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Benjamin Franklin Hardcover – 2 Sep 2002
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"The best short biography of Franklin ever written." -- Gordon S. Wood
Benjamin Franklin is perhaps the most remarkable figure in American history: the greatest statesman of his age, he played a pivotal role in the formation of the American republic. He was also a pioneering scientist, a best-selling author, the country's first postmaster general, a printer, a bon vivant, a diplomat, a ladies' man, and a moralist - and the most prominent celebrity of the 18th century. Franklin was, however, a man of vast contradictions, as Edmund Morgan demonstrates in this biography. A reluctant revolutionary, Franklin had desperately wished to preserve the British Empire, and he mourned the break even as he led the fight for American independence. Despite his passion for science, Franklin viewed his groundbreaking experiments as secondary to his civic duties. And although he helped to draft both the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution, he had personally hoped that the new American government would take a different shape. Seeking to unravel the enigma of Franklin's character, Morgan shows that he was the rare individual who consistently placed the public interest before his own desires.See all Product description
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Whilst the early chapters have some interesting stories and good analysis of Benjamin Franklin as a person, and whilst the final chapters have a small sprinkling of his character, the vast majority of the book is a "he did, they did, he did, they did" pitter patter that tells us little about Benjamin Franklin. This needn't have been the case, but the author has a tedious attitude of sycophantic adulation. As the biography writes it, Benjamin Franklin is surrounded by bumbling fools who love him but needs his constant gentle guidance and fools who oppose him. Given the complexity of the issues involved, his opponents are done a particular disservice.
Ultimately, the biographical portrayal is paper thin and an opportunity for a fascinating first person view of history lost. Disappointing.
The focus of this book is on Franklin the diplomat. It is about Franklin, the longtime colonial agent in England and Franklin the representative of the Continental Congress who worked the Court of Versailles for the loans which kept America afloat and who later negotiated the treaty that brought peace and recognition to the new Republic.
I like books that change my way of viewing things, which this book certainly does. I think that we all tend to view Franklin as an American icon, which he truly was. Morgan reminds us that, for most of his life, Franklin was an Englishman and an enthusiastic supporter of the British Empire. This book points out that, for much of his diplomatic career, Franklin's goal was the furtherance of the British Empire in which, he believed, the weight of power would eventually shift to America. This book presents the concept that it was Britain, in truth, which broke the bonds of Empire by its treatment of the colonies, not the colonies which sought independence of their own choosing. It was only after the British Ministry had spurned all of Franklin's advice and had, thereby, squandered the goodwill of America toward Britain, that he turned to support the Independence movement which was arising throughout the colonies.
This book raises the speculation of "What if Franklin had been successful in cementing a Trans-Atlantic Empire in which the relationships between the member states would have evolved over time, as has the relationship between Britain and Canada?" Would we have seen the development of a great Anglo-American nation consisting of Great Britain, much of the current United States and Canada, supplemented by as assortment of Western Hemisphere islands? How would that have changed our world? We will never know, but a book that even raises such questions in our minds is well worth the read.
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In slightly more than 300 elegantly written pages, Yale historian Morgan transformed this skeleton into a living, breathing man. Although Morgan based this brief history on a wealth of source documents, he tells Franklin's story effortlessly. I felt as though I had taken a long walk with a very interesting companion, and come away with a whole new understanding of a great and complex figure.
Morgan devotes most of the book to detailing Franklin's central role in the long series of calculations and miscalculations that pushed thirteen loyal and tractable British colonies into revolution and forged them into the United States of America. Franklin, we learn, was there at every step, usually behind the scenes, but always extremely influential, a potent catalyst to change.
It's as fascinating to follow the evolution of Franklin's own thoughts and feelings about the British Empire and the future of America as it is to get to catch a replay of the fateful steps in Britain and the colonies that led to the American revolution. I wish that America were blessed with more statesmen like Franklin; we could certainly use someone like him right now.
Just one caveat--Franklin's scientific accomplishments are mentioned, but really as a side issue. In this, Morgan seems to be following Franklin's own lead; we learn that he viewed the scientific accomplishments that won him universal acclaim as less important than his far-sighted, patient, sometimes personally costly contributions as a politician and statesman.
It's hard to imagine a more readable, edifying or enjoyable introduction to Benjamin Franklin.
Author of Science Firsts: From the Creation of Science to the Science of Creation (Wiley, 2002).
It is indicative of Morgan's erudition as well as his writing skills his narrative seems as if it were an eyewitness account such as James Boswell's of Samuel Johnson. There are hundreds of anecdotes included, many of them previously unfamiliar to most readers. Morgan also makes generous but appropriate use of Franklin's own written works as well as of sources contemporary with him. In the final chapter, however, Morgan quotes one of Franklin's best-known maxims, "let all men know thee, but no man know thee thoroughly." Franklin's actions always spoke much louder than his words. Indeed, he was renowned for his silence in the Pennsylvania Assembly, in the Continental Congress, in the Constitutional Convention, and throughout countless meetings with government officials in England and France.
Lest we misunderstand what motivated this pattern of silence, Morgan observes that Franklin "knew how to value himself and what he did without mistaking himself for something more than one man among many. His special brand of self-respect required him to honor his fellow men and women no less than himself." I was intrigued by Morgan's account of what seems to be an essential contradiction in Franklin: his self-confidence and his humility. Franklin was guided by a spirit which can never be confined to any one religious denomination. He recognized strengths and weaknesses in himself as well as in others, "in a spirit that another wise man in another century called 'the spirit which is not too sure it is right.' It is a spirit which weakens the weak but strengthens the strong. It gave Franklin the strength to do what he incredibly did, as a scientist, statesman, and man." In this context, I am reminded of Voltaire's advice that we should cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it.
Although we will never know Franklin "thoroughly," Morgan has helped us to know him well.
However, we certainly came away from this book with a much broader understanding of the man that Benjamin Franklin was. So many of us had a very one-dimensional view of him that we learned in our high school history classes. It's not a great book, but it certainly engendered a great discussion at our meeting.