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The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin

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PULITZER PRIZE FINALIST • Benjamin Franklin, perhaps the pivotal figure in colonial and revolutionary America, comes vividly to life in this “thorough biography of ... America’s first Renaissance man” ( The Washington Post ) by the two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, bestselling historian, and author of Our First Civil War.

"The authoritative Franklin biography for our time.” —Joseph J. Ellis, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Founding Brothers

Wit, diplomat, scientist, philosopher, businessman, inventor, and bon vivant, Benjamin Franklin's "life is one every American should know well, and it has not been told better than by Mr. Brands" ( The Dallas Morning News ). From penniless runaway to highly successful printer, from ardently loyal subject of Britain to architect of an alliance with France that ensured America’s independence, Franklin went from obscurity to become one of the world’s most admired figures, whose circle included the likes of Voltaire, Hume, Burke, and Kant.

Drawing on previously unpublished letters and a host of other sources, acclaimed historian H. W. Brands has written a thoroughly engaging biography of the eighteenth-century genius. A much needed reminder of Franklin’s greatness and humanity, The First American is a work of meticulous scholarship that provides a magnificent tour of a legendary historical figure, a vital era in American life, and the countless arenas in which the protean Franklin left his legacy.

765 pages, Paperback

First published September 19, 2000

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About the author

H.W. Brands

107 books909 followers
Henry William Brands was born in Portland, Oregon, where he lived until he went to California for college. He attended Stanford University and studied history and mathematics. After graduating he became a traveling salesman, with a territory that spanned the West from the Pacific to Colorado. His wanderlust diminished after several trips across the Great Basin, and he turned to sales of a different sort, namely teaching. For nine years he taught mathematics and history in high school and community college. Meanwhile he resumed his formal education, earning graduate degrees in mathematics and history, concluding with a doctorate in history from the University of Texas at Austin. He worked as an oral historian at the University of Texas Law School for a year, then became a visiting professor of history at Vanderbilt University. In 1987 he joined the history faculty at Texas A&M University, where he taught for seventeen years. In 2005 he returned to the University of Texas, where he is the Dickson Allen Anderson Centennial Professor of History and Professor of Government. ~ He has written twenty-two books, coauthored or edited five others, and published dozens of articles and scores of reviews. His books include Traitor to His Class, The Money Men, Andrew Jackson, The Age of Gold, The First American, TR, The Strange Death of American Liberalism, What America Owes the World, and The Devil We Knew. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the International Herald Tribune, the Boston Globe, the Atlantic Monthly, the Smithsonian, the National Interest, the American Historical Review, the Journal of American History, the Political Science Quarterly, American History, and many other newspapers, magazines and journals. ~ His writings have received critical and popular acclaim. The First American was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the Los Angeles Times Prize, as well as a New York Times bestseller. The Age of Gold was a Washington Post Best Book of 2002 and a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller. Andrew Jackson was a Chicago Tribune Best Book of 2005 and a Washington Post bestseller. What America Owes the World was a finalist for the Lionel Gelber Prize in international affairs. The Wages of Globalism was a Choice Outstanding Academic Book winner. Lone Star Nation won the Deolece Parmelee Award. ~ He is a member of various honorary societies, including the Society of American Historians and the Philosophical Society of Texas. He is a regular guest on national radio and television programs, and is frequently interviewed by the American and foreign press. His writings have been published in several countries and translated into German, French, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 380 reviews
Profile Image for Jim.
181 reviews34 followers
December 29, 2019
#2 Best Book I Read in 2019

I'm making my way through the history of the American Revolution by reading one book about every founding father. So far I've read Chernow's books on Hamilton and Washington, and this one by HW Brands.

Each book has shown me the same exact stories and events but told through different eyes. I'm getting layers on top of layers, and it's been a lot of fun.

With Hamilton you get an inside look at the creation of the federal government. With Washington you see all the action from the ground level. But seeing everything from only their eyes makes you miss why everything got started up in the first place. Through Franklin's life and writings and feuds you can see America's disaffection with England start to grow. And not just grow, but morph - from colonists who truly saw themselves as English, to Americans who saw themselves as the creators of something entirely new.

That's the most interesting part of this book. I never realized that independence wasn't really even considered by anybody (at least by anybody whose opinion mattered at the time) until much later in the feud. And when the Declaration was finally written, nobody thought it would become a founding document that we are still feeling the shockwaves of today.

Franklin is the perfect person to tell this story through, as he was truly a man of both sides of the Atlantic. He was born and raised in the colonies, had family there, and all of his business interests were there. But he spent most of his adult life in Europe, and felt most at home there. His strongest friendships and relationships were there.

