Benjamin Franklin:  An American Life
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Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

3.95 of 5 stars 3.95  ·  rating details  ·  32,357 ratings  ·  907 reviews
In this authoritative and engrossing full-scale biography, Walter Isaacson, bestselling author of Einstein and Steve Jobs, shows how the most fascinating of America's founders helped define our national character.

Benjamin Franklin is the founding father who winks at us, the one who seems made of flesh rather than marble. In a sweeping narrative that follows Franklin’s...more
ebook, 608 pages
Published July 31st 2003 by Simon & Schuster (first published 2003)
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If Alexander Hamilton is one of the most underappreciated of the Founders then Benjamin Franklin is one of the most misunderstood. Isaacson ends his book with a concluding chapter that details this misundestanding. Throughout history each generation has taken a new look at Benjamin Franklin. As the author points out, Thoreau mocked him, Carnegie adored him and D.H. Lawrence despised him. So who was right, and why?

Isaacson, while pointing out his faults and follies, does not hide his own admirat...more
Jason Koivu
An excellent start-to-finish biography, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life begins by touching on his childhood as best as it can considering the lack of material to work with. After that, Isaacson takes the reader through a more detailed account of Franklin's early entrepreneurial life, through his many inventions, and into his later statesmen days. I was struck by the author's well-balanced hand for both time, achievements, personal and professional details, and philosophical and political ide...more
Jul 22, 2013 Chrissie rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Chrissie by: Laura
ETA: I decided to change this to four stars since I enjoyed the author's Einstein even more, and I gave that four.


Why do YOU want to pick up a book about Benjamin Franklin? If you want his biographical details you need not even read a book, just check out Wikipedia. I wanted more. I wanted to understand his soul. I wanted to get under his skin. I wanted all the historical details in Wikipedia and more. I got what I wanted. Benjamin was an amazing person; people have only a...more
Lisa (Harmonybites)
Dec 15, 2012 Lisa (Harmonybites) rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: American History Buffs
Recommended to Lisa (Harmonybites) by: The Ultimate Reading List - Biography
This was a pleasure and just the kind of biography I find trustworthy. The kind that acknowledges other views and controversies and with extensive notes and sources in the back. More than that, it's the rare biography that can inspire smiles and even giggles--I'd mark this up to five stars if I could credit Isaacson for that--but the source of the humor is the frequent quotes from Benjamin Franklin himself. Isaacson said in his introduction that "Benjamin Franklin is the Founding Father who wink...more
Went to the King Tut exhibit in 2007 and was equally impressed by the Ben Franklin museum - where the exhibit was shown in PA. Loved this book; learned so much - maybe I'm a nerd but it was a page turner that I looked forward to each day!
I loved this book. Isaacson did a fair and balanced job, describing the man without whitewashing over his flaws. By the end, I felt like Franklin was mine, like he somehow belonged to me. I knew he would be an interesting person, but I had no idea how much this man did with his life. Nor did I understand just how involved he was before there was any US at all. We could still be a British colony without him - or even a French one! Something else I never learned in school, France's involvement.

This is a throroughly entertaining, well-researched, well-written biography of Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson. It is lengthy (over 600 pages) and one feels obligated to read the footnotes because they further the work. The first third of the book moved quickly (childhood, moving to Philadelphia, beginning life as a printer, Poor Richard's Almanac). The middle third bogs down (life in England and France, the beginning of the Revolution) and the final third picks up (back in France, negotiat...more
Nate Cooley
Probably the best biographical source on Benjamin Franklin is straight fron the horses mouth . . . his Autobiography. However, Isaacson's book is definitely an engaging read and fairly exhaustive.

My initial impression is that the author is careful in not falling into the a trap that so many biographers often do, in that they deify their protagonist. Isaacson takes an objective approach to Franklin and enumerates his many flaws (or at least what most would perceive as flaws when attributed to on...more
I enjoy providing background in my reviews of how I’ve acquired or read a book, because I believe it helps to paint a picture of my tastes, desires, and it might even give you more information about me. In other words, maybe the books I read act as my own autobiography. I bought this highly anticipated book only a short time after getting a new job as a store manager with FranklinCovey. Having made good friends with the store manager of the Waldenbooks store down the hall from my old store, I sp...more
Mar 27, 2008 Sara rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Americans, scientists, business people, history buffs
Shelves: biography
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Pete daPixie
Comprehensively researched and well balanced biography, in very similar territory as McCullough's highly recommended treatise on John Adams. Isaacson's 'Benjamin Franklin-An American Life', published 2003, captures the extraordinary and many faceted eighty four year life of this founding father. A caricature that would be instantly recognisable in The Simpsons, this biography paints a vivid portrait of the man, his times, family, morals, scientific enquiry and political journey.
I have long wishe...more
The only time this book caught my attention was when I fell asleep reading it in bed and dropped it on my face. I stopped reading before I hurt myself further. This fascinating insight on page 82 was the last straw, "For the last 17 years of Deborah's life, Franklin would be away, including when she died. Nevertheless, their mutual affection, respect, and loyalty - and their sense of partnership - would endure."
Biographies generally bore me, and this was no exception.

