Mar 19

The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin, by H.W. Brands ★★★★★

I started reading this book in November of last year and then was interrupted by 8 other books which needed to be read first. Those reviews are below. I now return to this text. First, I may comment on how I chose this text. There were not many biographies of Ben Franklin, and I was a bit leary of the author, who I was unfamiliar with, and hesitant after being disappointed with one other author that was well-acclaimed but failed to write what I consider to be a satisfactory account of the person in question. Though this book was long (at 716 pages and small print), it was a delightful narrative of this great man. 

Brands begins where one would expect, at Franklin’s birth in Massachusetts. Ben Franklin grew up in a Calvinist environment but rejected it. He learned the printing trade, and concomitantly mastered the art of writing. Franklin, while still young, escaped the Calvinist atmosphere of Boston, and settled in Philadelphia, first plying the trade of printer and publisher, and eventually moving on to bigger and better things. He quickly became politically involved, working on bettering Philadelphia, doing sundry things such as starting the first college in Pennsylvania (eventually becoming Penn State U), starting a fire department, and working on bettering the life and education of Philadelphians. Franklin had a deep curiosity regarding science, and did much to improve our understanding of electricity, including naming a positive and negative “side” to electricity. Franklin’s mind was free to explore all of the sciences, and throughout his life maintained a curious and investigative mind. Eventually, he became the Postmaster-General, a position that led him into further political prominence.  The development of issues between the 13 colonies and Great Britain led to Franklin being sent to London to act as an ambassador for American concerns. For most of his stay in London, he developed strong friendships and a few enemies. Franklin had no intention of promoting independence for the USA until matters in London forced him to think otherwise. Toward final events that led to war, Franklin found himself turned upon by his British friends and realized that the war need not happen; corruption that was rampant throughout the political structure of Great Britain led heavily to an inability to work out differences with the colonists. Franklin returned home but soon after sent off to France to serve as an ambassador and to appeal for funds to serve the war ends against England. Finally, long after the end of the war, Ben returns home to Philadelphia, though somewhat hesitantly, concerned over his poor health. Interestingly, Franklin seemed to greatly enjoy both London and Paris a little too much, and spent much of his life in those countries. Franklin served as an elderly advisor in the writing of the constitution and was a great advocate in getting it signed by all thirteen colonies. His final years were then few, and spent in pain from bladder stones and other aches and pains. Even then, Franklin’s inventive mind knew no rest, for example, coming up with a rolling printing press, or proposing that the earth’s magnetic axis would occasionally flip. 

There are several chapters included that explores at length Benjamin Franklin’s thinking. Laced throughout the remainder of the book are many details as to the mind of Ben Franklin. Ben was a great moralist, and many quips that are common to us arose from his pen, first from his Poor Richard’s Almanac, and then from his many letters and writings. Franklin rejected basic Christianity in his early Boston years, and even when he came in contact with the great Evangelist George Whitefield, spurned the Christian faith, noting that he denied the deity of Christ, though he looked to the Jesus stories as a means of moral instruction. Even still, Franklin was active in proposing for prayer during the writing of the Constitution (which was turned down), and in relying on God for the composition of our Constitution. Indeed, he fits the bill as a Deist, which was true of so many of America’s first politicians. In the first chapters of this book, I felt that Brands was being sloppy in his account of Franklin’s life, creating fictional Michener-style prose, rather than real history. Thankfully, such was not the case, and Brands relied heavily on detailed autobiographical notes that Franklin wrote throughout his life. Brands’ writing style is particularly appealing, in that he is never insulting to the reader, but constantly providing minor historical facts to inform the reader of the greater context of the events that affected Franklin’s life. Concluding, this is a book that I can heartily recommend. You will enjoy reading it, and hopefully coming out much more enlightened on the real Ben Franklin. 

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