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Benjamin Franklin: An American Life
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503 of 524 people found the following review helpful
on November 8, 2003
Ben Franklin An American Life by Walter Isaacson is a book that should be required reading for all American high school students. I wish I had read this book thirty years ago for this book has transformed my cartoonish, single-dimensioned view of Benjamin Franklin into the multi-dimensional, sometimes controversial, and at all times entertaining historical figure he actually was. And while we view Mr. Franklin through the eyes of Author Walter Isaacson, his opinions are mostly invisible throughout almost 600 pages of text, allowing the reader to draw his own conclusions.
We know Ben Franklin today mostly as one of the founding fathers. But his presence in our lives comes mostly to us through companies that either bear his name or use his likeness in advertising. Generally we think of Franklin as a wise man whose Poor Richards Almanack and thirteen virtues remind us to work hard to improve ourselves. His character is affiliated with savings, with insurance, with investments and a whole host of products, which we buy because we should. Because it would be the right thing to do, if not the most desired thing to do. After reading Isaacson's book, I believe Franklin would get a chuckle out of what we have turned him into.
I don't mean that Isaacson portrays Franklin as a fool. He certainly was not that. Isaacson allows us to see Franklin as so much more than his own Autobiography would have us know of him. Mr. Franklin was a great man, great in science, printing, writing, diplomacy, and democracy. Indeed he was the first great promoter of the middle class in America. He believed in the ability of man to make himself better. Certainly he was a self-made man.
But he was also great in the way he lived his life. He loved to travel. As postmaster, he saw more of America probably than any American of his era. His wanderlust did not stop on this side of the Atlantic. He also visited most of Europe. For that matter he lived most of the second half of his life in Europe.
Perhaps what I enjoyed so much about Isaacson's book was learning what Franklin was not. For example, he was not American, as we think of him, until very close to the actual Revolution. For most of his life, Franklin saw himself as a loyal citizen of the throne of England and worked mightily to avoid the very Independence Day in which Americans remember him so highly. He viewed the problems with England as a problem first with the Proprietors, then with the Legislature, and only finally with the king himself. If it had been possible to maintain America as an expanded part of England, with equal rights and responsibilities, Franklin would have happily supported such a plan.
Also while Franklin was great in many endeavors, he was not a particularly good family man. He married his wife more out of expedience and necessity than out of romantic inclination. He needed a mother for his newborn son, William, and Deborah (not William's mother) was a willing candidate. Franklin lived fifteen of the final 18 years away from Deborah: he lived in Europe and she lived in Philadelphia. While he was always fond of Deborah, he was also fond of other women as well. Isaacson does not paint Franklin so much as an adulterer, though he may have been, but rather as more of a flirt.
Franklin did not have many close relationships either. He was estranged from his son, when William remained loyal to the crown. The fact that William remained loyal was not such a shock when one considers that he was raised in England by Franklin when Franklin considered himself first and foremost a British citizen. While Franklin knew more great men of his generation than anyone, he was not particularly close to any of them. He was closer to the women in his life. This closeness was more of companionship and conversation than anything more lurid.
My intention here is to write a book review, not another biography. But I have to admit that one of the great things that has happened in my life as a result of Isaacson's biography of Franklin's life is that I am more keenly desirous of knowing about the minds and the lives of the founding fathers of our great country. Benjamin Franklin An American Life helps me to understand who we are as Americans, as well as who we aren't. Understanding more of what happened 250 years ago helps me to understand more about today.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Isaacson's biography of Franklin. It is a long read. But near the end I was saddened to have to finally finish it. When I read the chapter of Franklin's death I was saddened as if I had lost someone close to me. I was pleased to turn the page and discovered that Isaacson wrote another entire chapter about Franklin after his death. Many writers and thinkers have commented on Franklin's life throughout American history. Franklin has gone through many recreations throughout the past two centuries and reading what has been written at various times also tells us something of those times and the changes in our country.
I give Benjamin Franklin An American Life by Walter Isaacson my highest recommendation of five stars out of five stars. Read it. Enjoy it. Benefit from it. This book of Franklin's yesterdays can change your tomorrows.
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247 of 276 people found the following review helpful
on December 10, 2003
If you are looking for a holiday gift that is both serious and enjoyable while capturing much of the spirit of America's founding, you need go no further than "Benjamin Franklin: An American Life."

