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on April 6, 2002
"Oh, William!" his exasperated wife is said once to have chided Gladstone, the towering Victorian statesman, "if you weren't such a very great man, you would be an awful bore..."
Aware of his endless and rather priggish self-improvement schemes and aphorisms, which feature prominently in his Autobiography and his almanacs, the casual observer of American history might be tempted to dismiss Franklin along the same lines that Mrs. Gladstone used to characterize her husband.
It is such hasty judgments that James Srodes sets out to correct and explicate in his new biography* of Franklin (no mean task, by the way, since Franklin is one of the most researched and written-about figures in American history). For the very most part, Srodes succeeds admirably.
Mind you, in a long lifetime Franklin left plenty of material for any number of biographers: a copious record of ceaseless energy and remarkable accomplishments. For nearly 30 years, he unstintingly served the American cause.
Forever busily re-inventing himself, Franklin was a polymath: a very successful printer (in these internet days, it is easy to forget that printing was the leading edge technology of the time). Printing in those days also required muscular strength, drudgery and skill--all of which Franklin enthusiastically brought to the task. Printing too had to be done in daylight as doing it by candlelight produced too many costly typesetting mistakes.
An inveterate scientist and inventor (those of us who are weak in the sight owe bifocals to him), he went on to become a famous author, a skilled diplomat in Europe's largest capitals (notably Paris and London), a spymaster (though this has been less advertised), a propagandist and a military leader sufficiently skilled to incur the envy of George Washington. Amusingly, at 50, a taste for madeira and rum punch had given Franklin something of a tummy--but this did not stop him from taking command of a detachment of cavalry in one of the Indian wars.
In off-duty moments, he found time to be a glittering wit in society and a bit of a ladies' man--though not the philanderer that his enemies tried to depict him as. It is no wonder that Srodes calls him "the Essential Founding Father." Only Jefferson and John Adams are in the same intellectual league, he believes.
Distilling the enormous mass of material, Srodes describes Franklin's various (often comparmentalized) roles.
As a diplomat, for example, there is no doubt that he played the key role in securing help from the French and sympathy from some prominent people in England for his efforts to stop George III milking the American colonies.
There might have been eventually an American revolution against George III without Franklin, but it would never have happened with the relative speed and efficiency for which Franklin's efforts set the scene. Without the support of the French King Louis's loans, Srodes judges, there may even have been no American Revolution and we would all be speaking with English accents.
Srodes imbues the run-up to the Revolution, when America had only a brief window of opportunity against the immeasurably-richer England, with considerable narrative tension. Srodes points out too, which may not be well known to general readers, that Franklin only slowly and reluctantly shifted from his loyalty to George III to become a supporter and architect of American independence.
As a diplomat, Srodes says, Franklin had the rare virtue of taciturnity--reserving his main thrusts for one-on-one meetings, a lesson that might be taken on board by today's politicians, diplomats and spin doctors.
As an inventor, Srodes sets enormous store by Franklin's work in the discovery and development of electricity--known to every schoolboy (or perhaps not to today's schoolboys) by the famous depiction of Franklin flying the kite with the key attached to attract lightning. Indeed, Srodes argues, Franklin may be said to have bestrided 18th century science in the way that Newton bestrode science in the previous century--a largish claim but certainly what regulators call "a rebuttable proposition."
Nor does our biographer who--after 40 years in the dismal craft of journalism has developed a keen eye for these things--neglect the Rube Goldberg or playful side of Franklin's inventions: the writing chair with a foot-operated fan, a mechanical arm to retrieve books from the top shelves, a press to copy letters and so on.
A keen supporter of the Montgolfier brothers' balloon experiments, the first balloon that crossed the English Channel carried a letter to Franklin in Paris. With more justification than Al Gore's claim to have invented the internet, this may well entitle Franklin to be hailed as the inventor of airmail.
Not above showmanship, neither, Franklin developed a long, hollow cane--the staff of which he filled with oil. Waving the cane over wind-rippled waters, Franklin would appear to calm the troubled waters--to the great amazement of his less-artful audiences.
Impishly, Srodes scatters his book with amusing and telling details. George I, who was on the throne when Franklin first visited London in 1724, was a German, who spoke no English. Robert Walpole, his Prime Minister, did not speak German. So the two were obliged to converse in Latin, which they had each learned (imperfectly) at school.
In the end, perhaps, Srodes' biography has the virtue of separating the Samuel Smiles, self-improvement Franklin from the man who had a wry wit, loved publishing anonymous hoaxes (echoes here of Jonathan Swift), mocked in print pompous church sermons or foolish legislation in Philadelphia.
In a masterly epilogue, Srodes reflects upon Franklin's achievements and his multitudinous characteristics which, he writes, "drove him to the heights he reached...He often seems to have lived the life of more than one man."
But we should leave Ben Franklin with the wry epitaph for himself which he composed after a near fatal bout of pleurisy. Srodes calls it "a sweetly-written thing." It goes:
The Body of
B. Franklin, Printer
(Like the Cover of an old Book
Its contents torn out
And stript of its Lettering & Gilding)
Lies here, Food for Worms.
But the Work shall not be lost;
For it will (as he Believ'd) appear once more,
In a new and more elegant Edition
Revised and corrected,
By the Author...
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on September 23, 2002
Mr. Srodes has taken a new look at Uncle Ben. And, that look contrasts rather sharply with the view of Franklin presented by, for example, David McCullough in his Adams book. Adams did not like Franklin--neither does McCullough, who has an entire index section labled "Franklin, Benjamin: JA's reputation blackened by..." Heady stuff that, I think that Srodes is much more balanced. For example, his chapter 'Dismal Days' provides the reader, whether casual or scholarly, with a perceptive analysis of the relationships between and Franklin, Adams, the Virginian, Arthur Lee, and their French hosts. Franklin fit the environment in which he had to function; clearly, Adams did not...or perhaps, could not. After reading what Srodes has to say, one can better comprehend why Adams became so unhappy with his diminished role. We should never forget that Franklin delivered the goods! This book is a must read for anyone desiring a new set of insights into Franklin's activities abroad on behalf of his country and especially, his critical role, is garnering the support from abroad needed to win our independence.
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on December 27, 2002
This is an excellently researched and written book. Recently discovered documents, unseen for centuries, allow the author to more fully describe Franklin's critical role as a diplomat. This is a thorough biography that shows us the many sides of Franklin: as politician, as Scientist, as inventor, and as a most important figure in the creation of our nation.
Franklin was an early proponent of unifying the colonies, even advocating such before others considered uniting for purposes of independence from England. Franklin advocated creating a Governor General for all British colonies who could lead a unified colonial defense and attack against the French colonial army. Yet, the idea was rejected.
The book explores the many aspects of Franklin's life: such as his notable experiments with electricity that won him much respect and gratitude for publishing only facts he had proven and for describing how his results could be duplicated. We see Franklin as one who purposely did not care if high society saw him with his illegitimate son as a fellow diplomat. We further see his private torment as his son is imprisoned as a British loyalist, yet Franklin chose not to intercede on his son's behalf.
Ben Franklin is one of the great Americans of all time. This is a great biography of a great man. It is highly recommended.
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on January 15, 2007
This book, while well written and at times very engaging, leaves this reader with more questions than answers. Usually that is a good thing, but in this case the questions revolve around source material. Srodes made some rather important points, if they were true. For example, there is little evidence to suggest that Franklin and Lord Dartmouth were in cahoots during the Hutchinson letters affair, there is also no evidence that Franklin wrote Pennsylvania's 1776 Constitution, nor is there evidence that Franklin is the sole reason, because of his gift of persuasion, that the Pennsylvania delegates switched their votes in favor of independence or abstained from voting on July 2nd 1776, but Srodes unequivocally makes these exact arguments. In all of these cases he is able to do this because he does not footnote or endnote any significant point. By the end of this book, I felt exhausted from writing "evidence?" in the margins. If you have read this book, I only ask that you compare his interpretation of Franklin with a few other historians' interpretations. You will find that Srodes has a very different spin on Franklin, but a dubious one at best. I would suggest skipping this book for something that is a little better researched and cited. Not to pour abuse upon Srodes, but this book is filled with inaccuracies, most of which lend nothing to the argument, but do make one question his ability.
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on March 19, 2011
I enthusiastically purchased this book as a brief (400+) page biography about Ben Franklin about three months ago. I did not like the book. It is hard to read and does not really focus on Franklin but more on the events surrounding his life.

