Title: "Benjamin Franklin – An American Life"
Author: Walter Isaacson
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2003
Biographer Walter Isaacson's biography of Benjamin Franklin is a social and political history of his 84 years at the center of the American life through the growth of the 13 colonies, the Revolution, the creation of our Constitution, and the beginning of our government. A truly remarkable life!
Franklin was the 15th of the 17 children of his father Josiah Franklin --10 with his first wife and seven with his second. Franklin was born in Boston and baptized on the same day, Jan. 17, 1706. He died in Philadelphia, his home for most of his life, on April 17, 1790, at age 84. With only two years of schooling, he was apprenticed to his brother James, who was a printer. He started reading books and writing essays as Silence Dogood, which were printed in the Courant, James’ paper. Franklin skipped out on his apprenticeship with James, and at age 17 arrived in Philadelphia, finding a position with a printer. Isaacson describes Benjamin:
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“At 17, Franklin was physically striking: muscular, barrel-chested, open-faced, and almost six feet tall. He had a happy talent of being at ease in almost any company, from scrappy tradesmen to wealthy merchants, scholars to rogues. His most notable trait was a personal magnetism; he attracted people who wanted to help him. Never shy, and always eager to win friends and patrons, he gregariously exploited this charm.” It’s too bad there is not a portrait of him as a young man, as the traditional portraits of him show him as old, pot-bellied, partially bald and wearing glasses, probably the bifocals he invented.
Franklin soon began courting Deborah Read, but her mother insisted any marriage had to wait until he returned from England, which he left for in November 1724. While he was in England, Deborah married John Rogers, who she later learned was already married, and he abandoned her. She could not marry Franklin as she was not divorced, but she and Franklin in September 1730 “began living together as a married couple.” Their common law marriage produced a son Franky, who died of smallpox at age 4. They also had a daughter Sally who would care for her father in his last days. Deborah never left the Market Street area in Philadelphia, and she died when Franklin was in France. Deborah raised William, Franklin’s illegitimate child.
As a printer, Franklin wrote many articles using various pseudonyms, and he wrote and published Poor Richard’s Almanac. Before Franklin retired at age 42, he was well off. In his retirement, he devoted time to his experiments. In his experiments with electricity he famously brought electricity from the sky with a kite and a key, inventing the lightning rod that saved structures all over the western world.
He became famous in the western world. Harvard and Yale granted him honorary degrees in the summer of 1753. Many people referred to him as Doctor Franklin. His many civic interests included libraries, fire brigades, militia, post office, colleges, collegial clubs, police patrols, street maintenance, clubs, and his inventions and scientific interests were numerous. He was welcomed in learned societies in England and France. But all of this is overshadowed by his service in gaining America independence. Franklin “was the only man to sign all four of its founding papers: the Declaration of Independence, the treaty with France, the peace accord with Britain, and the Constitution.”
Although Isaacson does cover Franklin’s political, civic, inventive and scientific contributions and successes, he devotes a rather substantial amount of his text to Franklin’s social life. Franklin had an illegitimate son William, who had an illegitimate son Temple, who had an illegitimate son Theodore who died from smallpox. Franklin liked women, and he had many mature women friends and younger women friends in America, England and France. He carried on flirtatious correspondence with them for years as well as living with or close to some of them. But he seemed to ignore or be indifferent to Deborah and Sally, perhaps because Deborah would not leave Philadelphia to join him in France or England. Franklin comes off as not being a very good or loving family man to his own common law wife and child, but he did dote on his grandchildren.
For me, this biography was not a page-turner. And some of his choices as to what to emphasize seem frivolous. For instance, he devotes only 12 pages to electricity, which made Franklin famous in the western world, while mentioning several times Franklin’s “tongue in cheek” interest in the gas causing farting. Not a valuable contribution to Franklin’s biography.
Bob Wefald is a retired North Dakota State District Court judge, former attorney general and a retired Navy Captain.