Isaacson understands something about the American Revolution and the founding fathers that many students of the era never quite get. Each founding father plays an essential role in our becoming an independent republic. Washington is the titan of moral authority on whose integrity our nation rests. Jefferson is the brilliant writer and theorist who helped create modern politics. Madison's systematic hard work created the system of legislative power and constitutional authority that protects our freedoms. Hamilton's understanding of economics and social forces established the capitalist structure, which has made this the wealthiest society in history.
Yet in the deepest sense, these great men were pre-American. They belonged to an earlier, different era where most were landed gentry. Even Hamilton longed for the stability of monarchy.

Only Franklin personified the striving, ambitious, rising system of individual achievement, hard work, thrift and optimism found at the heart of the American spirit. Only Franklin worked his way up in the worlds of business and organized political power in both colonial and national periods. Only Franklin was a world-renowned scientist, founder of corporations, inventor of devices and creator of the American mythos of the common man.

Gordon Wood's "The Radicalism of the American Revolution" caught intellectually this sudden shift from the stable, serious gentry who dominated the founding to the wild, energetic, boisterous Jacksonians who came to define the American ethos.

Franklin is the precursor to the Jacksonians. He personified, literally lived, the American dream and then captured it in an amazingly self aware, fun to read autobiography, which may be the first great book of the American civilization.

Isaacson has captured and portrayed Franklin in all his glory and complexity. This is a book worth giving any of your friends who would better understand America or any foreigner who wonders at our energy, our resilience, our confidence and our success.
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168 of 188 people found the following review helpful
This is a factual, but sometimes unimaginative biography of the famously multi-talented Benjamin Franklin: Statesman, philosopher (indeed, perhaps the founder of American "pragmatism), politician, writer, scientist, diplomat, community organizer, publisher, and self-help pioneer. (Isaakson writes that Franklin was motivated by the belief that "to put forth benefits for the common good is divine"). Franklin played an important role in treaties with England and France, and was an initially reluctant but thereafter adamant proponent of independence from England. His Albany Plan (1754) and Articles of Confederation (1775) were early and eventually influential efforts to balance federal sovereignty and union with states' interests.

The fault of the book, then, is its subject, but how Isaacson writes about him. Its chief fault is the lack of narrative flair: With the notable exception of the first and last chapters, we have a chronological account broken into small sections. Here's one particularly mundane succession: "Constitutional Ideas" (a mere 2 pages)," "Meeting Lord Howe Again (5 pages)," "To France, with Temple and Benny (4 pages)." A more satisfying approach would have traced Franklin's domestic political thought in one larger chapter, but this would violate Isaakson's chronological imperative. At times the book's equally weighted, well-ordered facts yield a pace that is both plodding and boring. The book is best when it manages to integrate larger themes with the strictly biographical details.

Comparing this biography with David McCullough's popular "John Adams," shows that McCullough's book is more fully realized and more "modern," as he interprets themes and implications within broader contexts. Isaacson, at his worst, reads more like a chronicler as he emphasizes neatly compartmentalized facts that tend to obscure larger themes. McCullough simply writes with greater narrative flair: His book contains both precision and drama, and, contrary to this book, it's never a struggle to get through. Although Franklin's pragmatism perhaps limits how analytic Isaakson can be, there is, generally speaking, not enough about the larger context of American intellectual and cultural history (with the exceptions noted above). For example, there is only superficial discussion of whether Franklin's dream of a great middle class has been realized. Moreover, while some critics claim that McCullough is too admiring of Adams, Isaakson somewhat glosses over Franklin's negative personal qualities. Franklin was a great political compromiser, but he appears somewhat rigid in other matters.

Only in the last chapter does Isaacson fully delve into larger themes. He accomplishes this in 17 excellent pages showing American intellectual reaction to him from the time of his contemporaries through the present. He describes the variations in criticism, such as the great esteem for Franklin among rationalists (during the Age of Enlightenment) and American pragmatists, but also describes the Romantics' disdain of bourgeois practicality, and the critiques written by early 20th century intellectuals (e.g., Max Weber wrote "All Franklin's moral attitudes are colored with utilitarianism."). In October 2000, however, critic David Brooks wrote that our "founding Yuppie" would be comfortable in today's middle class, sharing their "optimistic, genial, and kind" values and their secular and religious-based activism. At the conclusion of the book, Isaacson briefly weighs the evidence, and, not surprisingly, praises Franklin's values and his deeply felt "faith in the wisdom of the common citizen." Had the rest of the biography been written with more of the insight and depth shown in this chapter, the book would have been much better.