So pedestrian, so conventional, so obviously a poor rehashing of much better Franklin biographies that preceded this one. One wonders why Isaacson even bothered to write the book. Money, perhaps? Whatever his motivation, the result is underwhelming.

One of the difficulties with biography is that you already know most of the plot, and you probably know how it ends too. To create a sense of suspense and excitement, you need to need to do two...more
Ben Franklin is one of the most misunderstood of the Founding Fathers, no doubt because his personality could often be so hard to pin down (Franklin often employed satire and misdirection in his arguments and created fictional characters to voice his opinions). Our image of him now is something like a wizened old favorite uncle, always ready with a wink and nudge and a humorous aphorism.

Franklin's place in history has been much more contentious, however. His revolutionary fervor was questioned b...more
One of my heroes has always been Ben Franklin. Issacson's treatment of him here is an honest account of his many great triumphs and successes, while not shying away from his many faults and foibles. Frankiln was a deep and complex character and this book does a good job of exploring the many facets of that character.
Walter Isaacson has written a book which adds to the huge proliferation of Benjamin Franklin biographies. He has a talent for biographies, having produced a book on Henry Kissinger before this one, and a study of Albert Einstein more recently. He knows how to present the details of a famous person's life in an enjoyable, informative manner. This is not a light version of Franklin's life; it stands on its own among the numerous others as a most respectable effort.

There is so much "stuff" that Fra...more
Chad Warner
Jun 21, 2012 Chad Warner rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone interested in Benjamin Franklin or the founding of America
Shelves: non-fiction
This thoroughly researched biography takes a close look at Benjamin Franklin’s life, particularly exploring his personality and beliefs. It starts with his English ancestors, follows his parents’ emigration to America, then chronicles his life until his death. I enjoyed reading the stories behind his many maxims. The book provides insight into colonial life before, during, and after the American Revolution. It highlights Franklin’s achievements and lasting influence on America.

I had considered m...more
Aug 16, 2010 Susan rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: American history lovers
While this biography isn't a quick, light read, it is as interesting and complex as the man himself must have been. Isaacson goes far beyond the cartoonish image that many of us have of an old guy flying a kite in a thunderstorm, and uncovers the real person, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Franklin had tremendous influence in the way the United States was formed, and the book covers the politics, Franklin's friends and enemies, and the negotiation and compromises that were necessary to accompli...more
Jeremy Perron
To say that Benjamin Franklin led an interesting life would be the understatement of the century. Dr. Franklin was the first American to be world famous. He was an American Revolutionary, a theorist on government, a scientist in nearly all fields, and a printer being his first profession. In the end, one can say that there is nothing that the man did not do in his lifetime. Walter Isaacson brings this extraordinary American to life, allowing the reader to explore the world that was with this inc...more
This book gave me a much broader perspective on Benjamin Franklin. I had read his autobiography in junior high and loved it. I determined that he was the genre of person I would have enjoyed as a friend. The man thinks like me in many respects. I adopted some of his ideas because they fit me.

