The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin

TheFirstAmericanSuggested by Brad Nelson • Franklin was America’s first Renaissance man. From penniless runaway to highly successful printer, from ardent British loyalist to architect of an alliance with France that ensured America’s independence, Franklin became one of the world’s most admired figures.
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10 Responses to The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I’m only about 13% into this rather large 786 page biography of Franklin. But even in these relatively few pages, I’ve gotten my money’s worth. Even if the extent of those 786 pages become dull, dull, dull, the story thus far (up to the bare starting of his own print shop in Philadelphia) has been an engaging one.

    Contrast that with Franklin’s own biography which I tried to read several months ago. He’s so polite and careful that it’s almost unreadable. I don’t need dirt. But, good god, I need a sense of reality. Author H.W. Brands even comments a time or two on this aspect, noting what likely really happened compared to Franklin’s toning-down of his past in his autobiography.

    Franklin was wise (and sometimes naively precocious) beyond his years. You can see him go through his Paulbot stage, where the entire world (at least in his mind) is summed up in a rather simple formula. Later, Franklin referred to some of his earlier writings as “errata.” This is to be expected, for I don’t know of any truly intelligent fellow who doesn’t let his intellectualism run too far ahead of reality. Franklin himself acknowledges this aspect in a quote I had never encountered before. Franklin early-on was a vegetarian. But caught aboard a ship with nothing to eat but fish, he rationalized a way around his vegetarianism:

    “I recollected that when the fish were opened, I saw smaller fish taken out of their stomachs; then I thought, if you eat one another, I don’t see why we mayn’t eat you.” And so he did, dining “very heartily” with the rest of the passengers and crew. This was the beginning of the end of Ben Franklin’s vegetarianism; he remarked later, with signature irony, “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for every thing one has a mind to do.”

    Making mistakes is quite human. Drawing a profound lesson or truth from those mistakes, as Franklin seemed to do regularly, made him extraordinary.

    I found his early history with has cantankerous older brother (to whom he was apprenticed) interesting. James published and printed the New England Courant where he spend a lot of ink slapping around Cotton Mathers and local officials (and was eventually arrested and put in jail for it). He was somewhat of a Michael Moore by nature, axe-grinding with opposite opinions just to do so (taking, for instance, an anti-vaccination position just because those he didn’t like took the opposite position). This, however, was not Benjamin’s temperament. Brands writes:

    Franklin was an original and independent thinker, but he never flouted conventional opinion for the thrill of flouting—as his brother James did, for example. Having made his youthful statement of rebellion by fleeing Boston, Franklin felt no compulsion to redundancy.

    Luckily for Franklin (and all of us), he didn’t stay in this Paulbotish phase. And I like the group he formed which he called the Junto. It was a select group of Franklin’s educated friends who would meet to discuss various high-minded topics. I found the basic requirements for entering the group to be interesting. I wouldn’t have qualified because of #2:

    New members were required to answer four questions: whether they had any disrespect for current members (a negative answer was anticipated); whether they loved mankind in general, regardless of religion or profession (yes); whether anyone ought to be harmed in his person, property, or reputation, merely on account of his opinions or way of worship (no); and whether they loved and pursued truth for truth’s sake and would impartially impart what they found of it to others (yes).

    Considering that it is reported that God Himself all but wiped out the human race in a flood because of His judgment of the species, I don’t consider it bad form to say that mankind has its good and bad sides. And that bad side is so persistent that “loving mankind in general” doesn’t seem a good starting point for a group whose purpose is to pursue truth. But then he was in and amongst the Quaker “Friends,” so I guess that was just the vibe of where he was. And from what I gauge from this biography, regarding people, religion, morals, etc., Franklin had a very large pragmatic streak in him.

