Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

Benjamin Franklin is the Founding Father who winks at us. An ambitious urban entrepreneur who rose up the social ladder, from leather-aproned shopkeeper to dining with kings, he seems made of flesh rather than of marble. In bestselling author Walter Isaacson's vivid and witty full-scale biography, we discover why Franklin seems to turn to us from history's stage with eyes...

Title:Benjamin Franklin: An American Life
Author:
Rating:
ISBN:074325807X
Edition Language:English
Format Type:Paperback
Number of Pages:493 pages

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life Reviews

  • Dylan
    Aug 27, 2007

    If Alexander Hamilton is one of the most underappreciated of the Founders then Benjamin Franklin is one of the most misunderstood. Isaacson ends his book with a concluding chapter that details this misundestanding. Throughout history each generation has taken a new look at Benjamin Franklin. As the author points out, Thoreau mocked him, Carnegie adored him and D.H. Lawrence despised him. So who was right, and why?

    Isaacson, while pointing out his faults and follies, does not hide his own admirat

    If Alexander Hamilton is one of the most underappreciated of the Founders then Benjamin Franklin is one of the most misunderstood. Isaacson ends his book with a concluding chapter that details this misundestanding. Throughout history each generation has taken a new look at Benjamin Franklin. As the author points out, Thoreau mocked him, Carnegie adored him and D.H. Lawrence despised him. So who was right, and why?

    Isaacson, while pointing out his faults and follies, does not hide his own admiration for Franklin. An interesting historical test is to consider that Franklin's style and personal life often overshadow his professional accomplishments and civic contributions. Because he lived apart from his wife, flirted with women, wrote about the science of farts and beget an illigitimate child the general public has ignored his historical importance. Rather than donning the frills and wigs of Paris, a trap Jefferson quickly fell into, Franklin purposefully wore plain suits, no wig and often times his famous fur hat. A man who set trends without trying, one of Franklin's greatest gifts was the ability to accomplish great things without anyone else realizing it.

    His feigned naivite, strategic avoidance of conflict and simple appearance made him the perfect man to discover electricity and promote the lightning rod; propose a union of the colonies in 1759; negotiate for the repeal of the Stamp Act; carve out a treaty with and multiple loans from France; negotiate peace with Britain; champion the Connecticut compromise for a bi-cameral legislature, one with representation based on population, the other with equal representation frome each state; and propose the complete abolition of slavery.

    Isaacson makes clear, and he is quite convincing, that while Franklin had his faults, he was revered in his own time, accomplished as much or more than any other Founder, and deserves to be considerd as one of America's most historically important statesman. Franklin's personal creed was that doing good things for others was the ultimate form of religion. In life and in death (in his will he set up a trust fund for young tradesman in Philadelphia and Boston) he practiced his religion dutifully. A religion that we in America would do well to retrieve.

  • Jason Koivu
    Nov 22, 2008

    An excellent start-to-finish biography,

    begins by touching on his childhood as best as it can considering the lack of material to work with. After that, Isaacson takes the reader through a more detailed account of Franklin's early entrepreneurial life, through his many inventions, and into his later statesmen days. I was struck by the author's well-balanced hand for both time, achievements, personal and professional details, and philosophical and political ide

    An excellent start-to-finish biography,

    begins by touching on his childhood as best as it can considering the lack of material to work with. After that, Isaacson takes the reader through a more detailed account of Franklin's early entrepreneurial life, through his many inventions, and into his later statesmen days. I was struck by the author's well-balanced hand for both time, achievements, personal and professional details, and philosophical and political ideology. The importance of his work as a diplomat, an enchanting and emotional time in Franklin's life well dramatized by Isaacson, finally struck home to me.

    provides a nice, concise, well-rounded look at a well-rounded man.

  • Laura
    Jan 01, 2009

    I loved this book. Isaacson did a fair and balanced job, describing the man without whitewashing over his flaws. By the end, I felt like Franklin was mine, like he somehow belonged to me. I knew he would be an interesting person, but I had no idea how much this man did with his life. Nor did I understand just how involved he was before there was any US at all. We could still be a British colony without him - or even a French one! Something else I never learned in school, France's involvement.

    Th

    I loved this book. Isaacson did a fair and balanced job, describing the man without whitewashing over his flaws. By the end, I felt like Franklin was mine, like he somehow belonged to me. I knew he would be an interesting person, but I had no idea how much this man did with his life. Nor did I understand just how involved he was before there was any US at all. We could still be a British colony without him - or even a French one! Something else I never learned in school, France's involvement.

