This is an absolutely fascinating, beautifully written bio that covers both a man and an epoch. While the prose is extremely dense and well informed, the book never indulges in academic excess or obscure controversies in order to develop a point of view for reasons of career. It is just a great elegant read that completely held my interest from start to finish.
Franklin had an amazing career. He started out as a printer and became America's premier writer as well as a media magnate by his mid-40s, when he essentially retired for the sake of scientific pursuits and later politics and diplomacy. He established his business with energy and audacity, creating numerous personae for himself and indeed an entire philosophy of practical accomplishment and moderation that was later despised as bourgeois. He even pioneered a new way to do autobiography (about entrepreneurship in middle class life rather than a religious or philosophical revelation).
As a scientist, he embodied the Enlightenment, made fundamental discoveries - who can forget kite and key in the storm? - and was feted as one of the great intellectuals of his age in Europe, and even knew Hume, Gibbon, Adam Smith, and other luminaries as personal friends. Isaacson explains his contributions and puts them into context with masterful succinctness, avoiding excessive detail while presenting the essentials. He also used his insights to invent a number of devices, rarely for profit, that are in use today in one form or another (the lightning rod, the indoor stove as opposed to the less-energy efficient fireplace). The contrast with the abstract considerations of scholastics and idealists could not be more stark - he was an empiricist who experimented, not a theorist. On the way across the Atlantic, he even made measurement of water temperatures that were so accurate they formed the basis of the beginning of our understanding of the Gulf Stream. The range of his activities is truly astonishing: at one point, he invented a phonetic writing system for English to make it easier to learn to read; it involved the invention of six new characters and the elimination of six redundancies, though it never caught on.
His political evolution is also interesting. There was a time when he so enjoyed England that it was assumed he would stay as a British citizen. He was late to come over to the independence cause, which gave his enemies (they were many) fodder to attack him as a hidden tory. He was also rather conservative economically, in order to protect entrepreneurs from government encroachments. But he abhorred aristocratic privilege in favor of the middle class, also quite unconventional. Perhaps his greatest contributions were as a diplomat: among scores of intrigues, he negotiated the alliance with France, which for the first time in centuries was at peace with Britain (a sine qua non to win the war) as well as the peace treaty with Britain. Finally, he was a grey eminence at the Constitutional Convention, keeping things going with his humor and spirit more than his intellectual contributions that were considered politely and then discarded. Any one of these accomplishments would have assured him an historical legacy.
Behind this, you also get to know the man. He had a strangely distant family life, leaving his wife for more than a decade and cultivating surrogate families though it is not clear that he was ever unfaithful to his wife, however many young women flocked to him at the height of his fame. He was cheerful and witty, very unlike the dour Puritan John Adams, whose hyper-worried approach to life was legendary. Franklin was a deist, believing that God was revealed in the study of nature and reason rather than a faith-based follower of doctrine or sect.
The book is a bit thin on analysis, but you get enough of the historical context and it never bogs down in unnecessary detail. It is better to know the facts of the revolution prior to reading it, but not a necessity. There is a wonderful essay at the end on his legacy, but it is quite short. The author does try a bit hard to avoid certain controversies. For example, there is a sketch (by a witness) of a young lady sitting is his lap in London, reaching, well, down. Is it you know what? Maybe, but Isaacson argues otherwise, in my view a bit disingenuously - after all, the higherups were rather reticent then.
This is one of the most wonderful books I have read in recent years, a true delight. Highest recommendation.
on 11 November 2011
Benjamin Franklin, the man who flew his kite into the thunderstorm to study electricity, right? And somehow this same fellow is one of the Founding Fathers of America and signer of the Declaration of Independence? That alone makes an interesting story, and Walter Isaacson's brilliant book tells it vividly.
We don't study a lot of American history in schools where I live (Finland), so although I kind of knew who Benjamin Franklin was I didn't really know a lot about the man. So this has really been an revelation. It's fascinating to think about the long trips accross the Atlantic Franklin made in the service of his country, the life he lived in America and in Europe, the many famous people he knew and met during his life. It's an incredible mix.
I think every country has it's own Benjamin Franklins, at least in some capacity. But I think there are few people in the history of the world who can really come close to Franklin living the life of an international intellectual in the 18th century. I think the man was an global cosmopolite, someone who would feel right at home even in our fast-moving times. Obviously Franklin was well ahead of his time in many ways.
This book is very strongly recommended for everyone interested in history, not just Americans and Europeans but really anyone.
on 29 February 2012
Written as it is for an American (US) audience, this book assumes a certain background knowledge about Washington and the constitution as well as major battles during the so called American revolution for independence. I did not necessarily have this background knowledge and never had an adequate appreciation of US history (having had the good fortune to visit the White House and Jefferson's home), until I read this book.
And this is why. Franklin was a universal man, not just an American. His Christianity was a universal, non-dogmatic creed that appreciated all of humanity. Franklin's world spans English origins, to Pennsylvania, back to England more than once, then France just before the revolution and finally back to the US at the time the constitution was being drafted. The book lives and breathes the air of time travel in these disparate worlds and keeps up with Franklins output, literal, moral, scientific, political and statesman.
The author is extremely catholic in his appreciation of the diversity of Franklins culture and career in the context of England and France as well as the primordial USA. For example, he starts by indicating the two possible dates of Franklin's birth based on the Gregorian calendar and the old English calendar before 1752.