The book does not explain the events going on around him and what they mean. It just seems like a bunch of events that BF had happened to be around. I was disappointed because the book was poorly written and had numerous grammatical errors. I now know pretty much the same about BF as when I started reading it.

I would not recommend this book.
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on March 2, 2006
Franklin accomplished more in his lifetime than most people could in two. Thorough and warmly written Srodes shows Franklin's tireless tenacity, ability to finesse, explore, and intellect as nothing short of brilliant. A wonderfully self-made, successful man in the truly American sense; meaning by his boostraps rather than by birth. I loved it.
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on December 8, 2014
This is an excellently researched and written book. Recently discovered documents, unseen for centuries, allow the author to more fully describe Franklin's critical role as a diplomat. This is a thorough biography that shows us the many sides of Franklin: as politician, as Scientist, as inventor, and as a most important figure in the creation of our nation.

Franklin was an early proponent of unifying the colonies, even advocating such before others considered uniting for purposes of independence from England. Franklin advocated creating a Governor General for all British colonies who could lead a unified colonial defense and attack against the French colonial army. Yet, the idea was rejected.

The book explores the many aspects of Franklin's life: such as his notable experiments with electricity that won him much respect and gratitude for publishing only facts he had proven and for describing how his results could be duplicated. We see Franklin as one who purposely did not care if high society saw him with his illegitimate son as a fellow diplomat. We further see his private torment as his son is imprisoned as a British loyalist, yet Franklin chose not to intercede on his son's behalf.
Ben Franklin is one of the great Americans of all time. This is a great biography of a great man. It is highly recommended.
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on March 21, 2014
This was written in a style which kept my attention. I especially appreciate that Mr. Franklin's immense contribution to Americans is shared here. I have added Mr. Srodes to my list of favorite writers. However, I have a hard time believing he wasn't more spiritual than shown. For this reason only, I did not give it five stars.
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on March 4, 2011
I found this book worthwhile but I would have liked more personal and perhaps more intimate insights about Franklin as a person. Perhaps a bit more his writing would have helped. The book does a good job describing Franklin's surroundings and the people with whom he associated but I did not get a thorough enough picture of the man himself. Franklin was quite remarkable and the book does make that clear however. I would have liked more about his scientific exploits and also about his personal relations. The other characters in the book are too often the diplomats with whom he dealt and they are actually secondary players in this drama. The book did not have Franklin jumping out of it altough it was reasonably informative. I have read more interesting things about this man.
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on December 28, 2002
An enjoyable, informative book that doesn't spend time trying to find a cause to disagree with. Srodes is a masterful story teller who reports information without judgement, a refreshing concept these days.
Very pleasant book to re-read. Makes one wonder if this quality of leader will ever emerge again.
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