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Franklin: A New And More Elegant Edition
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...