Lots of fascinating stuff here. The story of how Poor Richard and his Almanac came to be is great. The story of Franklin before the Privy Counsel, answering for the release of the Hutchinson letters is probably *the* moment that revolution became inevitable. This book was my first education on what the peace process between both sides was like at the conclusion of the war. Also, this is the first time I've had a real understanding of the Stamp Act and "taxation without representation."
Profile Image for bup.
633 reviews63 followers
October 25, 2007
The best biography I've ever read. Franklin is so human I could walk into the next room and not be surprised to see him setting there.

The biographer also makes a very compelling argument that Ben Franklin was the most indispensable figure in the American Revolutionary adventure. Or at least tied with Washington.

Most historians agree that without George Washington, there's nobody else who could've stepped forward to successfully keep an army together, miraculously beat the most powerful country in the world, and then step down when people were asking him to become emperor.

After this book, though, you'll believe the war was unwinnable without Franklin - nobody else could've gotten the French to lend the US money and give naval support (and others did try).

Plus, of course, the man's life was fascinating.
Profile Image for Donald Powell.
559 reviews34 followers
September 25, 2021
A detailed and masterful biography of one of the greatest men in modern history. He was a true model of a man in so many realms. The author was exhaustively thorough. Thus it is a long book but also a great story of how one man learned to preserve and succeed through a difficult life with such great knowledge and true wisdom. I fear our current culture is probably suppressing the Ben Franklins in our midst now.
This is a great history book and touches on so many arenas it merits many genres for categorization.
I recommend this book to everyone.
Profile Image for GoldGato.
1,139 reviews40 followers
October 10, 2020
A rebellion is always legal in the first person, such as "our rebellion." It is only in the third person - "their rebellion" - that it becomes illegal.
Ben Franklin

Touching the history of the venerated Founding Fathers, who apparently descended from heaven to wage war against George III, is a difficult task. So it was with trepidation that I started this book, wondering what new angle yet another biographer was going to try to discover. By the time I finished (it took me almost as long as the Revolutionary War itself...this is a big tome), I felt Mr. Franklin was no longer a god but a self-made guy I could relate to, albeit in a very respectful, reverent way.

He was one of seventeen children. 17! I mean, think of that. There was no welfare system, no Google apps, no convenience stores. How did a Founding Father emerge from that burden? He was apprenticed to an older brother, but ran away, which made him a fugitive in New England, so he wound up in Pennsylvania, a colony run as a personal holding by the Penn family (it isn't just Franklin we learn about in this book). Then, Franklin began his extraordinary life. I lost track of his inventions, of his process enhancements (long before 'kaizen' existed), of his frontier defense ideas, of his diplomatic victories, of his.....it never ends.

If the Brits had treated Franklin and his views with more respect, there probably wouldn't have been a consolidated revolution. When he made the decision for independence, he never looked back. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson led with passion, but The Sage was the one behind them, filling the gaps. As the book explains, the Yanks didn't suddenly throw tea into the sea and demand the cutting of the cord from the Mother Country...resentment had been building for decades. Faced with having to bear the physical and financial burden of fighting England's wars on their home soil, but then watching as the King and his cabinet made post-fight decisions without regard to the feelings of the colonists, the Ben Franklins and George Washingtons slowly turned from loyal subjects to disgruntled rebels.

The waves do not rise, but when the winds blow.

I think what I liked about this book, and Franklin himself, was his outlook. He wasn't one of the high-born southerners or British ground-swillers. In essence, he embodied the middle class, the shopkeepers of the world. As he created his own wealth, he understood its use was to purchase one's own freedom. Freedom to travel, freedom to eat what one wants, freedom to work or not work, freedom to choose one's own doctor, freedom to read the books one wants to read, freedom to print the books one wants to print. He never patented his inventions, as he felt they should be available to help all, not just the 1-percenters of the world.

We've spawned a new race... Rougher, simpler; more violent, more enterprising; less refined. We're a new nationality. We require a new nation.

This book takes that path, to help us understand the man behind the man. Franklin could be infuriating (he stayed overseas instead of coming home to his dying wife, he severed all ties with his Loyalist son), but he was right and far, far ahead of his time. It's a LONG read, but worth it.

Plus, it helped me get past the Ben Franklin of the movie musical, whom I have always loved because he was the one Founding Father I could envision singing and dancing on a staircase while the United States was being founded.


