134 of 137 people found the following review helpful
on October 29, 2000
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.
106 of 109 people found the following review helpful
on September 20, 2000
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.
55 of 58 people found the following review helpful
on November 2, 2000
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.
36 of 37 people found the following review helpful
on August 8, 2002
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. Frankly it is astonishing that one man could have lived such a life in times that were as fascinating and exciting as they were dangerous and uncertain. Brands breathes life into the many worlds his subject inhabited, from Philadelphia to France, colonial Boston to Great Britain, and the broad strokes and fine points are all alive and vibrant. This biography is luxurious by turns and, in only a few spots, prosaic.
Brands may not quite possess the gift of flowing prose that other biographers like McCullough or Ellis have, but his rendering is decidedly readable and thoroughly enjoyable. In fact the only places where I was "rubbed" were instances when Brands presented Franklin in a situation or against a backdrop without saying more about the setting. E.g., one may well remember the particulars of Queen Anne's War and the French and Indian War from school days gone by. But for one who does not, a little more background would be helpful, though I concede it would be difficult to insert even more detail into such an already copiously detailed, opulent book. It is also evident that Brands admires Franklin. That's not so hard to understand, especially when reading his treatment of Franklin, and perhaps his enthusiasm is better momentum than a dispassionate, cold eye. He achieves an energetic, well-balanced portrait of Franklin without sacrificing academic integrity. Granted, there are places where Brands seems to gloss over or merely mention in passing some of Franklin's human weaknesses, vanities, and so forth --but that certainly does not damage the book, whether one chooses to view Franklin as a dissipated bon vivant or a philosopher-hero.
Brands also succeeds in putting the flesh back on Franklin through the use of the good Doctor's own words, gleaned from surviving letters and other sources. The reader is treated to the sometimes wry, sometimes subtle, and occasionally passionate, grand language that Franklin used. Franklin's words, carefully chosen and wielded with astonishing dexterity, are as pertinent now as ever they were and, quite often, eerily prescient. As any person who reads this highly accessible biography will soon come to understand, though, Benjamin Franklin was more than a mere wordsmith.
Often by his own designs and comportment, Franklin was many things to many people and few were ambiguous in their feelings toward him. To most, he was dearly beloved, sagacious --and in some cases, he was positively loathed. What can one expect from a man who could be so changeable yet steadfast, resolute? Charming, with a rapier wit, no one who was touched by anything he did was unmoved, and that applies to the modern reader of this book.
Brands has wrestled with a giant, and not even his meticulousness and inquisitiveness can do Franklin's fertile mind and piercing intellect full justice, but that he has done so and succeeded so well is an accomplishment. One can only hope new generations will be introduced to a Benjamin Franklin wholly new, or at least presented in a different light, a man more than just a kite-flying revolutionary whose face happens to grace the $100 bill. Undoubtedly this handsomely done book will be the authoritative work on Franklin for at least the next twenty to fifty years. Enjoy it. It's well worth the read.
40 of 43 people found the following review helpful
on January 23, 2001
When I first saw this book available for sale, I could not wait to read it. Other founding fathers, such as Washington, Adams and Jefferson have had numerous biographies devoted to them and their role in the American Revolution. Benjamin Franklin was long overdue for a new biography and H.W. Brands has supplied an excellent chapter on one of the most illustrious founding fathers.
The book demonstrates the rise of Franklin from a younger son in a large family in Boston to a well known and respected printer in Philadelphia. Based on extreme hard work, frugality and ghe ability to impress power men, Franklin quickly becomes a force in the city. The most interesting think about this point in his life is the agility of his mind. Never content to simply wonder why, Franklin educates himself in such diverse areas as philosophy, science, mechnical engineering, etc. The classic American dream of rags to riches is truly demonstrate via the life of Franklin.
Later in his life, Franklin spent many years in England as the colonial agent for Pennsylvania. His fame as an amateur scientist through his experiments with electricity meant he was already well known in England. Franklin himself loved England during this time in his life and the author points out that it took quite a bit of abuse from the English politicians to turn him away from pursuing reconciliation with the Mother Country.
