Dylan's Reviews > Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson
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Jan 02, 08

bookshelves: american-history, the-american-revolution
Read in December, 2007

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 admiration for Franklin. An interesting historical test is to consider that Franklin's style and personal life often overshadow his professional accomplishments and civic contributions. Because he lived apart from his wife, flirted with women, wrote about the science of farts and beget an illigitimate child the general public has ignored his historical importance. Rather than donning the frills and wigs of Paris, a trap Jefferson quickly fell into, Franklin purposefully wore plain suits, no wig and often times his famous fur hat. A man who set trends without trying, one of Franklin's greatest gifts was the ability to accomplish great things without anyone else realizing it.

His feigned naivite, strategic avoidance of conflict and simple appearance made him the perfect man to discover electricity and promote the lightning rod; propose a union of the colonies in 1759; negotiate for the repeal of the Stamp Act; carve out a treaty with and multiple loans from France; negotiate peace with Britain; champion the Connecticut compromise for a bi-cameral legislature, one with representation based on population, the other with equal representation frome each state; and propose the complete abolition of slavery.

Isaacson makes clear, and he is quite convincing, that while Franklin had his faults, he was revered in his own time, accomplished as much or more than any other Founder, and deserves to be considerd as one of America's most historically important statesman. Franklin's personal creed was that doing good things for others was the ultimate form of religion. In life and in death (in his will he set up a trust fund for young tradesman in Philadelphia and Boston) he practiced his religion dutifully. A religion that we in America would do well to retrieve.
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