Franklin's flaws, his coldness to his wife and son are revealed within the context of a man of great compassion, wisdom and fun (his "air baths") enjoying as his did books, travel and ladies' company. There is meticulous analysis of his writings such as Old Moore's Almanack ... fortunately the author has a wealth of sources to consult. You can read about Franklin's dalliance with electricity and the truth about capturing lightning and his calming the waters using oil.
Franklin remained tied to the mother country and only moved reluctantly to declaring independence for the USA. This passage from being loyal to secessionist is dealt with in detail. At the end, he was reconciled to the mother country and was shrewd in playing the British against the French. It is Franklin's cordial legacy that is reflected in the alliance between the US and the UK despite a flurry of frictions since US independence. Indeed, initially, Franklin was keen that Canada should remain a UK colony unlike the US.
A tremendous and worthy read that will teach you much about statecraft and history through the eyes of one of the greatest Americans who ever lived. This is a lot better treatment of its subject than the author has applied to Steve Jobs.
Vivid and gripping as a "good" novel, based on scholarly detail but always crystal clear, this is one of the best biographies I have read. My knowledge of Franklin was limited to his invention of the lightning conductor. Then, when his name cropped up in a book on Tom Paine, I realised that he was also a statesman, involved in the American Revolution and establishment of a new democratic republic. In fact, he was the epitome of "Eighteenth Century Enlightenment Man" - the kind of "all rounder" it was possible to be in the 1700s. Initially a printer from humble origins, he became a journalist, social reformer, promoter of self improvement through discussion groups, philosopher, and eventually Postmaster for the whole of America, in addition to the roles already mentioned. And all the time, right into his eighties, tirelessly inquisitive, he was observing the world and coming up with theories about how, say, to design efficient stoves and street lights, make boats go faster, avoid colds through exercise, reduce lead poisoning - he even created a musical instrument called the armonica, based on running a wet finger round a bowl, which Marie Antoinette took up playing!.... Then there were his social experiments, such as identifying thirteen virtues needed in life, and then trying to develop them week-by-week in a cycle!
Alongside all the veneration, he has been criticised fiercely for his pragmatism and over-readiness to compromise, said to stem from a lack of spiritual depth and absence of real passion and imagination - Keats condemned him as "full of mean and thrifty maxims". However, if you are a supporter of the Enlightenment, you could argue that in practice Franklin was capable of showing great vision and tolerance. He saw before others the need for the American colonies to work together, and used his great powers of negotiation and chess-playing skills - some would say manipulation - to obtain support from the French while managing to keep independent from their designs, then agree a peace with the British which gave America independence. When in his eighties, he was a prime move in agreeing a Constitution which has lasted to this day.
You can take this book on two levels. On one hand it is an entertaining yet thought-provoking analysis of a complex, interesting yet inevitably flawed man. For much of his life he made a point of being very industrious, relatively frugal, and was more than a bourgeois soul bent on making himself rich. His creed was to do what would make life better for people in general and oneself in the process, rather than a belief in the oppressive and divisive religious dogma which many Puritans had carried to the New World. It is hard not to be amazed and impressed by his vast energy, curiosity and inventiveness. The author conveys well what made Franklin so popular and effective: his obvious charm, ability to get on with a wide variety of people - the portrayal of his relations with other famous players such as the uptight John Adams is fascinating - frequent acts of generosity and such skills in communication that his self-deprecating wit and wisdom can speak to us now after more than two centuries. Yet, he was clearly capable of very devious behaviour to obtain his ends and often displayed a callous neglect towards close relatives, such as his wife, and was cruelly unforgiving towards his son in later life, despite having taken responsibility for him when an illegitimate infant.
On another level, this is an informative account of the development of America from a set of colonies to an independent republic. The American author may be a touch complacent about the current state of his country's democracy, but that is not down to Benjamin Franklin.
Anyway, seek this out since it deserves to be read more than many "hyped up" books.
on 19 January 2013
This book is definitely worth the read for a range of reasons: an engaging story, well written, amusing and clear, it provides an enjoyable way of learning not only about Benjamin Franklin but also the significant events of which he was apart in all that surrounded American independence from the British Empire.
If you are reading from a scholarly perspective, however, or merely notice things being out of their proper place, buy the hard copy rather than using Kindle. I found a number of notes which are shown on the page as opposed to linked to the back displaced, and this was annoying and confusing.
For the book itself, I would give 5 stars. For the Kindle edition, imperfect as it is, only 4.
on 12 January 2013
Fascinating chap. Oldest (by a long way) of the US founding fathers who drafted the constitution, and criss-crossing the Atlantic like a modern on missions of both business and diplomacy. Overwhelming feeling is he would not have felt at all out of place in our modern world, and he would probably teach us a thing or two. Excellent read.
on 28 July 2012
One more book by Walter Isaacson the author of "Steve Jobs Biography"Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography. I'm currently learning/living in the life of "Benjamin Franklin: An American Life". And so far so good. I bought this hard cover book here in Amazon and I'm very happy with it.
on 11 February 2014
I learned a great deal about this wonderful American Patriot. He made a great contribution to the country he loved
on 5 February 2016
a bought a used book which was in the quality stated, no complaints.
on 21 February 2015
Excellent account of an amazing man's life.