Book Season = Autumn (kites and storms)
Profile Image for Steve.
329 reviews1,076 followers
August 20, 2019

H. W. Brands’ “The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin” was published in 2000 and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Brands is a professor of history and government at the University of Texas and a prolific author. He has written nearly three-dozen books including biographies of Andrew Jackson, Ulysses Grant, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR and Ronald Reagan (each of which I have read and reviewed).

Given its encyclopedic breadth and scholarly bent, “The First American” has largely supplanted Carl Van Doren’s 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning classic as the standard biography of Franklin. With 716 pages of text and studious attention to every major facet of Franklin’s unusually varied and interesting life, Brands’ biography is comprehensive, detailed and incredibly thoughtful.

It is quickly obvious that this distinguished Founding Father is a somewhat elusive biographical subject – a man of many talents who remains enigmatic due to his apparent affinity for contradictions and failure to chronicle his own innermost thoughts during a life situated on the front row of so much early American history.

Nevertheless, Brands is able to craft a rich narrative which explores the familiar features of Franklin’s life and captures many of the nuances which will have eluded readers who have never undertaken a serious study of the man. Among the many excellent aspects of this biography are stories of young Franklin’s journey to Philadelphia from Boston, his earliest weeks as an up-and-coming printer and his introduction to a notoriously unreliable governor of Pennsylvania.

A later chapter devoted largely to chronicling his playful pursuit of a number of (much younger) French ladies and the ongoing exploration of Franklin’s relationship with his oldest son are incredibly revealing. But the most thought-provoking observations are those related to Franklin’s lifelong efforts to maintain allegiance to the American colonies while preserving his friendly status – and strong personal relationships – in Britain.

But as interesting as this book can be, it is neither an effortless nor a particularly carefree read. The author’s writing style is penetrating and thoughtful but not consistently captivating or colorful. And because it possesses a distinct scholarly quality some readers will find it a bit too erudite (if not abstruse).

In addition, Brands helpfully supplies background and context which can be useful for anyone unfamiliar with 18th century history. But occasional context quickly morphs into relentless tangents which distract from the narrative and cause the reader to lose sight of the bigger picture. Finally, despite the author’s efforts to paint a robust and vibrant portrait of his subject, Benjamin Franklin remains stubbornly perplexing and mysterious after more than seven-hundred pages.

Overall, H. W. Brands’ “The First American” is a solid biography of one of America’s most fascinating Founding Fathers. Benjamin Franklin’s eccentricities and contradictions seem to confound even the most determined of biographers. Nevertheless, readers with an interest in early American life – or with one of America’s most intriguing personalities – will find this biography compelling and enlightening.

Overall rating: 3¾ stars
Profile Image for Joseph.
474 reviews48 followers
August 26, 2020
Now that I've read the best, it's time to study the rest. Seriously though, folks, this book should have WON the Pulitzer back in 2001. The only book I've read and reviewed this past year that even comes close to this one is Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David Blight. This Franklin biography surpasses every other Franklin book I've read, which are considerable. If you're looking to dive into a great biography about one of our most famous Founders, pick up this book.
Profile Image for Ross.
753 reviews30 followers
August 10, 2012
This biography of Franklin is billed as comprehensive and it certainly is that. It would seem to contain essentially every thing that is known about the great man's life. I would say it is a must read for anyone interested in American history. Even though it is a huge book.
By the title, Brands makes the case that it is Franklin who most deserves the credit for the steps that led to the creation of the American republic. Washington, of course, deserves the credit for winning the war, but who got it started is the question.
Before reading this work I had believed that it was John Adams who deserved most of the credit, probably because I had read more about Adams than Franklin. I also knew that Franklin was a libertine which I don't like.
However, Brands has convinced me that it is indeed Franklin who most merits the credit for the birth of my country. In fact it is likely that because he was a libertine he got along with the French so well and secured their critical assistance when John Adams could not.
Reading the detail of Franklin's dealings with the British government as agent for the colonies in London, leading up to the split, makes me thank our "lucky American stars" for the incredible arrogance, stupidity and greed of parliament and George III. If they had any foresight London would today be the capitol of the greatest nation on earth, albeit with most of the population on the other side of the Atlantic. Franklin was arguing for unification and the British governement said, "no you are our possession."
Profile Image for Brandon Dalo.
133 reviews4 followers
August 31, 2021
As I make my way through biographies on each of the Founding Fathers, I would be remiss to not read about the legendary Benjamin Franklin. I’ll confess that, like Washington prior to reading his biography, I knew very little about the life of Franklin. There was a dichotomy to this biography for me: at times it was riveting and hard to put down but at others, could actually be frustrating in the sometimes lengthy tangents we would be taken down. I’ll start here with some of the things I disliked about it and then end on the positive.