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    I have a lot of biographies of the Founders and others (I’m currently reading the bio of Jacob D. Cox I got for Christmas), including this one. There are many interesting aspects, such as Franklin’s discussion of American taxes during the Stamp Act debate in Parliament and his relationship with his loyalist son (who became the governor of New Jersey for King George during the war), My high-school junior English textbook includes some Franklin pieces, such as his parody “An Edict by the King of Prussia”, an article on a scientific experiment he performed to check out a theory he formed after traveling on a canal (my teacher pointed out how perfectly he illustrated the scientific method, something too many scientists today seem to have forgotten), and portions of his autobiography. One author (perhaps Brands) argued that Franklin was as important as any other Founder for the success of the American Revolution due to the intellectual respect he had earned from Europeans.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      One author (perhaps Brands) argued that Franklin was as important as any other Founder for the success of the American Revolution due to the intellectual respect he had earned from Europeans

      And Franklin parlayed this respect into convincing the French government to come into the Revolution on the American side, not to mention the huge loans they made to the Congress.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        There’s little doubt that Franklin schmoozed the French like no other American could. But I found Brands’ evaluation of Franklin’s importance to be somewhat inflated:

        Of those patriots who made independence possible, none mattered more than Franklin, and only Washington mattered as much. Washington won the battle of Yorktown, but Franklin won the European support that allowed Washington his victory.

        Perhaps more sober eyes would suggest that the victory at Saratoga, combined with the France’s desire to screw the British whenever and wherever they could, was the real cause of France giving significant aid to America. Yes, Franklin schmoozed the French, but had a pile of stones been official ambassador to France, the French may have acted similarly.

        I would say the American victory over the British was a joint effort, with none more important than Washington. Adams and Franklin would be the second tier in my evaluation. Without them, you don’t have victory either. But then it becomes like the humble postman. Without him, the letter doesn’t get delivered, despite the huge apparatus behind him of men and machines. It’s very easy then for the postman to consider himself the most important of all, when he is actually the easiest link in the chain to replace.

        But I think Adams gave the idea of revolution balls, Jefferson gave it reason, Franklin helped to give it needed aid from France, and most of all General Washington made it real.

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          But I found Brands’ evaluation of Franklin’s importance to be somewhat inflated

          I agree with you on this point. The indispensable man was George Washington. This was acknowledged by the other founders.

          But it is clear Franklin was much more important than, for example, Jefferson, who flaked off once the Declaration of Independence was completed. And as I recall, Franklin advised Jefferson to amend the Declaration in several key points such as the phrase, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” which are so famous today.

          It is also forgotten, or more likely not taught, that many of the members of the first and second Continental Congresses left office early on and had relatively little to do with the outcome of the Revolution.

          As to the French, they were historically inclined to help the Americans. They just needed a hint that the Americans had a chance of success.

          It must be remembered that the French had suffered a major loss to the British some twenty years previous in the Seven Years War, or French and Indian War as it is known in the States. Revenge and national pride are powerful motivators. Not to mention the fact that the French and British were involved in a decades long struggle for world power.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            Jefferson, who flaked off once the Declaration of Independence was completed.

            Thus my love and respect for Adams. He stayed at least in the administrative trenches.

            As I’m reading this biography, I realize again that Franklin is by no means my favorite Founder. He just seemed like another liberal who was fond of telling everyone else how to live while he was a bit dodgy himself. As Brands notes, the young Franklin not only saw no problem with slavery but engaged in the slave trade himself.

            He had a brilliant mind, was an accomplished inventor, and just all-around organizer. But truth be told, I’d rather sit down with Jefferson, Madison, or Adams over a glass of ale.

            It’s probably slightly inaccurate to call Franklin a deist. And yet, like me, he was a skeptic (even more so). The author’s evaluation of him seems reasonable (which is what makes this biography work). He notes that Boston was too Puritanical for him (I also would have rolled my eyes at the constant sermoning of Cotton Mathers). And England was too loose. But the author said that Philadelphia (with the Quaker influence) was just right, although the author noted that he would in time outgrow Philadelphia.

            And it is not the fault of the author, or any author, that perhaps the most central characteristic of Franklin cannot be captured in a book. He apparently had the gift of gab. I mean, jeepers, he’s like five minutes in Pennsylvania and he’s already met a couple governors, although it’s interesting that Governor Keith of Pennsylvania was, to not put too polite of a term on it, a lying sack of excrement. He had promised to finance Franklin’s printing company as well as send some letters of introduction with him to England. Franklin found out that he was just a talker.

