Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson (2003). Simon & Schuster, 590 pages.

I’ve always been fascinated by Ben Franklin. I first read a children’s biography of him when I was about 8 or 9 years old; I remember that it was illustrated every three or four pages with a black-and-white sketch. I can still clearly see the drawing in my head of the 18-year-old Franklin arriving in Philadelphia, eating a loaf of bread as he walked down the street. Although topics such as bastard children and political rivalries were, of course, glossed over in this 60-page Scholastic version, nevertheless it made a big impression on me. For years afterwards, I would recognize sayings from Poor Richard’s Almanac, and I actually signed a letter once as “Silence Dogood” (I didn’t realize that it was supposed to be a woman’s name).

I never learned much more about Franklin, however, until I read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Franklin a few weeks ago. I had read his recent biography of Albert Einstein, Einstein: His Life and Universe, and enjoyed it quite a bit. So I figured his previous book on Benjamin Franklin would probably be good as well.

My only real complaint about this bio is that it seems too short in some places and too long in others. For example, Franklin’s young life is glossed over pretty quickly, leaving me wanting to know a lot more. On the other hand, there are over a hundred pages covering Franklin’s stay in France during the battle for America’s independence, which felt like it could have been covered a lot quicker.

The book follows the same format as Einstein, with each chapter bearing a title and a range of years. For example, the title of Chapter Four is “Printer: Philadelphia, 1726-1732”. Chapter Twelve is “Independence: Philadelphia, 1775-1777”, and so on. This structure helps the reader navigate the periods of Franklin’s life, while also providing a discreet framework for this book. If only real life followed such a neat pattern! It also helps the reader anticipate what’s coming next, and the table of contents by itself serves as the briefest outline of Franklin’s life.

Isaacson restricts himself to material that is widely available on Franklin, relying heavily on Franklin’s personal correspondence, writings, and letter written to him and about him at the time. This is not one of those biographies where the writer is trying to push some secret agenda or attempts to prove some bizarre theory. This is just a good, old fashioned, extremely well-written story of the life of Benjamin Franklin.

And in reading it, I identify even more strongly than ever with “B. Franklin, Printer” (as he always signed his name). Franklin was a great believer in self-improvement, education during and throughout life, and in experiencing new and different things. He delighted in traveling, meeting new people and hearing new ideas.

Franklin viewed religion as something useful and practical for making people behave better, even though he personally never belonged to any religion. In fact, although he often spoke of the importance for young people to attend church and “trust in providence”, he himself was almost agnostic, at least as far as Christianity was concerned. Towards the end of his life, he said about Jesus Christ: “I have doubts as to his divinity, though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble.”

Perhaps my favorite takeaway from this book is the astonishing evidence of Franklin’s everyday practicality. Franklin was the original pragmatic realist. Rather than focusing on the lofty or abstract virtues that can be heard from a pulpit, Franklin constructed his own set of personal, practical virtues that he endeavored to perfect in his own character, which he referred to as The Moral Perfection Project.

He set up for himself a program of self-improvement, whereby he would concentrate on one of his Virtues for one day, practice it to perfection, and then move on to the next virtue on his list the next day. When he reached the end of the list, he would start back at the beginning. Franklin felt that by doing this, over time he would get better and better at recognizing his own faults and correcting them before they were expressed. I found this imminently practical method very refreshing, even though it’s been over 250 years since he compiled his first list of them.

Here are some of Franklin’s 13 Virtues that he thought were desirable. For each he added a short definition, to help him practice each:

  • Temperance: Eat not to dullness, drink not to elevation.
  • Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
  • Order: Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
  • Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
  • Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself (i.e., waste nothing).
  • Industry: Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
  • Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and if you speak, speak accordingly.
  • Justice: Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
  • Moderation: Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  • Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.
  • Tranquility: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
  • Chastity: Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.

Note how he worded that last one; Franklin’s definition of “chastity” is much looser than any preacher would have written, that’s for sure. And yet even that is evidence of his practicality – Franklin recognized sex and sexuality for what it is, and believed that it was a normal part of life, to be enjoyed in its own place and time and in proper moderation.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It’s well written and a joy to read. The life of Ben Franklin flows off the page and into the mind and heart of the reader with little effort. After finishing it, I certainly look forward to whatever biography Walter Isaacson writes next.

But much more importantly, I have learned a great deal about one of my childhood heroes, and in doing so Benjamin Franklin has now risen to be one of my adult heroes as well.

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