Walter Isaacson’s highly readable Benjamin Franklin: An American Life tells the story of the extraordinary life of our most colorful founding father. One cannot help after reading this book that Ben Franklin would have fit right into today’s urban society. Wonderfully open-minded, witty, curious, practical, and incorrigibly flirtatious, he would have made the most interesting company even today. Reading Isaacson’s book, I was struck not only by Franklin’s accomplishments and his contributions to the success of our revolution and our constitution, but also by his contributions to the set of values that define what is an American.
In Isaacson’s words,
Benjamin Franklin is the founding father who winks at us… He was, during his eighty-four-year-long life, America’s best scientist, inventor, diplomat, writer, and business strategist, and he was also one of its most practical, though not most profound, political thinkers. He proved by flying a kite that lightning was electricity, and he invented a rod to tame it. He devised bifocal glasses and clean burning stoves, charts of the Gulf Stream and theories about the contagious nature of the common cold. He launched various civic improvement schemes, such as a lending library, college, volunteer fire corps, insurance association, and matching grant fund-raiser. He helped invent America’s unique style of homespun humor and philosophical pragmatism. In foreign policy, he created an approach that wove together idealism with balance-of-power realism. And in politics, he proposed seminal plans for uniting the colonies and creating a federal model for a national government.
Mr. Franklin was our first American “self-aware” man. I love the way he decides to forgo his decision to be a vegetarian:
I balanced some time between principle and inclination until I recollected that when the fish were opened, I saw smaller fish taken out of their stomachs. “Then,” thought I, “if you eat one another, I don’t see why we may not eat you.” So I dined upon cod very heartily and have since continued to eat as other people, returning only now and then occassionally to a vegetable diet.
Of particular interest was the estrangement Benjamin Franklin had from his son William. William was appointed governor of New Jersey, and took the loyalist side during the revolutionary war. He was subsequently imprisoned and banished to England. After years of trying to broker a reasonable coexistance with the crown, Benjamin Franklin finally threw his full support behind the patriots. Unable to convince his son to switch his allegiance back to the colonies, he rejected him and never forgave him.
Also intriguing was Franklin’s political approach. Unlike Adams, he was the consumate compromiser. Rather than trying to argue the opposition into capitulation, Franklin looked for the compromise that would move an agenda forward. Although Franklin wanted an unicamercal congress, he found that only by promoting a bicameral one could the deadlock in the Constitutional Convention be broken.
Finally, it is fun to see how many of Ben Franklin’s Poor Richards aphorisms are still in place in the national consciousness. “Haste makes waste.” “Eat to live, and not live to eat.” “Where’s there’s marriage without love, there is love without marriage.” “No gains without pains.” And, “God helps them that help themselves.”