Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson

new words (to me):
orotund – full round and imposing
obloquy – strong public criticism or verbal abuse

Another strong biography from Walter Isaacson, written in his trademark lucid style and ordered linearly from birth to death. A bonus chapter provides a survey of commentary about Franklin over the last 200 years as his popularity waxed and waned.

Franklin is best known for his discovery that lightning was of the same stuff as electricity (aka kite flying), the surfeit of quotable quotes from his Poor Richard’s Almanack(sic), and being one of the (by far oldest) Founding Fathers of the United States. What was new for me was how many elements of the American stereotype came directly from him. He was driven by practicality and curiosity, had “an inbred resistance to establishment authority,” and was a champion of middle class values. In the 200 years since his death, his legacy has been bandied about both by those who admire these values and those who label them bourgeois and scorn them. In any case, he was the first and they have largely stuck!

He led through seduction, rather than argument; he “embodied a spirit of Enlightenment tolerance and pragmatic compromise”; and he was an inventor and purveyor of scientific curiosity until the day he died. His inventions were legion and he was writing long treatises on scientific subjects to the very end. One of the things I liked best about him was that at 48, once he had built up a large, franchised, printing business that brought him enough money, he simply retired and devoted his time to science and politics. He also refused to patent his inventions from that point forward, wanting to freely share what he had discovered as he did not need more money.

Pragmatism was a core value for Franklin, even when it came to religion. When he was near death, he was asked whether he believed in Jesus. After expressing surprise that nobody had ever asked him this directly before, he replied that “The system of morals that Jesus provided was the best the world ever saw or is likely to see.” But on the issue of whether Jesus was divine: “I have some doubts as to his divinity; though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble.”

As a Founding Father, Franklin was by far the best travelled, having spent several years in England and France as well as having travelled throughout the colonies as Postmaster General. He was also far more comfortable with real democracy than many of the delegates as he actually trusted “the people.” Yale scholar Barbara Oberg summed up both his closing speech at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 Congress and his life in general saying the speech was “the culmination of Franklin’s life as a propagandist, persuader and cajoler of people.”

It’s a long, comprehensive, book full of details that I didn’t personally always find interesting, but it was easy enough to skim to those that were. However, I found the overarching themes, conclusions, and some of the stories fascinating.

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