Once he knew that America must achieve independence and at the age of 70 (!), Franklin returned to Philadelphia and began the exciting process of fighting for independence and setting up a new country. Soon after, he went to France to persuade the French government to help the fledgling country. Later still, he worked on the development of the U.S. Constitution. In the history of man, it is difficult to find a man whose life encompasses such a wide range of achievement.
The author does a fine job of drawing upon Franklin's own words to illustrate his life. The writing flows smoothly and covers most areas of his life in sufficient detail. Only one small complaint- I wish more would have been discussed regarding his private life, especially his marrige.
26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on September 18, 2001
This is a particularly fine, readable, and interesting biography of a man who was in the thick of the American revolutionary war's political and diplomatic struggles. Because Franklin was the oldest significant figure in the American revolutionary war, the story of his life gives a depth of understanding to the events that led up to that conflict and to the condictions in America, at least in Philidelphia, up to that point. Moreover, Franklin comes across as most charming, and that makes this biography a delight.
The First American is a good companion volumn to McCullough's John Adams. They naturally intersect, but they do not repeat each other. And while Franklin gets somewhat short shrift in McCullough's book, John Adams is similarly treated here. (The authors write from the perspective of their respective subjects, who evidently disliked each other.) Both books taken together provide a balanced history of these two great men. Not to say that one has to read John Adams to appreciate The First American: this book stands on its own.
I enjoyed Brands' book on Theodore Rooseveldt, but given the different natures of the two subjects, and the different times, these are very different books. If one word characterizes TR, it is "will" (or perhaps "action"). If one word characterizes Franklin, it is "wisdom". You may surmise therefrom which book will be better company for you.
Another special thing about this book is the selection of quotations from Franklin's writings, including his letters. These passages are worth reading and re-reading for the elegance and grandeur of his language.
29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on June 6, 2001
H. W. Brands is a relatively new scholar on the American history scene and he brings great energy and a worthy balance between academic research and common-man accessibility to his endeavors. This biography on the always-engaging Franklin is probably his best work to date. While full of admiration for its subject, the book does not hide the questionable actions in Franklin's life. Franklin emerges as a man of many talents and contributions, but not without discernible flaws that perhaps only add to the satisfaction one obtains from this inquisitive biography. My minor quibble with this book is that Brands displayed the opportunities to examine the dichotomy between Franklin's public life and his family relationships with greater intellectual depth but he did not adequately seize that chance.
The clever contributions Franklin brought to scientific inquiry across many fields of study (before the fields of study sometimes truly existed) and his practical models of public institutions and associations will eternally be worthy of review and admiration. Certainly his work on behalf of building the American republic is also praiseworthy. Brands covers not only this familiar ground but also reveals some of the traits that enabled Franklin to become so accomplished. Not just ingenious, but personally captivating, subtly persuasive and grudgingly persistent was Franklin. His love of the written and spoken word and his empathy for the weaknesses of human nature allowed him to bring many people into his confidence. These charactersitics were particularly important America - and brilliantly employed by Franklin - in France during the revolutionary era.
But alas, Franklin was clearly not a devoted family man, from early in life to old age. He did not shy away from doing what he thought right for him and for the other immediate or greater interests in which he was involved at the expense of his father and mother, his wife, his son and his daughter. His relationship - or lack thereof - with his wife Deborah and with his son William are contemplated but not thoroughly or critically examined by Brands. Franklin often mentioned that a republic could not be suitably maintained without virtuous citizens. One wonders if the current definition of virtue in the United States would have room for one so cavalier about family responsibility as Franklin. Would such a man be universally feted today - as Franklin was upon his return from Paris after negotiating the treaty ending the Revolutionary War - when he had basically abandoned his wife for the last quarter of their lives? What do we expect from today's leaders that was not expected at the start of the republic? Brands does not take us down this path.
