Book Review: Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

I don’t have any heroes. Role models, sure. Heroes, no. That might have just changed. I finished Walter Isaacson’s full-length biography of Benjamin Franklin. Although I had read Edmund Morgan’s biography, and although I co-founded an intellectual discussion society modeled after Franklin’s Junto, for the first time I truly felt deeply moved and inspired by this great American hero.

Where to begin? What could I possibly say that would do justice not simply to the man himself but to the impressive choir of commentators who all have spoken so eloquently about Franklin’s life? I’ll take the easy way out. Below are random, quoted excerpts I highlighted in the book. In the meantime, I highly recommend this biography to all life entrepreneurs. We can never know enough about this extraordinary person.

  • The fictional Poor Richard…helped define what would become a dominant tradition in American folk humor: the naively wicked wit and homespun wisdom of down-home characters who seem to be charmingly innocent but are sharply pointed about the pretensions of the elite and the follies of everyday life.
  • The Junto served as an extension and amplification of Franklin’s gregarious civic nature. Like Franklin himself, it was practical, industrious, inquiring, convival, and middle-brow philosophical. It celebrated civic virtue, mutual benefits, the improvement of self and society, and the proposition that hardworking citizens could do well by doing good.
  • Among Franklin’s cards was his fame, and he was among a long line of statesmen, from Richeliu to Metternich to Kissinger, to realize that with celebrity came cachet, and with that came influence.
  • In colonial America it was sinful to look idle, in France it was vulgar to look busy.
  • By early 1778, Voltaire was 84 and ailing, and there had even been stories that he had dies. His retort, even better than Mark Twain’s similar one, was that the reports were true, only premature.
  • One of Franklin’s famous passions was chess…he said it taught foresight, circumspection, caution, and the importance of not being discouraged….never hurry your opponent, do not try to deceive by pretending to have made a bad move, and never gloat in victory. There were even times when it was prudent to let an opponent retract a bad move: "You may indeed happen to lose the game to your opponent, but you will win what is better, his esteem."
  • In America, he said, "people do not enquire of a stranger, What is he? but, What can he do?"…He said that a true American "would think of himself more obliged to a genealogist who could prove for him that his ancestors and relations for ten generations had been ploughmen, smiths, carpenters, turners, weavers, tanners or even shoemakers, and consequently that they were useful members of society, than if he could only prove that they were Gentlemen, doing nothing of value but living idly on the labor of others."
  • "Nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes."
  • When a church asked him to donate a church bell, he told them to forsake the steeple and build a library, for which he sent "books instead of a bell, sense being preferable to sound."
  • Franklin’s reputation was also elevated by the emergence of that distinctly American philosophy known as pragmatism, which holds, as Franklin had, that the truth of any proposition, whether it be a scientific or moral or theological or social one, is based on how well it correlated with experimental results and produces a practical outcome.
  • What he lacked in spiritual profundity he made up for in practicality and potency.
  • All of this made him the most accomplished American of his age and the most influential in inventing the type of society America would become. Indeed, the roots of much of what distinguishes the nation can be found in Franklin: its cracker-barrel humor and wisdom; its technological ingenuity; its pluralistic tolerance; its ability to weave together individualism and community cooperation; its philosophical pragmatism; its celebration of meritocratic mobility; the idealistic streak ingrained in its foreign policy; and the Main Street (or Market Street) virtues that serve as the foundation for its civic values.

7 Responses to Book Review: Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

  1. David Storrs says:

    I once read a great quote of Franklin’s:

    “The thing that I am proudest of inventing is the word ‘American’.”

    (It’s from memory, so it’s not an exact quote.) The point was that he got people to think of themselves as Americans first and New Yorkers / Texans / Democrats / Republicans second. (*)

    We could do with a little more of that today.

    (*) Yes, these divisions were chosen to be relevant to today, not to Franklin’s time.

  2. Anonymous says:

    You forget one thing. Franklin is single-handedly responsible for electrons being called negative and protons being called positive. He had a 50:50 shot of making electromagnetism way easier to calculate, and he still screwed it up.

  3. When I was a kid, about eight years old, I started reading biographies.

    I read several on Ben Franklin over the years, one of my favorites was his autobiography.

    The edition I read had an essay in the addenda written when he was young, perhaps twenty-five.

    In it, he expresses theological views that might be considered heretical by many Christian churches, especially his ideas of how the universe is administered by spiritual beings, with different entities reigning as powers on different worlds.

    Some of the fundamentalists might even see them as demonic.

  4. Dave says:

    >>In colonial America it was sinful to look idle, in France it was vulgar to look busy.

    Is it not still the same?

  5. TK says:

    Hey Ben:

    Always good to see you mention the Junto.

    I have got a little East Coast Junto going now. A small group of entrepreneurs, civic leaders, and educators meet monthly in the NEw England area to talk about fresh ideas, politics, and philosophy.

    If anyone out there is interested in being a part, drop me an email.

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