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Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

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Chapter One: Benjamin Franklin and the Invention of

His arrival in Philadelphia is one of the most famous scenes in
autobiographical literature: the bedraggled 17-year-old runaway,
cheeky yet with a pretense of humility, straggling off the boat and
buying three puffy rolls as he wanders up Market Street. But wait a
minute. There's something more. Peel back a layer and we can see
him as a 65-year-old wry observer, sitting in an English country
house, writing this scene, pretending it's part of a letter to his
son, an illegitimate son who has become a royal governor with
aristocratic pretensions and needs to be reminded of his humble

A careful look at the manuscript peels back yet another layer.
Inserted into the sentence about his pilgrim's progress up Market
Street is a phrase, written in the margin, in which he notes that
he passed by the house of his future wife, Deborah Read, and that
"she, standing at the door, saw me and thought I made, as I
certainly did, a most awkward ridiculous appearance." So here we
have, in a brief paragraph, the multilayered character known so
fondly to his author as Benjamin Franklin: as a young man, then
seen through the eyes of his older self, and then through the
memories later recounted by his wife. It's all topped off with the
old man's deft little affirmation -- "as I certainly did" -- in
which his self-deprecation barely cloaks the pride he felt
regarding his remarkable rise in the world.

Benjamin Franklin is the founding father who winks at us. George
Washington's colleagues found it hard to imagine touching the
austere general on the shoulder, and we would find it even more so
today. Jefferson and Adams are just as intimidating. But Ben
Franklin, that ambitious urban entrepreneur, seems made of flesh
rather than of marble, addressable by nickname, and he turns to us
from history's stage with eyes that twinkle from behind those
newfangled spectacles. He speaks to us, through his letters and
hoaxes and autobiography, not with orotund rhetoric but with a
chattiness and clever irony that is very contemporary, sometimes
unnervingly so. We see his reflection in our own time.

He was, during his eighty-four-year-long 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 devised bifocal
glasses and clean-burning stoves, charts of the Gulf Stream and
theories about the contagious nature of the common cold. He
launched various civic improvement schemes, such as a lending
library, college, volunteer fire corps, insurance association, and
matching grant fund-raiser. He helped invent America's unique style
of homespun humor and philosophical pragmatism. In foreign policy,
he created an approach that wove together idealism with
balance-of-power realism. And in politics, he proposed seminal
plans for uniting the colonies and creating a federal model for a
national government.

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.

Partly, it was a matter of image. As a young printer in
Philadelphia, he carted rolls of paper through the streets to give
the appearance of being industrious. As an old diplomat in France,
he wore a fur cap to portray the role of backwoods sage. In
between, he created an image for himself as a simple yet striving
tradesman, assiduously honing the virtues -- diligence, frugality,
honesty -- of a good shopkeeper and beneficent member of his

But the image he created was rooted in reality. Born and bred a
member of the leather-aproned class, Franklin was, at least for
most of his life, more comfortable with artisans and thinkers than
with the established elite, and he was allergic to the pomp and
perks of a hereditary aristocracy. Throughout his life he would
refer to himself as

"B. Franklin, printer."

From these attitudes sprang what may be Franklin's most important
vision: an American national identity based on the virtues and
values of its middle class. Instinctively more comfortable with
democracy than were some of his fellow founders, and devoid of the
snobbery that later critics would feel toward his own shopkeeping
values, he had faith in the wisdom of the common man and felt that
a new nation would draw its strength from what he called "the
middling people." Through his self-improvement tips for cultivating
personal virtues and his civic-improvement schemes for furthering
the common good, he helped to create, and to celebrate, a new
ruling class of ordinary citizens.

The complex interplay among various facets of Franklin's character
-- his ingenuity and unreflective wisdom, his Protestant ethic
divorced from dogma, the principles he held firm and those he was
willing to compromise -- means that each new look at him reflects
and refracts the nation's changing values. He has been vilified in
romantic periods and lionized in entrepreneurial ones. Each era
appraises him anew, and in doing so reveals some assessments of

Franklin has a particular resonance in twenty-first-century
America. A successful publisher and consummate networker with an
inventive curiosity, he would have felt right at home in the
information revolution, and his unabashed striving to be part of an
upwardly mobile meritocracy made him, in social critic David
Brooks's phrase, "our founding Yuppie." We can easily imagine
having a beer with him after work, showing him how to use the
latest digital device, sharing the business plan for a new venture,
and discussing the most recent political scandals or policy ideas.
He would laugh at the latest joke about a priest and a rabbi, or
about a farmer's daughter. We would admire both his earnestness and
his self-aware irony. And we would relate to the way he tried to
balance, sometimes uneasily, the pursuit of reputation, wealth,
earthly virtues, and spiritual values.

Some who see the reflection of Franklin in the world today fret
about a shallowness of soul and a spiritual complacency that seem
to permeate a culture of materialism. They say that he teaches us
how to live a practical and pecuniary life, but not an exalted
existence. Others see the same reflection and admire the basic
middle-class values and democratic sentiments that now seem under
assault from elitists, radicals, reactionaries, and other bashers
of the bourgeoisie. They regard Franklin as an exemplar of the
personal character and civic virtue that are too often missing in
modern America.

Much of the admiration is warranted, and so too are some of the
qualms. But the lessons from Franklin's life are more complex than
those usually drawn by either his fans or his foes. Both sides too
often confuse him with the striving pilgrim he portrayed in his
autobiography. They mistake his genial moral maxims for the
fundamental faiths that motivated his actions.

His morality was built on a sincere belief in leading a virtuous
life, serving the country he loved, and hoping to achieve salvation
through good works. That led him to make the link between private
virtue and civic virtue, and to suspect, based on the meager
evidence he could muster about God's will, that these earthly
virtues were linked to heavenly ones as well. As he put it in the
motto for the library he founded, "To pour forth benefits for the
common good is divine." In comparison to contemporaries such as
Jonathan Edwards, who believed that men were sinners in the hands
of an angry God and that salvation could come through grace alone,
this outlook might seem somewhat complacent. In some ways it was,
but it was also genuine.

Whatever view one takes, it is useful to engage anew with Franklin,
for in doing so we are grappling with a fundamental issue: How does
one live a life that is useful, virtuous, worthy, moral, and
spiritually meaningful? For that matter, which of these attributes
is most important? These are questions just as vital for a
self-satisfied age as they were for a revolutionary one.

Chapter Three: Journeyman
Philadelphia and London, 1723-1726

Keimer's Shop

As a young apprentice, Franklin had read a book extolling
vegetarianism. He embraced the diet, but not just for moral and
health reasons. His main motive was financial: it enabled him to
take the money his brother allotted him for food and save half for
books. While his coworkers went off for hearty meals, Franklin ate
biscuits and raisins and used the time for study, "in which I made
the greater progress from that greater clearness of head and
quicker apprehension which usually attend temperance in eating and

But Franklin was a reasonable soul, so wedded to being rational
that he became adroit at rationalizing. During his voyage from
Boston to New York, when his boat lay becalmed off Block Island,
the crew caught and cooked some cod. Franklin at first refused any,
until the aroma from the frying pan became too enticing. With droll
self-awareness, he later recalled what happened:

Excerpted from BENJAMIN FRANKLIN: An American Life ©
Copyright 2003 by Walter Isaacson. Reprinted with permission by
Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved.


Benjamin Franklin: An American Life
by by Walter Isaacson

  • Genres: Biography, History, Nonfiction
  • hardcover: 589 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 0684807610
  • ISBN-13: 9780684807614