All in all, an interesting and entertaining work, much worthy of its accessible read, but just a bit lacking in the intellectual spark it might have lit.
24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on December 16, 2000
It's been said that no event in political history brought together a company of more remarkable men than the founding of the American republic. And by lauding him as "The First American" in this fine biography, Professor Brands builds a case that there is no more outstanding representative of this charmed circle than the redoubtable Ben Franklin. Derided by some modern sophisticates for his cornball moralism, Franklin was in fact one of the most forward-thinking intellectuals of his era, and his contributions in the areas of science, politics, philosophy, and ethics have resonance still in the 21st century. Living a life that was the embodiment of 18th century rationalism, Franklin's love of reason imbued him with an indomitable optimism that charmed everyone who came into his orbit. Escaping the intellectual suffocation of Cotton Matther's Boston, where Franklin was born, he fled to Philadelphia as a young man and quickly achieved success in the printing business. He loved the practical things in life and, laboring happily to improve them, he established the first library in Philadelphia, the first fire brigade, the first college, etc. and - portentously - the first citizen's militia armed, at this time, in alliance with Britain against the French and their Indian allies who he saw as threatening the homes of himself and his neighbors. While only dabbling in scientific theory as one of his many sidelights, he produced breakthroughs that soon established this self-educated provincial as luminary within the leading scientific circles in Europe. He inevitably gravitated into local and provincial politics, and moved to England represent the Pennsylvania assembly in it's entreaties to the British government. Considering himself an impeccably loyal British subject, his analytic powers nonetheless soon led him the conclusion, ahead of many others, that complete independence for the American colonies was necessary and inevitable. This most exuberant of Anglophiles went on to become the most implacable of Britain's foe's. His personal charm and knowledge of European politics propelled him naturally into diplomacy, and he almost single-handedly engineered the critical alliance with France that that eventually won the war for the young nation. In the bitter factionalism that descended on the colonies after victory, the universal respect he enjoyed among the contending forces allowed him to facilitate the compromises that eventually brought about the improbable union. Anyone who reads American history finds there's some in it that doesn't square with our ideals as a nation. On the other hand, there are many stories that epitomize those ideals, and Franklin's life is one of these. This book is probably a little longer than it had to be, but even the unnecessary detail makes for enjoyable reading. Professor Brands has produced an excellent book, and I highly recommend it.
22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on October 16, 2000
H.W. Brands has done a splendid job researching Franklin for this engrossing biography about the most influential American of his time. (I suppose it would be wise to add that 'his time' was just slightly before Washington's, a fact that no doubt prevented him from becoming the first President. Insofar as 'most influential' goes, he was, at least in terms of European matters, the only American of great influence during the Revolutionary period. But I digress....). What makes the book so readable, aside from the subject himself, is the wry wit of the author, deftly inserted so as not to intrude upon the readers' relationship with Mr. Franklin. Lastly, I must tell you that the book is not filled with only worship and praise; it is quite evenhanded and certainly points out some of the (dare I say) weaknesses in Franklin's character. All in all, this is one of those books you'll be glad you bought in hardcover.
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on February 13, 2001
I learned a great deal about not only Dr. Franklin, one of the world's leading men, but of the happenings in Europe during his stay. I have read a bit of history about the revolutionary period but all of my reading has been to do with the occurrences on this side of the water. Brands' details not only the life of Franklin but the events surrounding it. The result is a book that provides a great deal of information on a variety of topics.
If there has been one American life that exemplifies the ideal it must be Benjamin Franklin's. A few years ago doing well by doing good was a popularly stated goal. That very well could have been a description of Franklin's life. Although, I imagine he would have thought "good" included a bit more than his civic contributions. The abstemious, industrious and frugal nature of the young Franklin described in this book should be taught more frequently.
Brands style is also lively enough to keep the reader interested. Often historical accounts of even the most remarkable lives can be rather a chore to read. Not so with this book. I recommend it; personally, I think, I will be reading a biography of Mr T. Roosevelt soon.