An American Life
He was, during his 84-year 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 sought practical ways to make stoves less smoky and commonwealths less corrupt. He organized neighborhood constabularies and international alliances, local lending libraries and national legislatures. He combined two types of lenses to create bifocals and two concepts of representation to foster the nation's federal compromise. He was the only man who shaped all the founding documents of America: the Albany Plan of Union, the Declaration of Independence, the treaty of alliance with France, the peace treaty with England, and the Constitution. And he helped invent America's unique style of homespun humor, democratic values, and philosophical pragmatism.
But the most interesting thing that Franklin invented, and continually reinvented, was himself. America's first great publicist, he was, in his life and in his writings, consciously trying to create a new American archetype. In the process, he carefully crafted his own persona, portrayed it in public, and polished it for posterity.
Through it all, he trusted the hearts and minds of his fellow "leather-aprons" more than he did those of any inbred elite. He saw middle-class values as a source of social strength, not as something to be derided. His guiding principle was a "dislike of everything that tended to debase the spirit of the common people." Few of his fellow founders felt this comfort with democracy so fully, and none so intuitively.
In this colorful and intimate narrative, Isaacson provides the full sweep of Franklin's amazing life, from his days as a runaway printer to his triumphs as a statesman, scientist, and Founding Father. He chronicles Franklin's tumultuous relationship with his illegitimate son and grandson, his practical marriage, and his flirtations with the ladies of Paris. He also shows how Franklin helped to create the American character and why he has a particular resonance in the twenty-first century.
Read an Excerpt
His arrival in Philadelphia is one of the most famous scenes in autobiographical literature: the bedraggled 17-year-old runaway, cheeky yet with a pretense of humility, straggling off the boat and buying three puffy rolls as he wanders up Market Street. But wait a minute. There's something more. Peel back a layer and we can see him as a 65-year-old wry observer, sitting in an English country house, writing this scene, pretending it's part of a letter to his son, an illegitimate son who has become a royal governor with aristocratic pretensions and needs to be reminded of his humble... see more
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Book Cover Image (jpg): Benjamin Franklin
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Author Photo (jpg): Walter Isaacson
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Reading Group Guide
1. Why does Walter Isaacson, in the opening pages of his biography, call Benjamin Franklin "the founding father who winks at us"? Why does he consider Franklin the most approachable of the founders, much less intimidating than other great figures of his time -- Washington, Jefferson, or Adams?
2. Isaacson portrays Franklin as a man who has a particular resonance in 21st-century America. "We see his reflection in our own time," Isaacson writes. "A successful publisher and consummate networker with an inventive curiosity, he would have felt right at home in the information revolution, and his unabashed striving to be part of an upwardly mobile meritocracy made him, in social critic David Brooks's phrase, 'our founding Yuppie.'" Talk about how you think Franklin would react if he could be transported into our contemporary world. What aspects of American life today do you think would please him, and which would likely inspire his genial, mocking, or caustic wit?
3. "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," Isaacson writes. Were you surprised by the range and variety of Franklin's activities? In which of his many roles do you think Franklin had his most impressive accomplishments? Most of us learned when we wer see more