After coming across a few of those lengthy tangents, I suddenly remembered that the subtitle for this book includes not just the Life but also the “Times” of Benjamin Franklin. While some of the tangents could be interesting in theory (i.e. the history of Philadelphia), others, such as a lengthy backstory on a person who Franklin hired to work in his shop (but had no impact whatsoever on the narrative of his printing business or life) could really bog the momentum down. Also, at times, the author would give a 2-4 page backstory on a new person, without introducing at the start how they relate to Franklin. So you would read through and have no idea why you were reading such a lengthy history on this new person, which was frustrating.

The density at times was also hard to overcome. On page 154, for example, I wrote in the margins “losing interest FAST!” On page 195, I wrote, “I’m not really reading now out of any real interest anymore. It is mostly out of a feeling of duty.” I hadn’t really felt that sort of boredom or frustration with the three other biographies I’d read on other Founding Fathers, so I felt like it was definitely worth noting here in this review. I only took one star off from the 5 stars as I felt like the second half of the book did help recoup some of the frustrations of the first half.

Once the narrative started picking up though (around the time of the French and Indian War), the book really took off. I was riveted the last few hundred pages and could hardly put it down. I learned so much about what happened on both sides of the Atlantic in the decades leading up to the Revolution that I hadn’t learned about in any of my other studies yet. I loved learning about all of his wisdom, wit, humor and philosophy, and about his experiments and great things he established and invented in the world. I loved learning the true story behind his discoveries with electricity. I loved learning how different he was as a person from the other Founding Fathers and how integral he was to the cause (especially since he was so pro-Britain prior to it).

Another thing I respected about the author’s choices here were his decisions to include many stories here that showed flaws in Franklin’s character (trying to cheat on his wife, the whole Leeds situation, hoaxes, etc.). He was not afraid to show these flaws and that is to be respected. The author was also talented in placing you there and forgetting the vastness of time that has since passed since these events took place. I also appreciated how the chapters perfectly matched time periods in Franklin’s life chronologically.

I could write at length about my impressions of Franklin’s life, but a book review is not really the place for that. I’ll say that it is hard to really appreciate the reality of how impactful his experiments, business, and conduct was to not only America, but also the world. It’s pretty amazing to think about how in the end, he defeated pretty much anyone who directly challenged him (like the proprietors of Pennsylvania or the parliament in Britain). He defeated them all and lived long enough to see the Revolution and the start of the new government through. It seems to me that he is as important as Washington in not only the Revolution succeeding but also the start of the new government getting on its feet without falling apart at the seams.

This book was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and I can definitely see why (and respectfully, I feel like it could definitely have been a winner with what I mentioned above trimmed out). If you’re interested at all in American history, or Franklin’s life, etc. you’ll find a lot of use and enjoyment in it.
Profile Image for Mike.
511 reviews131 followers
May 18, 2009
I haven't read any of the author's other works, so I can't comment on how his style and craft may be evolving, but this book is well-written, well-thought-out, and as far as I can discern, well-researched.

Like most people, I've known of Franklin all my life (well, less about 6 years). And, like most people, I also knew he flew a kite in an electrical storm (which seems rather foolhardy to down-right-dangerous, if you understand what the quantity of power in a typical lightning strike is), invented the lightning rod, was a printer by trade, wrote and published "Poor Richard's Almanac", invented the "Franklin stove", had something to do with the U.S. Postal System, and was a diplomat in France (at some point).

Unlike most people, I also knew that he was honored by having his name engraved into the assembly hall of the Boston Latin School and in the 7th grade was required to read "The Autobiography of Ben Franklin" along with another colonial thriller, "Johnny Tremain".

What I learned from this book was a great deal. To go over all of the specifics would probably take a sizable fraction of the book itself. So, I'll restrict my comments to a few choice morsels.

Franklin spent years in both England and France. I mean years. (Ok, I knew about when he was young and drank water while all his co-workers drank lots of beer in a print shop in England.) He was there for extended visits in both countries. England first (before actual armed rebellion) and then France. Heck, he even planned on living in England permanently because he was so well accepted and so pleased with the culture, intellectual environment and big-city life.

Franklin's experiment with the kite was well-designed to minimize risks to the experimenter, but others repeated it and at at least one got a serious shock (chalk one up to the stunningly obvious). But, the kite experiment was one of a series that helped define that various phenomena were all interrelated and described the same basic, underlying principle (or forces).

