This is my review of Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson.
Vivid and gripping as a "good" novel, based on scholarly detail but always crystal clear, this is one of the best biographies I have read. My knowledge of Franklin was limited to his invention of the lightning conductor. Then, when his name cropped up in a book on Tom Paine, I realised that he was also a statesman, involved in the American Revolution and establishment of a new democratic republic. In fact, he was the epitome of "Eighteenth Century Enlightenment Man" – the kind of "all rounder" it was possible to be in the 1700s. Initially a printer from humble origins, he became a journalist, social reformer, promoter of self improvement through discussion groups, philosopher, and eventually Postmaster for the whole of America, in addition to the roles already mentioned. And all the time, right into his eighties, tirelessly inquisitive, he was observing the world and coming up with theories about how, say, to design efficient stoves and street lights, make boats go faster, avoid colds through exercise, reduce lead poisoning – he even created a musical instrument called the armonica, based on running a wet finger round a bowl, which Marie Antoinette took up playing!…. Then there were his social experiments, such as identifying thirteen virtues needed in life, and then trying to develop them week-by-week in a cycle!
Alongside all the veneration, he has been criticised fiercely for his pragmatism and over-readiness to compromise, said to stem from a lack of spiritual depth and absence of real passion and imagination – Keats condemned him as "full of mean and thrifty maxims". However, if you are a supporter of the Enlightenment, you could argue that in practice Franklin was capable of showing great vision and tolerance. He saw before others the need for the American colonies to work together, and used his great powers of negotiation and chess-playing skills – some would say manipulation – to obtain support from the French while managing to keep independent from their designs, then agree a peace with the British which gave America independence. When in his eighties, he was a prime move in agreeing a Constitution which has lasted to this day.
You can take this book on two levels. On one hand it is an entertaining yet thought-provoking analysis of a complex, interesting yet inevitably flawed man. For much of his life he made a point of being very industrious, relatively frugal, and was more than a bourgeois soul bent on making himself rich. His creed was to do what would make life better for people in general and oneself in the process, rather than a belief in the oppressive and divisive religious dogma which many Puritans had carried to the New World. It is hard not to be amazed and impressed by his vast energy, curiosity and inventiveness. The author conveys well what made Franklin so popular and effective: his obvious charm, ability to get on with a wide variety of people – the portrayal of his relations with other famous players such as the uptight John Adams is fascinating – frequent acts of generosity and such skills in communication that his self-deprecating wit and wisdom can speak to us now after more than two centuries. Yet, he was clearly capable of very devious behaviour to obtain his ends and often displayed a callous neglect towards close relatives, such as his wife, and was cruelly unforgiving towards his son in later life, despite having taken responsibility for him when an illegitimate infant.
On another level, this is an informative account of the development of America from a set of colonies to an independent republic. The American author may be a touch complacent about the current state of his country's democracy, but that is not down to Benjamin Franklin.
Anyway, seek this out since it deserves to be read more than many "hyped up" books.