No eighteenth century American embraced many-sidedness more completely than Benjamin Franklin—journalist, essayist, scientist, inventor, statesman, and diplomat. His life spanned most of the century and his imprint is visible in its history. Of his contemporaries, only Thomas Jefferson was his equal in learning, inventiveness, and breadth of interests; no one was his equal in reputation. He was the most famous American of his time, an eminence at home, a celebrity abroad.
Despite his celebrated status, or perhaps because of it, Franklin attracted a sizable body of critics. The young man of the Autobiography (1771-1788), who claimed to embrace hard work, frugality, and virtue, was also the father of an illegitimate son and much at ease in the salons of Paris. He was known to enjoy a good table, a ribald story, and the company of flirtatious young women. John Adams, perhaps a little jealous, penned some acerbic criticisms of Franklin’s abilities as a statesman and diplomat. William Cobbett denounced him as “a crafty and lecherous old hypocrite,” and Thomas Carlyle found in him too much of the rationalist and too little of the heroic—he dubbed Franklin “the father of all the Yankees.”
Esmond Wright’s goal in this fluidly written biography is to examine the various public personae that Franklin assumed during his lifetime. He explores Franklin’s complex and contradictory personality and assesses his contributions to the government for which he was both domestic architect and foreign advocate. Drawing skillfully on the Yale University Press edition of the Franklin papers, Franklin’s own published writings, and the papers of his contemporaries, Wright traces Franklin’s life from his birth in Boston in 1706 to his death in 1790 at the age of eighty-four.
Although Wright emphasizes that Franklin was a man of the Enlightenment—questioning, confident in the power of reason, and strongly optimistic about the future of humanity—he also views him as indelibly marked by the Puritan spirit of New England, where he spent the first seventeen years of his life. He knew Cotton Mather’s Essays to Do Good (1710) and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) as thoroughly as he did Plutarch and John Locke, and he read (and counted the time lost) the books of polemical theology that his father, a candlemaker, owned. From the Puritanism of his youth Franklin derived his view of life as a serious endeavor, and like Mather he stressed works more than faith. Although he came ultimately to Deism, Franklin retained an abiding faith in virtue, the robust, active kind that brought material as well as spiritual reward. His first public voice was that of a moralist exhorting to good conduct, and he recognized that worldly success required some curbing of natural impulses. (Chastity was not his natural inclination, and he cheerfully admitted that he abandoned frugality as soon as financial success permitted.) In his writings Franklin claimed that virtue was an art to be practiced and perfected; he recommended it to others and drew up a list for himself of thirteen virtues that he worked to assimilate, concentrating on a different one each week.
The sixth virtue that Franklin set down was industry, and if he sometimes failed to live up to the others on the list, he practiced industry with conspicuous success. He educated himself by his own efforts (he had less than two years of formal schooling), reading voraciously and perfecting his prose style by imitating the Spectator. His first published writings, the famous “Silence Dogood” essays, appeared anonymously in his brother’s New England Courant in 1722, when he was only sixteen, a year before he ran away to Philadelphia to escape his apprenticeship. In 1728, at the age of twenty-two, he opened his own printing office, and in the next two years he became publisher and sole owner of The Pennsylvania Gazette and official printer to the Pennsylvania Assembly. He launched Poor Richard’s almanacs in 1731 and watched its circulation grow until its popularity with Colonial readers was second only to the Bible.
At the same time that he was becoming so successful in business that he would be able to retire at the age of forty-two, Franklin was busy with civic affairs and scientific observations. He brought together a group of inquiring friends and fellow tradesmen to form the Junto, a study and social club whose members were devoted to improving both themselves and their city. Under Franklin’s guidance, the Junto organized the first circulating library in America, formed a city fire company and a police force, and set up the first Colonial fire insurance company (with Franklin as president). It was behind the founding of the city hospital, the academy that evolved into the University of Pennsylvania, and the American Philosophical Society. The Junto even drew up plans for improved street cleaning, paving, and lighting, using a four-sided ventilated lamp that had been invented by Franklin.
The lamp, which was easier to clean than the old closed globes, was only one of the many inventions that contributed to Franklin’s fame. Always a devotee of “useful knowledge” and endlessly curious and inventive, Franklin was as fascinated by the challenge of curing smoky chimneys as by experiments in pure science. He was the first to prove the identity of lightning with electricity, and it was as a scientist that his name first became known in Europe. As a tinkerer he produced inventions that ranged from the supremely practical—the stove that bears his name, the improved fireplace damper, and the lightning rod—to a delicate musical instrument, the glass harmonica. Wherever he was, Franklin’s ingenuity and his scientific curiosity were always at work. He made use of his Atlantic crossings on diplomatic missions to study the Gulf Stream; he installed a damper in the fireplace chimney of his lodgings in London and a...
(The entire section is 2448 words.)