While I admired him, this book painted a more thorough picture of who he was, flaws and all. Now that I am an adult, it seemed appropriate to see the fuller picture of this character I thought so highly of....more
Manifest Stefany
Franklin has been plucked from the past and inserted into my daily life. I feel like we could have been friends. Of all the founding fathers, he is the easiest to connect too and understand. This book (audio)is a bit daunting to start but ends up being very hard to put down. I found myself bursting into laughter at his lively quips and hilarious writings. I was rather angry with some of his choices especially in regards to his arms length treatment of his family.Sad during the harder times and l...more
Walter Isaacson has once again written a biography that tells the reader not simply what person X did and when they did it but why this person is important and worth the time taken to try and understand him or her better. He takes the ubiquitous image of Benjamin Franklin and puts him into focus, not easy after 300 years. I came away feeling that I finally had an idea of what this guy was like and agreeing that he was an exceptional person who effected a pivotal role in the creation of the Unite...more
Carl Brush
Walter Isaacson’s 2003 Ben Franklin An American Life makes a wonderful complement to the 1938 Pulitzer Prize winning Benjamin Franklin by Carl Van Doren. Van Doren’s book is dense and exhaustive and admiring of both the man and his work. Isaacson is thorough as well, but more readable, and more critical, especially of Franklin’s personal life. It’s been several years since I read the Van Doren book, and I don’t plan to go back for a point-by-point analysis, but if you want to read just one, I’d...more
Keith Kendall
Another view reminding us that all people are human with both strengths and weaknesses. I find it exceedingly interesting that some people succeed regardless of their faults, and others of us let our faults dominate. (Now, Discover Your Strengths)

Here are a few things that caught my attention as I read this book.

"Franklin later concluded that the loss of money he was owed was balanced by the loss of the burden of having Ralph as a friend. A pattern was emerging. ... Franklin easily made casual f...more
Like many larger-than-life history makers, Franklin is much more complex than the legend.

I believe that Franklin is one of those unique individuals who would have been successful in any era, not just his. He shaped events, adapted and turned challenges into advantages. America would have been a very different place had Franklin not been alive during its creation.

Mr. Isaacson builds a fairly complete picture of Franklin, like many biographers, he had the difficult task of pouring through letters...more
Isaacson is getting a lot of attention and reading right now for his Steve Jobs biography and there is some symmetry in his biography of Franklin, surely the Steve Jobs of his day, (a comparison favorable to Jobs, for sure.)

Isaacson does a great job in placing Franklin in his startling historical context. Ben Franklin is old! He is so old when he was born we even reckoned time by a different calendar - the Julian instead of the Gregorian. He was a contemporary of such old-timey Puritan giants as...more
This is a well-written, engaging biography of "the founding father who winks at us". It's a mostly chronological narrative, with a closing chapter on the way Franklin's reputation has changed over the centuries, tending "to reflect, or refract, the attitudes of each succeeding era."

Some random thoughts:

Franklin was a more serious and well-respected scientist than I realized. I had always thought of him as a tinkerer.

I was surprised (and slightly disappointed) to learn that Franklin was not parti...more
Peter Gay, writing in The Science of Freedom (The Enlightenment, Volume 2), assayed the views of the French Philosphes toward Benjamin Franklin. He quoted Condorcet, who said in his eulogy to Franklin in 1790, “Men whom the reading of philosophic books had secretly converted to the love of liberty became enthusiastic over the liberty of a foreign people while they waited for the moment when they could recover their own, and they seized with joy the opportunity to avow publicly the sentiments whi...more
John Mh
Very well-executed biography that managed to bring the man to life out of the American founding father myth-making machine and tell me a few things and then some that I didn't know already (not having read any other B. Franklin bio since his own "Autobiography" as a kid). Wrapped up neatly in the end with an overview of critical views of Franklin both as a scholar/scientist and as a man through the "post-Franklin" portion of American history, putting him into context nicely, at least as viewed t...more
It was fascinating to learn about Ben Franklin's early life in addition to his being the foundation for the American Revolution. His professional life started way back in the 1720s and his descriptions of life in America during that time are very rare. He was so energetic as a young man and he founded some many discussion groups where they talked about interesting topics. This has been lost to society and it would have been a great experience to live during that time where people met to have deb...more
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Walter Isaacson lives in Washington, DC, where he is the president and CEO of the Aspen Institute. He is the author of acclaimed, best-selling biographies of Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, and Henry Kissinger.
More about Walter Isaacson...
Steve Jobs Einstein: His Life and Universe The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made Kissinger Einstein: The Life of a Genius

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“Another time, he was playing [chess] with his equal, the Duchess of Bourbon, who made a move that inadvertently exposed her king. Ignoring the rules of the game, he promptly captured it. "Ah," said the duchess, "we do not take Kings so." Replied Franklin in a famous quip: "We do in America.” 1 likes
“elected directly by the people based on proportional representation. The House would select members of an upper chamber, the president, and the judiciary. Franklin had long favored a legislature with only one directly elected house, seeing little reason to place checks on the democratic will of” 0 likes
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