            I’ve run into a few people like this and it astounds me how lying comes so naturally to some people. And it obviously can work to great benefit. Obviously this Keith guy became governor…and we have Obama, for instance. Franklin (as most would have been) was taken in and thus learned a lesson. Few Americans have likely learned any lesson from Obama.

            It was interesting that when Franklin organized that Junto club one of the conditions of membership was to give the negative to the idea “whether anyone ought to be harmed in his person, property, or reputation, merely on account of his opinions or way of worship.” Sounds very libertarian, one could say. And yet internally they fined each other for breaking from some tight civility rules:

            In order to maintain a constructive atmosphere, the rule Franklin had established for himself—to avoid overly assertive or directly contradictory expressions, in favor of suggestions, hypotheses, and polite questions—was eventually applied to the group as a whole. Failure to follow the rule resulted in small but embarrassing fines.

            If I were to start this site again, that’s actually not a bad way to go. It would help keep this place (or any place) from becoming just a place to become grievance-based or to give air to pent-up psychological angst. One would tend to get ideas and reasoned arguments rather than just various eloquent ways to vent disgust or this or that. But there is an interesting contradiction in his thoughts and methods. Franklin was for free speech in the macro (in the large….perhaps sort of like “loving humanity”) but in the micro their little club had, in effect, a rather constricting speech code.

            So what Franklinian lesson can we draw from this seeming dichotomy? Well, one is that Utopian notions are simplistic although seductive (especially to intellectuals). It’s easy to say “You should be able to say what you want without any (violent, I suppose) repercussions.” But in the real world, for things such a free speech to be effective and to be maintained, it does require a large dose of self-restraint. And you can’t legislate that (although you can fine for it in a small private club such as Franklin’s Junto). And if you do try to legislate it, then you have the Junto’s speech codes society-wide, backed by the force of government.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          I think it required at least some diplomatic ability to get the French to help out, even though they were already inclined to favor anyone at war with Britain. (They were also short of money, and in fact the fiscal strain created by the American Revolution led to the French one.) Franklin was no doubt the best choice available, but there were several other good ones (including Adams and Jefferson). But biographers do tend to overrate their subjects (or, much less often, underrate them). Franklin wasn’t as indispensable as Washington because the latter was not only a leader but also a superb example of not sacrificing country to ambition. But we all agree that he was very important.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            That reminds me of David McCullough’s book, “John Adams.” Apparently (at least compared to Franklin), Adams was a bull in a China closet in regards to his service as an ambassador in France. Franklin winced at his every comment and didn’t want him there.

            Franklin was a fancy-boy and the powdered gentry were his type. One of my favorite scenes in the HBO miniseries was when Adams attended a French reception banquet of some type. And all lined up around the long table were these (to my eye and his) freakish powdered faces of this “upper” class. It looked like a Monty Python sketch, but these people considered themselves to be the most refined.

            Needs must as the devil drives, but one can hardly blame Adams for not having the patience and refined courtesy to deal with this bizarre crowd….some who would probably lose their heads in the coming years.

            • Timothy Lane says:

              “I’m obnoxious and disliked, you know that. sir.” And that was in the Continental Congress, not Paris (though I think 1776 exaggerated a bit).

              • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

                LOL. Give Johnny that. He was self-aware. It’s actually funny that Franklin and Adams are such contrasts, and both fully American. Adams may have been a little too wedded to principle at times, and Franklin not enough. There’s a poignant account of Franklin laughing at, and thus encouraging, a mean prank being played on some young man. A conspiratorial group of older fellows was pretending to initiate the younger man into what he thought was the Freemasons. Franklin thought this hilarious, including the satanic stuff that was supposedly part of it all.

                The next session of initiation led to tragedy when burning fluid was spilled on the youth, setting his clothes on fire. He died soon after from the injuries. And I give this author full credit for noting how two-faced and mealy-mouthed Franklin’s explanation of his involvement in this affair was. The author speculates that this is one of those times when Franklin’s commitment to congeniality-uber-alles got him into trouble.

                So I don’t mind so much the bull in the China closet if the bull is right, careful, and is in a wicked closet. The reverse — moral cowardice (and who hasn’t fallen prey to that?) — is, to my mind, uglier still.

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