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26 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on August 13, 2003
The H.W. Brands biography, "The First American: The Live and Times of Benjamin Franklin" came first, covers all that this biography covers, and -- most important of all -- is far better written. It commences in epic fashion with Franklin being in the "cockpit" to be harangued and humiliated by an English version of a McCarthy hearing. The incident we were told helped lead up to Franklin's abandoment of his long-held belief that the colonies should NOT separate. Then, our appetites whetted (i.e., Why this attack? What was its nature?), the biography begins.
If Brands is the superior writer and was first, why then all the excitement about the Isaacson biography? Well, Isaacson has Time Warner behind him and he did do a good job of recasting the H.W. Brands biography in his own words. And Franklin's astounding list of accomplishments certainly makes for interesting reading even in the hands of a lesser-skilled writer. The content itself makes up for the Cliff Notes approach to writing.
I first read the H.W. Brands biography. Then, I ordered this one for some new insights or quotes or examples. The fact is that Brands said it all and said it all better. Isaacson may have a greater appeal to those who like a bulleted list approach and frequent summaries to help them through a thick book. But, those who enjoy good prose, a biographer with a good if non-intrusive sense of humor, and seeing the victory of merit over a publicity machine, are best advised to get their hands on Brands's even more enjoyable biography.
I take Isaacson at his word that he has read a host of books other than the Brands book that is conspicuously absent from his bibliography. But, all he needed to read for his preparation the Brands biography of Franklin. (The sole examples that I can find of some original material are some quotes he made from Van Doren's biography of Franklin. Those, at least, didn't appear in the Brands book. So, I stand corrected by this exception. There is a little value added by the Isaacson version -- very little, but something.)
Good news: Franklin's inventiveness, dirty trick campaigns, wisdom, leadership, and flirtations are sure hits no matter which biography you pick up. But, if you want to see a truly five-star performance, do check out the Brands biography. The difference between the two is the difference between a work of literature and the Cliff notes, between the art of the biographer and the sterility of the summarizer.
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32 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on September 2, 2003
Walter Isaacson's new biography of that "love him or leave him" American icon, Benjamin Franklin, is nowhere near as comprehensive or as original as the recent biographies by H.W. Brands and Morgan. Nonetheless, Isaacson's contribution is extremely readable and doesn't stray too deeply into the many rivers that fed Franklin's life. It is, in no small part, the breeziness of Isaacson's prose and his colloquial use of language in the narrative that will surely make this a popular biography.
From the outset, it's clear that Isaacson is a Franklin Fan, though he does a credible job of presenting a balanced history and known facts, from letter excerpts to reproductions of paintings and diagrams. Isaacson's partiality toward Franklin seems to interfere in only a few places -he's almost too ready to excuse or not delve into some of Franklin's more minor (albeit speculative) faults, or explore more mercenary motivations for some things Franklin did. Nonetheless, this biography of Benjamin Franklin is the one I would recommend to the uninitiated and particularly to younger and adolescent readers. Isaacson provides a nice buffet for the casual reader and new discoverer of Benjamin Franklin, if a little heavy on the politics at times.
This book very nicely compliments the towering biography "The First American" by H.W. Brands, a magnificent book that requires somewhat more digestion, but Isaacson shouldn't be dismissed as a lightweight: He should be lauded as a man who has again tried to bring Franklin the man down from the mountain and give us the man rather than the myth. By and large, he succeeds very well indeed. Definitely worth the read, and a great book for "anytime" reading.
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36 of 39 people found the following review helpful
on July 14, 2003
Benjamin Franklin typified the soul or virtues that most of us Americans hold dear. He rose from being a poor boy to becoming wealthy and distinguished in many fields. He extolled the virtues of the middle class, merchants, and business people over the nobility and titled gentry of Europe. He courageously called for the independence of America when many people still wanted to retain a loyalty to Great Britain. Putting on another hat, he successfully negotiated with first France and than Britain during the Revolutionary War to gain America's independence. Franklin was a successful writer and printer, an inventor, a civic-minded citizen, and a statesman.
Walter Isaacson's book is successful in portraying the wide diversity of Franklin's efforts and achievements. He also delves into Franklin's personal life which included beliefs in Deism as opposed to traditional Christianity. Franklin fathered a child out of wedlock and Isaacson explains how despite this Franklin took responsibility for his actions and did his best to raise this son.
