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The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin Paperback – March 12, 2002

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Editorial Reviews Review

Benjamin Franklin may have been the most remarkable American ever to live: a printer, scientist, inventor, politician, diplomat, and--finally--an icon. His life was so sweeping that this comprehensive biography by H.W. Brands at times reads like a history of the United States during the 18th century. Franklin was at the center of America's transition from British colony to new nation, and was a kind of Founding Grandfather to the Founding Fathers; he was a full generation older than George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry, and they all viewed him with deep respect. "Of those patriots who made independence possible, none mattered more than Franklin, and only Washington mattered as much," writes Brands (author of a well-received Teddy Roosevelt biography, T.R.: The Last Romantic). Franklin was a complex character who sometimes came up a bit short in the personal virtue department, once commenting, "That hard-to-be-governed passion of youth had hurried me frequently into intrigues with low women that fell in my way." When he married, another woman was already pregnant with his child--a son he took into his home and had his wife raise.

Franklin is best remembered for other things, of course. His still-famous Poor Richard's Almanac helped him secure enough financial freedom as a printer to retire and devote himself to the study of electricity (which began, amusingly, with experiments on chickens). His mind never rested: He invented bifocals, the armonica (a musical instrument made primarily of glass), and, in old age, a mechanical arm that allowed him to reach books stored on high shelves. He served American interests as a diplomat in Europe; without him, France might not have intervened in the American Revolution. He helped draft the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He possessed a sense of humor, too. In 1776, when John Hancock urged the colonies to "hang together," Franklin is said to have commented, "We must indeed all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately." Franklin's accomplishments were so numerous and varied that they threaten to read like a laundry list. Yet Brands pours them into an engrossing narrative, and they leap to life on these pages as the grand story of an exceptional man. The First American is an altogether excellent biography. --John J. Miller --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

"Franklin's story is the story of a manDan exceedingly gifted man and a most engaging one. It is also the story of the birth of AmericaDan America this man discovered in himself, then helped create in the world at large," says Texas A&M historian Brands (T.R.: The Last Romantic, etc.) in the prologue to his stunning new work. Franklin's father took him out of school at age 11, but the boy assiduously sacrificed sleep (while working as an apprentice printer) to read and learn, giving himself rigorous exercises to develop his ease with language and discourse, among other disciplines. In essence, as Brands vividly demonstrates, Franklin defined the Renaissance man. He made multiple contributions to science (electricity, meteorology), invention (bifocal lenses, the Franklin furnace) and civic institutions (the American Philosophical Society, the University of Pennsylvania, the U.S. Post Office). But Brands is primarily concerned with Franklin's development as a thinker, politician and statesman and places his greatest emphasis there. In particular, Brands does an excellent job of capturing Franklin's exuberant versatility as a writer who adopted countless personaeDevidence of his gift for seeing the world through a variety of different lensesDthat not only predestined his prominence as a man of letters but also as an agile man of politics. From Franklin's progress as a self-declared "Briton"Dserving as London agent for Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and other coloniesDto his evolution as an American (wartime minister to France, senior peace negotiator with Britain and, finally, senior participant at the Constitutional Convention), Brands, with admirable insight and arresting narrative, constructs a portrait of a complex and influential man ("only Washington mattered as much") in a highly charged world. (Sept.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 784 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor; Reprint edition (March 12, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385495404
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385495400
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 1.3 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (193 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #66,315 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

H.W. Brands taught at Texas A&M University for sixteen years before joining the faculty at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is the Dickson Allen Anderson Centennial Professor of History. His books include Traitor to His Class, Andrew Jackson, The Age of Gold, The First American, and TR. Traitor to His Class and The First American were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