All of Franklin's real innovation and contribution to the organization and operation of the Postal Service came during decades of (part-time) effort as a Royal appointee. His work with the post-revolutionary USPS was basically to restore the fine operation that he had already created.

Franklin did not patent and essentially gave away the plans for the Franklin "fireplace" (i.e. stove) to help people heat the homes with less fuel and with less money.

I could go on and on, but if anything I've written here intrigues you, go out and read the book!

And, yes, I liked it.
Profile Image for Aaron Million.
494 reviews495 followers
April 28, 2015
Superb biography of one of the greatest early Americans. Franklin lived many different lives within one: printer, businessman, philosopher, scientist, meteorologist, inventor, politician, mediator, minister, representative of the people. Brands does a great job bringing him to life, focusing on the varied aspects of Franklin's personality and how he effectively negotiated with people in various parts of his life over the years to get what he (or the fledgling U.S) needed.

Brands does not hesitate to point out Franklin's less-than-stellar moments - such as when he, for reasons known only to him, would not return to Philadelphia from London when his wife Deborah suffered a stroke. Or his falling out with his son William - a situation that both of them could have easily avoided, or at least tried to minimize. But overall Brands praises Franklin as a sage who profoundly shaped this country (and Britain by turn) and helped it stand on its own. There are many reasons why this man is on the $100 bill, all deserving.

I read Walter Isaacson's biography of Franklin a few years ago. While Isaacson certainly did a good job, I thought that Brands really succeeded in explaining all of the contradictions inherent within Franklin. Brands also seemed to focus more on Franklin's political work than Isaacson did. Both books are good, and someone wanting to learn about Franklin could not go wrong with either one.
Profile Image for Kristen.
45 reviews
December 30, 2010
Long and drawn out. You would think one of the more interesting people in the founding of this nation would have a more interesting biography.
Profile Image for Marijan Šiško.
Author 1 book63 followers
August 8, 2016
An excellent biography of an amazing person. Deeply researched, it revelas all the aspects of Franklin's life, especially those he glossed over in his autobiography.
249 reviews5 followers
July 26, 2014
A monumental yet eminently readable biography of (arguably) the most impressive and important of the early figures in American history. Written in a very clear style, the book moves along, drawing the reader into wanting to know the next events in this very fascinating life. VERY HIGHLY RECOMMEND! From Amazon: He was the foremost American of his day, yet today he is little more than a mythic caricature in the public imagination. Benjamin Franklin, perhaps the pivotal figure in colonial and revolutionary America, comes vividly to life in this masterly biography.

Wit, diplomat, scientist, philosopher, businessman, inventor, and bon vivant, Benjamin Franklin was in every respect America’s first Renaissance man. From penniless runaway to highly successful printer, from ardently loyal subject of Britain to architect of an alliance with France that ensured America’s independence, Franklin went from obscurity to become one of the world’s most admired figures, whose circle included the likes of Voltaire, Hume, Burke, and Kant. Drawing on previously unpublished letters and a host of other sources, acclaimed historian H. W. Brands has written a thoroughly engaging biography of the eighteenth-century genius. A much needed reminder of Franklin’s greatness and humanity, The First American is a work of meticulous scholarship that provides a magnificent tour of a legendary historical figure, a vital era in American life, and the countless arenas in which the protean Franklin left his legacy.
Profile Image for Mal Warwick.
Author 29 books403 followers
October 6, 2021
The man’s own story—The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin—is one of the most widely read books in American history. The image that comes through in that unfinished account, which Franklin called his Memoirs, is that of a pious, straitlaced striver, ever ready with an admonition to hard work and healthy habits. Although praised as one of the most outstanding autobiographies ever written, it suffers from the weakness endemic to the genre in its omission of much that would have given a more well-rounded picture of the man.

H. W. Brands’ new Benjamin Franklin biography, The First American, corrects the record with copious references to what Franklin’s family, friends, and enemies alike said or wrote about him at the time. The book is brilliant. For anyone with an interest in colonial America and the Revolution, it’s must reading. And, like the best novels, it’s hard to put down.

A man almost everyone liked

What do we Americans know about this remarkable man if our only source of information is what we learned in school? Not much. We suffer from a surfeit of clichés. Franklin with his son in a thunderstorm flying a kite to capture lightning. At his printing press, laboring over Poor Richard’s Almanac. Signing the Declaration of Independence. But, of course, the man was far more complex. And in nearly 800 pages, Professor Brands makes full use of the opportunity to appreciate all of Franklin’s contradictions and peccadilloes. The First American paints a picture of a man, invariably regarded as a genius, who acquired numerous enemies as he made his way through a long life in the spotlight of public acclaim. Yet what comes through, above all, is that Benjamin Franklin was a man almost everyone liked despite his abundant faults.