Nevertheless, Isaacson's book is not free from criticism. It is not as interesting or well written as other books about this same period of history. For example, "John Adams" by David McCullough is far more captivating. "American Sphinx" by Joe Ellis is another book that does a good job of keeping the attention of a novice reading about the founding fathers. Finally, "Thomas Jefferson: an Intimate History" by Fawn Brodie is another fascinating account of the men who made America. One gets the idea Isaacson is so determined to cram our heads with details that the book loses some of its allure.
Books like these remind us that the founding fathers were human beings with faults and not deities. Depending on how harsh a critic one is, one could argue Franklin had few friends because he was not loyal to them. One could contend he mistreated his wife leaving her for years by herself in America while he carried on in Great Britain arguing over various colonial issues. One could say he treated his son William, unduly harshly, because he chose to side with the British instead of those in America seeking independence. One could also argue Franklin was a poor team player as a diplomat and couldn't get along with either John Adams or Mr. Lee who were also appointed to negotiate with the French.
However, on the balance it is clear Franklin's virtues far outweighed his faults. This is an authoritative book about one of the most significant Americans who has ever lived.
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41 of 45 people found the following review helpful
This is a well-written, detailed, and overall very impressive biography of Franklin, very reminiscent of the recent John Adam's bio. I've read numerous articles about the great founding father over the years, and one other biography, and have read his autobiography, but nothing so extensive as this. As others have already written very detailed reviews, I just had a few miscellaneous comments.
The author does a fine job of showing what a Renaissance man Franklin truly was. Most people are familiar with his greatest accomplishments, such as his research into electricity and his roles in the founding of the nation, but he had many other less well-known achievements as well that were also interesting and important. He founded the Saturday Evening Post, which ran for almost 200 years until it finally died in the 70's or 80's, if I remember correctly. He emphasized practical education rather than the Latin-based curricula popular at the time in schools, and founded academies to implement his ideas. He invented bifocals and a flexible urinary catheter which helped people with kidney stones. He invented Daylight Savings Time and originated the Farmer's Almanac, which still survives today. He invented a more efficient iron furnace stove and an early odometer for measuring distance, which he attached to his carriage. He was responsible for the creation of the U.S. Post Office, and invented the lightning rod, which was the invention Franklin was most famous for during his lifetime, since it saved numerous tall structures from damage.
I'll mention only other of his scientific accomplishments, since it's not as well known as his work in electricity. Franklin observed that northeast storms begin in the southwest, and thought it was strange that storms travel in a direction opposite to their prevailing winds. Today we know this is because of the the way in which cold and warm fronts are affected by high and low pressure zones that form in the atmostphere, but Franklin anticipated these advances by predicting that a storm's course could be plotted. He once rode his horse through a storm and chased a whirlwind 3/4 of a mile during his research on storms. So Franklin was even something of a meteorologist. After witnessing the Montgolfier bothers balloon flight in 1783 in Paris, he predicted that ballons would be used for spy surveillance and for dropping bombs.
Franklin had a significant influence on my own life. Coincidently, I discovered and read Franklin's autobiography when I was 12 years old, which was how old Franklin was when he left home. I took many of his principles to heart as a young boy, and they've served me well. His values of hard work, moderation in all things, and insatiable intellectual curiosity were ones that influenced me strongly as well. In college, I studied and eventually did advanced work in both the humanities and the hard sciences, although that meant a lot of extra homework for myself, since the advanced math courses were quite difficult, since I claim no great talents in that area. But I believe it made me a better scholar and researcher, even if my real scholarly talents lay elsewhere. But if nothing else it exemplifed Franklin's emphasis on practical education and useful knowledge and skills as opposed to impractical ones.
Overall, a fine new addition to scholarship on Benjamin Franklin and a man whose ideas had an important influence on my own life.
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29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
This is a serviceable biography and provides a easy-to-read account of Franklin's life, but does not, in my mind, the shorter but better biography by Morgan or the slightly earlier biography by Brands, or the much earlier--and slightly hagiographical biography--of Van Doren. I find Isaacson good at finding the trees--especially the unflattering trees--but not so good at describing the forest. As a result, while the volume is excellent at acquainting the early 21st century reader with the questions that most early 21st century readers would ask about Franklin, he falters somewhat at answering what it all means. In other words, it is a biography without a very good sense of history, and is likely to have less interest for future generations, who are less interested in a tailored-to-the-moment biography,
I did want to make a reply to one especially negative review below where Franklin was rounding criticized for 1) being arrogant, 2) ignoring men and women of African descent, and 3) having had the audacity to rewrite the Declaration of Independence. It is very helpful in writing a negative review to at least have read about the individual in question. If the reviewer in question had, he would have know that Franklin held some of the most enlightened views towards Americans of African descent in America. His last public controversy, in fact, was to call for the abolition of slavery and write a piece excoriating its evils. Unfortunately, he died only a couple of months after engaging in this controversy.