    This is the opposite of a dry history book. This is real life, described in such a way that you feel like you were a part of it, and know all of the players. When Franklin left France for the last time, toward the end of his life, there were tears in my eyes. This from a confirmed history dummy who has never had an interest! Well, that's all changed now. Thank you, Mr. Isaacson, for making this old patriot leap off the pages, and for making me know and really care for him, and for history, for the first time in my life. You deserve a gold star for sure.

  • Chrissie
    Dec 01, 2010

    ETA: I decided to change this to four stars since I enjoyed the author's

    even more, and I gave that four.

    ***********************

    Why do YOU want to pick up a book about Benjamin Franklin? If you want his biographical details you need not even read a book, just check out Wikipedia. I wanted more. I wanted to understand his soul. I wanted to get under his skin. I wanted all the historical details in Wikipedia and more. I got what I wanted. Benjamin was an amazing person; people have only a

    ETA: I decided to change this to four stars since I enjoyed the author's

    even more, and I gave that four.

    ***********************

    Why do YOU want to pick up a book about Benjamin Franklin? If you want his biographical details you need not even read a book, just check out Wikipedia. I wanted more. I wanted to understand his soul. I wanted to get under his skin. I wanted all the historical details in Wikipedia and more. I got what I wanted. Benjamin was an amazing person; people have only a superficial idea of who he really was. He is the guy who invented the lighting pole, that jolly fat man with a twinkle in his eye. He is the only person to have signed (and extensively worked on) the Declaration of Independence, the Peace Accord with England and the Treaty with France following the Revolution and the American Constitution. So this is a man of politics, you surmise. Yes, he was, but he was so much more.

    This is a man who changed history in not one way or two ways or merely ten ways. The world would not be the same today without this man. He has shaped the American character, given us wide ranging inventions and, yes, signed all those documents.

    This is not a review of who Benjamin is, for that read

    book. It is thorough. It is interesting. It is funny, and this is because Benjamin has made some outrageously amusing comments. He was a fantastic storyteller. We are not only told this but given numerous examples. The book follows a chronological path from birth to death and is concluded with a fantastic epilogue that synthesizes all the diverse threads. The book has everything you may want to know about this man, but not too much either! That is quite a feat.

    I have one complaint, but it does not warrant the removal of the fifth star. My gut feeling

    that the book is amazing. The author clearly admires Benjamin, and yet he

    clearly point out his weak characteristics and mistakes. I quite simply wish he had more emphatically underlined the fact that although Benjamin extolled virtue and the merit of helping others, he failed so miserably in how he treated those of his family. He had all these rules of good conduct and yet he failed to be a good father and husband. The author doesn't hide is failings, but I wanted a

    statement that revealed the disparity between what he preached and what he did! There I have said it. Benjamin was in fact a very cruel person in relation to his family, and sometimes he was very selfish and ungenerous. Why did he abandon his family and remain in Europe for fifteen years? In my mind, it was only when he finally realized he would be given neither the Ohio land grant nor the coveted office in charge of the colonies, that he returned. His reasons for remaining in Europe had been very selfish. I wanted that to be said clearly.

    The narration of the audiobook by Nelson Runger was good but not excellent. He spoke clearly and slowly. I like slow narrations, but I was slightly irritated by his need to audibly swallow the saliva in his mouth. Neither do I think his female intonations were appealing. I am being very picky. These criticisms should not deter you from listening to the audiobook!

    An excellent book about Benjamin Franklin. You will be surprised at learning this is a man who has much more depth and importance than you ever imagined.

    **********************

    Having listened now through chapter four, I am beginning to see both Benjamin's good and bad personality traits. This only makes the book MORE accurate. Parts tend to be a bit preachy. Lists of the adages printed in his Poor Richard Almanacs drone on a bit too long. These almanacs were profitable, definitely a financial success. The moralizing about how to achieve virtue is a bit boring. Benjamin has even devised a "Moral Perfection Project"! He seems sometimes a bit inflated. OK, he also admits to his tendency of being too proud and adds the rule that one must try to remain humble. Anyhow, all this moralizing gets a bit hard to swallow. Enough!