130 of 133 people found the following review helpful By Richard Quarles on October 29, 2000
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Don't be intimidated by the length (700 pages without notes) of this fine book. It's an extremely well-written and engaging account of a life well lived. The author makes great use of Franklin's immense body of writing as well as his innate humor. The result is a wonderfully readable biography that brings forth both the man and his accomplishments.
As a Founding Father, Franklin is naturally accorded respect, gratitude, and even awe by most Americans. His famous experiments with electricity and his numerous inventions from bifocals to the armonica are cause for amazement no matter what your nationality. His civic contributions include founding both the first lending library and the first fire station in America. His writings are numerous and visionary. One might expect a man of such accomplishments to be vain, driven, or aloof. But, as this book will make clear, Ben Franklin was first and foremost a delightful and humorous man. You'll enjoy getting to know him better.
If you've an interest in historical biography or the history of the American Revolution, you simply must read this book. Even if you don't usually read history, there's no better re-introduction to this marvelous figure from your school book days.
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104 of 107 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on September 20, 2000
Format: Hardcover
With this magnificent book, author H. W. Brands has rescued ol' Ben Franklin from the dustbin of historical caricature. The statesman, printer, scientist, inventor, author, diplomat, raconteur, and ladies' man emerges in these pages as living flesh and blood. No more are we left with Franklin, the relentlessly glib and clever bon vivant (though he was certainly that -- among other things). In H. W. Brands's skilled hands you get a real sense of his motivation as a person, his passions, his jealousies.
Consider the opening scene, in the Prologue. Here Brands shows us Franklin, bracing himself for cross-examination in the British court, the Privy Council, in connection with the revolutionary goings-on in Massachusetts. The dramatic scene Brands sets up isn't just for entertainment, however. As he presents Franklin enduring eviscerating ridicule at the hands of the British royal solicitor, Wedderburn, Brands makes the case that Franklin finally discovered his American-ness right then and there, and history was never the same as a result. If that's how the Brits want to treat the generous and fair Benjamin Franklin, Franklin must have thought, let them live with the consequences.
From this gripping beginning, with its strong sense of motivation and narrative momentum, Brands takes us on a tour of early colonial New England, to Franklin's early life, his family life, and his role in establishing the Republic and steering its fate through the difficult shoals of international diplomacy.
It would not be surprising if this book gets its due when the Pulitzer Prizes are nominated and voted upon. Kudos to Professor Brands. Few academics are such natural-born storytellers.
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53 of 55 people found the following review helpful By Roger Cohen on November 2, 2000
Format: Hardcover
The First American is an exceptionally entertaining, insightful and informative work of historical biography. I'm not a speedy reader, but I consumed this book in a few weeks of train commutes to and from work (I have no idea what's been going on in the world since late September) and am now bereft that it is finished. I was struck by how much Franklin's legacy suffers from the iconography (another reviewer correctly called it historical caricature). Franklin the Myth, as it turns out, is far less than Franklin the Man. The Doctor is more than an American giant -- he is in the first tier in the pantheon of modern civilization's geniuses; right up there among Leonardo and Shakespeare and Gutenberg.
A minor quibble: I was disappointed not to learn how Franklin's son William (a notorious Tory during the War of Independence)and his grandsons Temple Franklin and Benny Bache fared in their lives, and how subsequent generations of Franklin progeny coped with the giant's legacy. I know the book was the Life and Times (I most appreciated that Brands took "The Times" part of the equation as seriously as "The Life") but somehow I think the Doctor would have been tickled if the reach of his Life and Times had been extended to include the following generations.
Again, a masterwork, for which I am grateful and privileged to have enjoyed as well as I did.
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35 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Gregory Maier on August 8, 2002
Format: Paperback
It's curious how many biographies about prime ministers, generals, past presidents, and personalities from the Revolutionary War era have been published in recent years. Perhaps the phenomenon is not so strange in light of H.W. Brands' volume about Benjamin Franklin, a man who, even in life, appeared to be part mortal and part god. At a time when our culture seems to yearn for stories about persons of character and achievement, of people who were not merely good but who were also good for something, this book comes none too soon. Inventor, printer, writer, philosopher, diplomat, representative, treaty-maker, land speculator, abolitionist, patron of education, arts and sciences, to name a handful of things, it's fair to say Franklin seems to have "done it all," and what a life! His contributions to science, the infant United States and in other areas cannot be emphasized too heavily. To use a Franklinism, he was indeed a jack-of-all-trades, and master of many. In some respects the man almost seemed too big for his life, but the ever-evolving Franklin changed things when he couldn't change himself, and largely shaped his own world --and his legacy. It's a big legacy, a mighty story, and Brands does an honest and capable job sifting through the lore and legend surrounding Benjamin Franklin the man, although even after finishing the book, Franklin's myth still looms large. Perhaps it is only the titanic shadow he casts across recent history? Whatever it is, Brands presents the reader with a fully human Franklin who was capable of some seemingly superhuman undertakings, a mortal man with flaws and failings, subject to flukes of fate, as well as flights of the highest intellectual and moral insight and courage when it was most needed.Read more ›
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