Printer, publisher, scientist, and much more

If we know anything at all from the history we learned in school, we look on Benjamin Franklin as a printer and publisher and a scientist. He was, of course, all those things. But what we are unlikely to have learned is that Franklin retired from the printing business in 1748, with nearly half his life ahead of him. And he was far more than the “electrician” known to the public who invented the lightning rod. In fact, Franklin was arguably the world’s most famous scientist, admitted to the Royal Society in the company of the empire’s leading “natural philosophers” as well as the French Académie des sciences.

“A true polymath,” Brands writes, “he was at home with experts in electricity, meteorology, geology, linguistics, mathematics, literature, philosophy, and politics.” Though without even any secondary education, he received widespread acclaim and honorary degrees for his discoveries in numerous scientific fields. This new Benjamin Franklin biography delves into the man’s work in many of these fields, and always in an engaging manner.

Franklin, the Renaissance Man

Franklin also distinguished himself as a supremely influential legislator. He was also the colonies’, and later America’s, leading diplomat for three decades. In fact, Franklin was the only person who signed all four founding documents of the American Republic: the Declaration of Independence (1776), the Treaty of Alliance with France (1778), the Treaty of Paris establishing peace with Great Britain (1783), and the U.S. Constitution (1787). He was also a notably successful businessman. Profits from his print shop in Philadelphia enabled him to set up printing companies in New York and North Carolina and to invest in land in Canada. He was a prolific inventor, responsible for the efficient Franklin stove, bifocals, and a musical instrument popular among his contemporaries as well as the lightning rod. And his writing on demographics and economics inspired both Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus. In short, as this new Benjamin Franklin biography makes clear, he was a Renaissance Man, or the phrase loses meaning.

Fractured family relationships

Franklin “was the eighth child of his mother and the fifteenth of his father.” Of Josiah and Abiah Franklin’s ten children, all boys, Ben was the youngest. Brands’ reporting suggests that his relations with his parents were strained—for many years, he and his father never spoke—and when he fled Boston to escape indenture with his oldest brother, James, he made an enemy for life.

In later years, Franklin’s own (illegitimate) son split with him over the Revolution. While still in favor in the English court, he had arranged for William to be named royal governor of New Jersey. But William sided with the so-called Loyalists once fighting erupted, breaking with his father. Franklin was, however, more successful with his long-suffering wife, Sarah, whom he abandoned for nearly eighteen years to serve overseas on behalf of the colonies and later the United States. He also managed strong relationships with their daughter, Sally, and, after a rocky beginning, her husband, Richard Bache; with William’s illegitimate son, Temple Franklin, whom he essentially adopted as his own; and with Franklin’s own grandson, Benjamin Franklin Bache.

New perspective on America’s colonial history

The history we learn in school saddles us with distortions, oversimplifications, and clichés. What, for example, do we know about the Boston Tea Party? We’re led to believe that a gang of colonists dressed as Indians and led by Sam Adams of the Sons of Liberty dumped tons of British tea into Boston Harbor to protest an import duty. “Taxation without representation,” was the buzzword I learned then. But that tax—the Stamp Tax—had been in place for just one year in 1765-6 and was repealed seven years before the celebrated protest.

What really brought the colonists out to the harbor that night was a Parliamentary Act that required the colonists to buy their tea exclusively from agents of the British East India Company. This ensured that local merchants would lose the lucrative tea trade. The Boston Tea Party had little to do with liberty and everything to do with commerce. And this is just one of a great many episodes in America’s colonial history that Professor Brands brings to new light in this outstanding book.

About the author

H. W. Brands (1953-) holds degrees from Stanford University, Reed College, Portland State University, and the University of Texas at Austin, where he received a PhD in History in 1985. Since 2005, he has taught history there. He now chairs the history department. He has published thirty-five biographical histories and edited four more.
Profile Image for Sonny.
430 reviews29 followers
April 21, 2020
Benjamin Franklin’s story is the story of an exceptionally gifted and interesting man. For H.W. Brands, a professor of history at Texas A&M University, he is the central figure of an era marked by sweeping change because he was involved in so many other aspects of his rapidly changing world beyond political revolution. By the time revolution shook America, Franklin had already earned worldwide fame. Had there never been an American Revolution, it is likely that few of the Founding Fathers would be remembered today; yet Franklin was an extraordinary man even in ordinary times. His reputation was assured by his inventions, discoveries, and literary activities. As Brands writes, ''Franklin was by far the most famous American in the world.''

