He was, during his 84-year 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 sought practical ways to make stoves less smoky and commonwealths less corrupt. He organized neighborhood constabularies and international alliances, local lending libraries and national legislatures. He combined two types of lenses to create bifocals and two concepts of representation to foster the nation's federal compromise. He 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. And he helped invent America's unique style of homespun humor, democratic values, and philosophical pragmatism.
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.
Through it all, he trusted the hearts and minds of his fellow "leather-aprons" more than he did those of any inbred elite. He saw middle-class values as a source of social strength, not as something to be derided. His guiding principle was a "dislike of everything that tended to debase the spirit of the common people." Few of his fellow founders felt this comfort with democracy so fully, and none so intuitively.
In this colorful and intimate narrative, Isaacson provides the full sweep of Franklin's amazing life, from his days as a runaway printer to his triumphs as a statesman, scientist, and Founding Father. He chronicles Franklin's tumultuous relationship with his illegitimate son and grandson, his practical marriage, and his flirtations with the ladies of Paris. He also shows how Franklin helped to create the American character and why he has a particular resonance in the twenty-first century.
A man of ideas and influence
Benjamin Franklin's extraordinary and complex lifeas a printer, entrepreneur, postmaster and diplomat, among other activitieshad a profound effect on the development of the United States. As Walter Isaacson points out in his superb new biography, Benjamin Franklin: An American LifeThe initiator of many community ventures, Franklin masterminded lending libraries, fire brigades, night watchmen corps, hospitals and a college. These practical accomplishments were just as influential as his writings in building the foundation for the democratic republic embodied in the Constitution.
How does a biographer cope with such a singular subject? The task is made even more difficult when the subject is an accomplished inventor who enjoyed nothing so much as reinventing himself in his attempt to create a new American archetype. But Isaacson, the author of Kissinger: A Biography, brilliantly demonstrates a wide and insightful grasp of Franklin's life.
Isaacson's Franklin is a charming genius and an imposing historical figure, but a man who left much to be desired for those closest to him. While he had, in Isaacson's words, a "genial affection for his wife," it didn't keep him from spending 15 years of their marriage an ocean apart. He and his son William had a close relationship, but it couldn't survive their difference of opinion over the Revolution.
Franklin's dislike of "everything that tended to debase the spirit of the common people," as well as his longstanding opposition to arbitrary authority, made him a trusted figure for many colonists.
In telling his story, Isaacson has crafted an impressive biography, a narrative that's balanced to give us a strong sense of the many aspects of its subject. His book deserves a wide readership.