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Benjamin Franklin: An American Life Hardcover – Deckle Edge, July 1, 2003
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The Amazon Book Review
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Benjamin Franklin, writes journalist and biographer Walter Isaacson, was that rare Founding Father who would sooner wink at a passer-by than sit still for a formal portrait. What's more, Isaacson relates in this fluent and entertaining biography, the revolutionary leader represents a political tradition that has been all but forgotten today, one that prizes pragmatism over moralism, religious tolerance over fundamentalist rigidity, and social mobility over class privilege. That broadly democratic sensibility allowed Franklin his contradictions, as Isaacson shows. Though a man of lofty principles, Franklin wasn't shy of using sex to sell the newspapers he edited and published; though far from frivolous, he liked his toys and his mortal pleasures; and though he sometimes gave off a simpleton image, he was a shrewd and even crafty politician. Isaacson doesn't shy from enumerating Franklins occasional peccadilloes and shortcomings, in keeping with the iconoclastic nature of our time--none of which, however, stops him from considering Benjamin Franklin "the most accomplished American of his age," and one of the most admirable of any era. And heres one bit of proof: as a young man, Ben Franklin regularly went without food in order to buy books. His example, as always, is a good one--and this is just the book to buy with the proceeds from the grocery budget. --Gregory McNamee
From Publishers Weekly
Following closely on the heels of Edmund Morgan's justly acclaimed Benjamin Franklin, Isaacson's longer biography easily holds its own. How do the two books differ? Isaacson's is more detailed; it lingers over such matters as the nature of Franklin's complex family circumstances and his relations with others, and it pays closer attention to each of his extraordinary achievements. Morgan's is more subtle and reflective. Each in its different way is superb. Isaacson (now president of the Aspen Institute, he is the former chairman of CNN and a Henry Kissinger biographer) has a keen eye for the genius of a man whose fingerprints lie everywhere in our history. The oldest, most distinctive and multifaceted of the founders, Franklin remains as mysterious as Jefferson. After examining the large body of existing Franklin scholarship as skillfully and critically as any scholar, Isaacson admits that his subject always "winks at us" to keep us at bay-which of course is one reason why he's so fascinating. Unlike, say, David McCullough's John Adams, which seeks to restore Adams to public affection, this book has no overriding agenda except to present the story of Franklin's life. Unfortunately, for all its length, it's a book of connected short segments without artful, easy transitions So whether this fresh and lively work will replace Carl Van Doren's beloved 1938 Benjamin Franklin in readers' esteem remains to be seen.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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The author previously wrote a biography of Steve Jobs, and clearly has an interest in business. Much time is spent on Franklin's early years as a businessman, which I did not find as interesting as his politics. Much time is spent on British colonial economic policy, which I did find very interesting and informative. Additionally, it helped explain why the Tea Partiers were so violently opposed to the taxes and duties. The British government had enacted many policies to keep the colonies economically dependent on the mother country, such as outlawing ironworks in the colonies and suppressing manufacturing. I've read quite a few books about the Revolution and this was the most unexpectedly edifying on the motivations of the rebels in that aspect. This book justifies it's price on that subject alone. (Those uncomfortable with economics should know it was explained clearly enough that I could understand it well, despite having never taken an economics course.)
Additionally, Franklin finally gets his due as a world-class scientist in this biography. As a scientist myself, I wish more had gone into the process of his many discoveries, but it seems likely that there just wasn't enough source material to expand.
A note of criticism: in terms of psychological insight, the book leaves you a little bit wanting. His personal relationships with both men and women are notably detached and a little cold, but no real explanation is given for why this should be so for such an extroverted and warm man. The book quotes the opinion of other commentarors, such as conservative columnist David Brooks, quite a few times on the nature of his political beliefs. I would have preferred the authors own interpretations.
The description of Franklin's transition from a peacemaker who finds himself the target of anger from American rebels for being too inclined to seek compromise- to one of the most passionate voices for independence is elegantly done. When I finished the book I felt like I had real understanding of Franklin as a person full of contractions. A man who loathed conflict but supported a revolution, who wrote The Way to Wealth but was an ardent champion of the common man, who was the darling of the French Court but disliked aristocracy... In other words, a real person, not a cardboard cutout.
He was born into a laboring class family not a family of privilege as was Jefferson, Madison, and Washington. He did receive a basic education but for the most part he was self-taught. Despite his lack of education, he was able to develop a theory of electricity which allowed him to manufacture lightning rods for buildings. There were other inventions but this was the one that made him the idol of several Western countries, in particular, France.
He believed in self-reliance, yet at the same time he believed that individuals working together were much more effective in achieving objectives than one individual working alone. Hence, he founded numerous societies and organizations, such as the Philadelphia Fire Department, University of Pennsylvania, American Philosophical Society. All of these had as their objective the creation of a more just and merciful society.
He believed in frugality and yet he was quick to donate to charitable and patriotic causes.
He was probably the greatest diplomat that the United States ever produced. It is unlikely that the French would have given the fledgling U.S. as much aid as they did had not the French almost worshipped Franklin.
On the negative side, Franklin was not much of a husband. He left his common-law wife, Deborah, for decades while he lived in Europe and appears to have had numerous affairs in Deborah’s absence. (This trait probably further endeared him to the French.) Some of the blame for this situation can be placed on Deborah, for he pleaded with her to come with him to Europe but she refused to travel.
If he was not much of a husband, he was a much worse excuse of a parent. He disowned his illegitimate son, William (whom he and Deborah raised, mother never known) because William supported the Loyalist cause in the colonies. After the war, William struggled for a reconciliation with Benjamin, but Benjamin, even though he forgave almost everyone else who had Loyalist leanings, would have nothing to do with William except to try to prevent him from having any means of supporting himself and having any contact with William’s illegitimate son, Temple. Benjamin’s daughter, Sally, worshipped Benjamin and struggled to impress him, but he often met her pleadings with criticisms that she needed to do more.
In the book’s conclusion, the author, Isaacson, evaluates history’s view of Franklin. Over the centuries, it has oscillated between admiration bordering on idolization and abject disdain. Why disdain? Because Franklin represents the virtues of the middle class. To many, this is a boring life filled with trifles not a glorious existence of pursuing grand causes. To many his focus upon frugality, shows an emphasis upon the material world not the world of art or spirituality. I can only imagine Franklin’s answer to these criticisms. Life is filled with trivialities that must be performed. No person, no class of people is above performing these boring but essential activities. This is the most glorious cause of all, that we are all wiling to live on an equal plane with all others rather than one class being condemned to life’s repetitious necessities and another class being free of these shackles and being free to continually experience the euphoria of grandiose pursuits.