    The author also makes it very clear that Benjamin employs humor to achieve his goals, but his humor can become quite nasty. He adds gossip columns to his paper. Sex tidbits and crime always attract readers, so they are added too. Somehow all the moralizing about proper behavior is explained away when profits are to be made. Yes, Benjamin is a pragmatist. He usually can find a convenient explanation for why what he does is acceptable. He states that gossip leads to virtue since it puts an end to improper behavior! He does admit though it must be used with discretion.... I am not looking for a fairy tale about Benjamin but the real truth, so I am not complaining.

    Finally a book that really draws my attention and makes me happy to be reading!!

    I am quite sure that this book will please. The information is clear and the author mentions details that are interesting. I am reading this book because I want to know who Benjamin Franklin was. By that I mean what kind of personality did he have, how would he instinctively react in a given situation and what are his weakness and charms. I want to know him as a blood and flesh friend; friend because I am already enchanted by his directness, dislike of elitism, humor, industriousness and ability to "bend rules".

    Books were important to Benjamin. He was a youth of the Enlightenment, which appeals to me too. He lived from 1706-1790. He enjoyed Daniel Defoe's writing and shared his principles. Here is an amusing detail: Defoe thought there should be established institutions for the mentally retarded. The amusing part is that he felt a tax should be levied on authors to pay for these residences. Why? Because clearly authors had been blessed with more brain matter than the retarded. They should thus care for those more poorly endowed!

    Benjamin was a vegetarian, at least for a while. He was not a vegetarian for moral reasons. By saving his money, eating less expensively, he could buy more books. Again, books are important! But then, on a boat trip, the cod sizzling on the grill smell "mmmm" so good! When filleting the fish, smaller fish had been found in the gut of the larger one, the one being cooked. He then conveniently reasoned: "If you eat one another, I don't see why we cannot eat you!" That ended his vegetarianism. Also he was on his way to a better paying job.

    Clearly it helps that I like Benjamin's ability to poke fun at both himself and what he saw around him. I enjoy his tendency to rationalize, albeit in a manner that is "convenient". He knew quite well he was simply finding a convincing reason for doing exactly what he wanted.

    I like this book because almost every paragraph throws in extraneous information that interests me. I didn't know that Puritanism was an effort to cleanse remnant Catholic practices from Protestantism. Puritans wanted to "purify" Protestantism. Reading this book, I am given much more than mere facts about Benjamin Franklin's life.

    I am listening to the audiobook narrated by Nelson Runger. He speaks clearly and very slowly. This allows one time to take small introspective excursions as you listen, and this

    like to do. If you do not like glacial narrations, perhaps you should read the paper form of the book. Listening to a book often takes longer than reading the book.

  • Lisa (Harmonybites)
    Oct 15, 2012

    This was a pleasure and just the kind of biography I find trustworthy. The kind that acknowledges other views and controversies and with extensive notes and sources in the back. More than that, it's the rare biography that can inspire smiles and even giggles--I'd mark this up to five stars if I could credit Isaacson for that--but the source of the humor is the frequent quotes from Benjamin Franklin himself. Isaacson said in his introduction that "Benjamin Franklin is the Founding Father who wink

    This was a pleasure and just the kind of biography I find trustworthy. The kind that acknowledges other views and controversies and with extensive notes and sources in the back. More than that, it's the rare biography that can inspire smiles and even giggles--I'd mark this up to five stars if I could credit Isaacson for that--but the source of the humor is the frequent quotes from Benjamin Franklin himself. Isaacson said in his introduction that "Benjamin Franklin is the Founding Father who winks at us" and that proved to be so--his pragmatism and humor is the keynote to his character. Before reading this, if someone asked me which Founding Father I'd chose to have dinner and conversation with I think I would have chosen Jefferson. After this it's hard not to name Franklin as a favorite and the one with the most winning personality--at least if you weren't married to him. Or one of his children.

    Franklin has his faults, goodness knows, and Isaacson doesn't gloss over them, but they just make him all the more poignantly human. I've heard it said that the Revolutionary War was really a civil war given how the lines between Patriots versus Loyalists cut through families. Of all the Founding Fathers, the cut was sharpest with Benjamin Franklin--his own son was the King's Governor of New Jersey and chose the opposing side. I did know that before reading this biography but there was plenty I didn't know--for instance that this man so identified with Philadelphia was born and grew up in Boston and spent so many years in England as well as Paris. Isaacson, who wrote biographies of Einstein and Steve Jobs, does justice to not just Franklin the statesman but the inventor and scientist as well. And throughout and especially in his epilogue gives us not just an assessment of the man but the biography of how he was received by others such as Sinclair Lewis, D.H. Lawrence and John Updike. An engaging and lively biography.

