Joseph Wycoff's Reviews > Benjamin Franklin: a Biography
Benjamin Franklin: a Biography
Van Doren's biography relies heavily on long passages from the many personal letters and public writings of Benjamin Franklin. The strength of Van Doren's approach rests in the selections he offers in support of the modest narrative presented to the reader. Three aspects of Franklin's character and life become most prominent in the course of Van Doren's work. First, Franklin was an indefatigable natural philosopher who never ceased to engage in research and discussions of the most significant discoveries of the age. Franklin's detailed descriptions of his own experiments provide insight into a meticulous mind seeking a first principle or law on which to build scientific and philosophical knowledge. Second, Franklin seemed never to be far from a printing press, even going so far as to set up a press in his quarters in France during the American Revolutionary War. At a young age, he regarded the new technology as the key instrument of liberty: “Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech: a thing terrible to public traitors.” (27) In his mature years as a diplomat and a humorist, he wielded the power of the press to satirize the official doctrines and agents of Great Britain with his most famous political tracts. Third, Franklin imagined America as a country at a time when it added up to less than the sum of its colonial parts. In the colonial era to 1757, he never ceased in the effort to build a continental community of acquaintances and learned men in his capacity as a printer and postmaster. Remarkably, during his long absence in England and France thereafter, his notion of American as a nation grew more clear and distinct in defense of the rights and interests of the colonists. After his political philosophy came to fruition in the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution, Franklin considered the new American nation best suited to those who lacked social station or economic means in their own nations: “When foreigners after looking about for some other country in which they can obtain more happiness give a preference to ours, it is a proof of attachment which ought to excite our confidence and affection.” (752) A biography for those with an interest in numerous excerpts from Benjamin Franklin's vast body of writings in historical context.
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