Although Franklin's father only had enough money to send him to school for two years, young Ben diligently continued his own education through voracious reading. Thus, Franklin became a true Renaissance man with many areas of knowledge. He made several contributions to science (electricity, meteorology), inventions (bifocal lenses, the Franklin stove, a remote grabber), and public institutions (the American Philosophical Society, the University of Pennsylvania, the U.S. Post Office, the first subscription library in America, Philadelphia's first fire company). But Brands places his greatest emphasis on Benjamin Franklin's development as a politician and statesman (wartime minister to France, senior peace negotiator with Britain, participant at the Constitutional Convention). It was Franklin who persuaded France to become an American ally, which ultimately led to his country's victory in its war for independence.

While there is much of interest to learn from Brand’s biography Franklin, the book at times seemed to move along too slowly. Some days the narrative seemed flat; I would often lose interest and only read 20 pages in a day. Too often, we get an uninspired, unfocused record of Franklin's interests and accomplishments. The author never explores deeply into Franklin’s character. He does not seriously examine Franklin's lax attitude toward his family. Why did he spend nearly 18 years apart from his wife, Deborah, while serving on foreign posts? Why was he reluctant to reconcile with his son William after his loyalist politics left them estranged? Too much space is devoted to Franklin’s roguish (and not terribly significant) adventures. Had it not been for this lack of focus, this biography would easily have earned five stars.

Profile Image for Tim Dudek.
73 reviews
September 24, 2014
"Finally," this is what all my goodread friends are saying. I started this book seven months ago. What took me so long. First, I don't actually read that much. Secondly, I often found myself pausing while reading to look up some piece of information. I was led down many a wikipedia trail reading this book. Finally, the printer printed on big pages in a small font.

Ok all my excuses are finished, what about the book. I personally prefer learning about history through the lens of biography. Given that caveat, I consider The First American to be one of the best historical books I've ever read. We get an intimate portrait of the greatest thinker of his time if not one of the greatest thinkers in all of history. The author exposes us to a very human Franklin. We see witness his sadness at the breaking of relations with his son, who chose loyalty to the crown over loyalty to his father.

Beyond Franklin himself we encounter a treasure of information about the milieu that produced the revolution and eventually, the United States. I learned more about what lead to the revolution reading this book than I did in all the schooling I had. I highly recommend it to anybody with an interest in the period

"Go on doing great things and loving pretty women"
Profile Image for Tony.
401 reviews3 followers
February 24, 2019
This is a well written and highly enjoyable biography. It not only details Franklin's life, but also fleshes out the era to put his doings in the proper context. My only minor criticism is that, at times, it is a bit too detailed for the casual reader.
Profile Image for James.
3,348 reviews19 followers
February 13, 2017
It's nice reading about a founding father who's not a blatant racist and petitioned congress to abolish slavery. Franklin wrote often in his later years about this, also stating that he saw no difference in the intelligence of blacks, whites or native Americans. He also tried to get fair treatment for native Americans, quite a change from other founding fathers. He was also extremely tolerant about religion, even writing that if a Muslim preacher showed up in Boston, he's support letting him use his church's pulpit. Looking at him thru modern eyes though, he couldn't be called a feminist though some of his satirical letters did make nasty remarks about some forms of unequal treatment. Still he's better than our current president on the subject!

H.W Brands does a good job of showing the highlights of Franklin; Franklin as young punk, printer, writer, scientist and politician, usually using Franklin's own words. It's a long book, but Franklin has so many facets, at times it's like reading about a different person. The descriptions of English and French politics were fun and reminds me how far all of our countries have progressed socially.

I do vaguely remember reading Franklin's autobiography decades ago, it left a dry, dusty taste and a couple of decades later I read a mediocre biography that I cannot remember a tiddly bit of. I think I will have less problems with recalling this one. An excellent book on a complex and fascinating character.
Profile Image for Gerald.
Author 54 books426 followers
August 29, 2011
Earlier: I think this is the Vook edition. It has embedded video. I downloaded it as an app to my iPhone from the Apple iBookstore. I have a hunch this multimedia book experience is not as rich as it could be, but it's a start on a form that's in its infancy.

Update: Turns out I'm not a big fan of the Vook format, at least for recreational reading. I suppose I'm too retro, equate reading with "quiet time."

