesn't take sides. He covers all the details of his life in an impartial manner. It's Franklin's amazing life that naturally leads the reader to recognize Franklin's greatness. After reading this biography, I'm ready to put him at the pinnacle of great Americans, above even Washington and Lincoln.

So, why only a B+ for Isaacson's work? Well, I guess it's because Franklin makes his biographer's job a little too easy. Franklin left so many journals, letters, books (Franklin even wrote one of history's first autobiographies), and has been the subject of so many other biographies that Isaacson's biggest challenge was probably deciding what to leave out of his own book. As long as this book is (589 pages), it still reads kind of like a condensed version of Franklin's life.

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