Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin: An American Life appeared on the eve of the three hundredth anniversary of Franklin’s birth in 2006. The lively and colorful narration can be especially recommended to general readers who want to learn about this fascinating man’s life and personality. In addition to telling about Franklin the man, moreover, it provides a window into the culture and major events of the period in which he lived. One of its refreshing features is the large numbers of quotations from Franklin’s writings, letting him speak for himself whenever possible. While not primarily designed for scholars of the eighteenth century, even specialists will find that the book contains fresh insights and overlooked facts.
Although H. W. Brands, Edmund Morgan, and others have already published excellent narrative biographies of Franklin, there are several reasons that Isaacson’s work deserves a wide readership. First, it is written in a plain and straightforward manner, presenting a perceptive analysis of the subject and allowing the reader to get to know Franklin as a real man with strong emotions and human weaknesses. Second, it focuses on themes that are usually minimized, such as Franklin’s pro-democratic views and his relationship to modern culture. Third, Isaacson writes with a sense of playful humor, making a strong case for his suggestion that “Benjamin Franklin is the founding father who winks at us.” For the person wanting to read just one biography of Franklin, Isaacson’s book would probably be the best choice.
Benjamin Franklin: An American Life is based on impressive research and many years of reading and reflection. Isaacson makes frequent references to A. Owen Aldridge’s work on Franklin’s religion ideas, I. Bernard Cohen’s studies of his scientific experiments, Claude-Anne Lopez’s delightful writings about his relationships with women, and numerous specialized studies dealing with aspects of Franklin’s life and times. In addition to taking advantage of the vast secondary literature, Isaacson has made abundant use of Yale University’s collection of Franklin papers as well as other original sources. Readers should not ignore the fifty pages of endnotes, for they contain some very valuable information. In addition to documenting the location of quotations, these notes explore alternative historical interpretations and uncertainties about particular facts.
It is simply amazing that Franklin was able to achieve so much and participate in so many important events. The biography tells about his frustrating experiences as an apprentice under his demanding brother, his disciplined approach to learning how to write, the many obstacles that he overcame to become a publishing magnate, his contributions to the civic life of Philadelphia, his important discovery that lightning consisted of electricity, and his innovative designs of an efficient stove and bifocal glasses. The work then discusses his efforts to represent colonial interests in London, his mistakes in endorsing imperial tax laws, his evolution into one of the most fervent defenders of the revolution, his crucial role in achieving both the alliance with France and the treaty recognizing American independence, and his part in drafting the U.S. Constitution in 1787.
Isaacson also gives fascinating details about Franklin’s intimate relationships. Although a man with a deep sense of responsibility, Franklin’s busy career and many friendships meant that he was often neglectful of his wife and children. When breaking with his illegitimate son, William Franklin, because of William’s commitment to the Loyalist cause during the revolution, Franklin appears rather harsh and rigidly unforgiving. In telling about his famous relationships with a host of women over many years, Isaacson observes that there was much flirtation as well as “sweet hints of romantic attraction.” Still he concludes that, despite Franklin’s reputation for lecherousness, there is “no evidence of any serious sexual affair he had after his marriage to Deborah.”
In the realm of religion, Isaacson makes it clear that Franklin was a child of the eighteenth century enlightenment. In addition to rejecting the Calvinist notion that God had predestined everything that occurs, he did not believe that any particular religion, including Christianity, was based on a divine revelation, and he took a skeptical view of supernatural intervention, as in miracles and specific answers to prayer. Franklin, however, supported the notion of religious faith in general, based primarily on the conviction that it was useful in promoting moral behavior and altruism. In a letter to...
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