I like taking books, and ebooks, to public places. Unless I want to wear earbuds, I'm not comfortable playing the clips in the Vook when there are other people around.

I still think that the ideal app for a video-book app is the textbook. The multimedia elements really enhance the experience, I'm sure.

As to the content, Franklin was a character. I'll add him to the list of "people I'd like to have dinner with."

Profile Image for Daniel Kukwa.
3,995 reviews88 followers
January 15, 2011
"The First American" is a wake-up call — never again will I ignore this fascinating-yet-gentle giant of intellect and words. H.W. Brands crafts a sumptuous biography that does great justice to a great man…and it should be shared far and wide. Drag Ben Franklin out of the the realm of cliche and the fog of forgetfulness, and force him back into the spotlight he so richly deserves.
Profile Image for Chris.
248 reviews4 followers
April 27, 2017
This 14 part lecture series is a very good overview of Benjamin Franklin's life. It is a short course - at only 8 hours long, but provides a good introduction into the Colonial Era and how this larger than life figure grew into his famous role as one of the Founding Fathers of the United States.
Profile Image for Bob Wernerehl.
53 reviews1 follower
July 2, 2022
Certainly a valuable and interesting book but it seems to become unnecessarily slowed by unimportant details and diversion narratives at times. But wow, what an impressive individual to write about, a truly amazing and interesting character.
Profile Image for Joan.
79 reviews
February 11, 2018
I so enjoyed reading about this great man. He was a genius! He was one of the founding fathers and because of his insight, kindness, and knowledge he helped make America great!
Profile Image for Joel Myers.
26 reviews1 follower
March 8, 2022
Brands is engaging and thorough. Franklin was immense. Good book. Very good.
Profile Image for Jim Swike.
1,508 reviews14 followers
April 17, 2018
An inventor, statesman, and Forefather to our country. Well-researched, and well-written. Great resource book, enjoy!
Profile Image for J.S..
Author 1 book52 followers
October 19, 2021
This is probably the best Benjamin Franklin bio I've read. Having previously read biographies by Walter Isaacson and Gordon Wood, I wondered if there was really anything new I could learn about Franklin. Unfortunately, I read those other books over ten years ago, so I can't really say if I learned anything new or not. What I can say is that this was an excellent read and I think Brands may have done the best job covering Franklin's life (of the three, anyway). It's a bit lengthy (just over 700 pages in the paperback copy that languished far too long on my shelves) but well worth the time and highly inspiring.
Profile Image for Xyra.
569 reviews
January 8, 2018
I'm not sure how this received "my rating" before now, but the 4 stars are accurate. I really liked this book. I learned so much more about Benjamin Franklin. One confession, the reason I put this down dealt with me reading something that made me angry with one of my favorite founding fathers. I am glad I decided to let go of that anger and proceed to the end of this biography.

HW Brands' source notes are extensive - 40 pages worth! His telling of Benjamin Franklin's life incorporates quotes from published works, correspondence, and various other sources. including these sources helps the narrative to take on a personal feeling. The personal touch is what held my attention for so long.

The work flows well keeping the reader's attention and eye.

I learned a lot! Re-emphasized the reason Franklin's birthday is a point of discussion. How the continental congress and constitutional conventions worked. Diplomatic trips overseas and the trouble they wreaked on his person physically. Personal struggles with family, friends, etc. The great societies and institutions he founded or established. Inventions. So much more.

My edition of the book has a "silky" cover and flips well. And for as battered as the edges got over time, the binding is still unbroken. Overall i really enjoyed reading this biography and learning more about Benjamin Franklin, his life, and his contributions to building the USA.
Profile Image for Peter Beck.
112 reviews34 followers
February 18, 2019
Benjamin Franklin was not just the "The First American." He was also America's first diplomat and global thought leader. He was a man of science, letters and virtue, becoming an abolitionist later in life. Without his cajoling of the French government for financial and military support, it is quite possible the American Revolution would have failed. His last major public act was to forge the compromise that led to the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.

Having just read Ron Chernow's "Washington," that book invariably became my frame of reference for "The First American." Ben and George's paths crossed only a handful of times, but they had great admiration for one another. They thus provide very different perspectives on the Revolution. Brands provides a strong and engaging narrative, but for every brilliant turn of phrase, there was a head-scratching awkward one. Here's a late example: "Franklin preferred philosophy, but diplomacy insisted." ??? My only other complaint is that Brands did not include any pictures (unlike Isacson's significantly shorter biography).

Overall, Brands does a wonderful job of showing how Franklin's long, fruitful and fascinating life can provide inspiration to one and all.
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