As far as arrogance, I'm not sure where that impression comes from. He certainly had a high and exceedingly well justified opinion of his own self worth, but arrogance was not a word that people who actually dealt with him used. It is not an exaggeration to say that many people in Europe considered him to the world's most remarkable man (much of his representation in art prior to the Revolutionary War--when his public image necessarily becomes politicized--bears this high regard out). But Franklin was never dictatorial in his wishes, never browbeat his intellectual opponents, never lauded his merits over others. If one reads accounts of the constitutional congress, Franklin's greatest contributions was as promoter of compromise, not as arrogant declaimer.
Now, about his rewriting sections of the "constitution" that Jefferson wrote. There are multiple confusions at work here. First, Jefferson was not involved in the writing of the constitution at all, actually being in France while it was being written. In fact, Jefferson wrote NONE of the constitution. Obviously, the reviewer meant the Declaration of Independence. Facts confused again. Those assembling to declare independence from Britain appointed a committee to undertake the writing. It was expected that the committee would produce the Declaration as a committee and not as the work of one person, and that Franklin, as the most famous writer in the colonies, would contributor a great deal. But because of his gifts as a prose stylist, it was agreed that Jefferson should write the first draft. Franklin, whose gifts as a writer were regarded more highly than anyone excepting Jefferson, made some light but on the whole very helpful changes, but otherwise stated his opinion that Jefferson had done the committee's work for them. Franklin, Adams and the others agreed to accept Jefferson's slightly amended draft.
I am not, however, a big fan of Isaacson's biography. I felt uncomfortable with many of the emphases on Franklin's life as a businessman, and didn't, I believe, sufficiently emphasis Franklin's enormous sense of responsibility that he felt American's bore their society. Furthermore, he was not the entrepreneur that Isaacson portrays him to be. In fact, he repeatedly turned down entrepreneurial opportunities, most famously in refusing the patent for his stove, which would have netted him a fortune. I still prefer Van Doren's perhaps too praiseworthy biography or either of the more recent biographies of H. W. Brands and Edmund Morgan.
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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
This is simply a terrific sweeping biography. Its primary sources are Franklin's voluminous writing and the letters and writings of his contemporaries. Mr. Isaacson added some pertinent observationss by historians. The mix makes for not only interesting and well-researched reading, but entertaining reading as well.
Mr. Isaacson ties his themes (or theories) of Franklin from the begginning to the end. Thus one can see characteristics of the man that started in his youth and carried through to old age sometimes with no or minor changes, a few times with significant metamorphes. The end result is that the biography flows naturally.
The author also used well chapter and sub-chapter delineations which aid the reader throughout.
The perspective is a unique one. Therefore if you have read another Franklin biography, do not hesitate to pick this one up. It is strongly recommended for both those who are familliar with the man and those who know little of Franklin.
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on July 5, 2004
I'm giving Walter Isaacson's biography five stars for its fairness, its comprehensiveness, accuracy, the incisiveness of its insights, but most of all, for its readability. I think this is what puts it above other Franklin biographies I've read - it somehow manages the feat of being a very engaging, pleasant read, from the first page to the last, while plumbing each interesting depth of Franklin's life.
In particular, I admired how Isaacson explored the nature of Franklin's religious belief, letting Franklin speak for himself on what he felt man's duty to God and his neighbor consisted of. I also appreciated the seriousness with which Isaacson dealt with Franklin's often underappreciated scientific achievements, clarifying just how beneficial the effects of his experiments with lightning and electricity were almost immediately (within a very short time, many lives were saved around the world just because of Franklin's lightning rod, etc.). Lastly, as readers of Franklin's autobiography know, he was very funny, and I was glad that Isaacson allowed that charm and humor to be displayed.
Edmund S. Morgan's recent biography of Franklin, for all its strengths, has to take second place to Isaacson's outstanding book. I know this review probably sounds like it was written by Walter Isaacson himself under a pseudonym or something, but the truth is, I can't really think of a single criticism to make of this one.
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