  • T-bone
    Dec 17, 2012

    The only time this book caught my attention was when I fell asleep reading it in bed and dropped it on my face. I stopped reading before I hurt myself further. This fascinating insight on page 82 was the last straw, "For the last 17 years of Deborah's life, Franklin would be away, including when she died. Nevertheless, their mutual affection, respect, and loyalty - and their sense of partnership - would endure."

  • Luís C.
    Aug 20, 2014

    A so-called Founding Fathers of the United States, Benjamin Franklin is among the most influential figures of his time, whose scientific discoveries and philosophical and business ideas reverberate around the world. It is also a flesh and blood man who was instrumental in the development of what is now the most powerful nation in the world.

    Writer, scientist, inventor, diplomat and journalist.

    Isaacson shows how this incredible life beyond their own time, and how the collaboration of Franklin in d

    A so-called Founding Fathers of the United States, Benjamin Franklin is among the most influential figures of his time, whose scientific discoveries and philosophical and business ideas reverberate around the world. It is also a flesh and blood man who was instrumental in the development of what is now the most powerful nation in the world.

    Writer, scientist, inventor, diplomat and journalist.

    Isaacson shows how this incredible life beyond their own time, and how the collaboration of Franklin in documents such as the Declaration of American Independence helped shape the modern world.

  • Matt
    Jul 08, 2015

    Seeking to continue my trek to better understand the birth of America and its Founding Fathers, I tackled Walter Isaacson's biography of Benjamin Franklin. The book offers not only a great examination of the man, but also a wonderful set of vignettes related to all the activities Franklin undertook in his life. This most eclectic of men, the fifth generation of the youngest son of the youngest son, dazzled many he met and Isaacson's presentation surely will pull in many readers as well. In Isaac

    Seeking to continue my trek to better understand the birth of America and its Founding Fathers, I tackled Walter Isaacson's biography of Benjamin Franklin. The book offers not only a great examination of the man, but also a wonderful set of vignettes related to all the activities Franklin undertook in his life. This most eclectic of men, the fifth generation of the youngest son of the youngest son, dazzled many he met and Isaacson's presentation surely will pull in many readers as well. In Isaacson's examination, three themes emerge related to Franklin's persona: a common man, the inquisitive thinker, and the great Founding Father. Using these themes and Isaacson's strong narrative, the reader learns so much in this one tome, all of which helps better shape the view of this most varied of the early men who shaped America.

    At no point did Ben Franklin make himself out to be anything other than a common man. He lived a simple life and grew up surrounded by sixteen siblings in a household where frugality was itself considered posh. Becoming self-sufficient at a young age, Franklin sought to make a name for himself in the Philadelphia region becoming a printer at a young age and beginning a career that would make him a household name before any of his Founding roles. He sought to educate the masses with the written word, from tracts to pamphlets and even into satirical books, proving that the pen has its might and can sway as effectively as the sword. Isaacson offers a dose of humanness to Franklin by discussing his dalliances that brought about a bastard son, William, but balances the scales when showing that Franklin did not shirk from his responsibilities. Franklin did marry and have a legitimate family of his own, but they seemed to take a secondary place to his work and eventually to his curiosities, as mentioned below. Franklin remained well rooted throughout his life, even when politics came knocking, differentiating himself from the likes of the military Washington or highly political Jefferson. A common man to the last of his days, Franklin always sought the best for his fellow man without pretentiousness or a sense of entitlement.

    That Franklin was always thinking appears to be a recurring thread in Isaacson's narrative. Franklin never stopped wondering what was and what might be, given the chance. As early as when he began publishing, Franklin sought to better the lives of those around him by pushing the limits of the day and expressing a concrete desire to grow. Franklin printed his stories and ideas to force the common man to think about life and how he presents himself, hoping to open the mind up to new ideas or a better means of living the current one. Isaacson illustrates Franklin's ideas which included fire brigades, property insurance, and even public lending libraries. He saw an opening and a need and simply presented a plan in the microcosm of Philadelphia, which blossomed into something most people take for granted. Moving into the world of science, Franklin espoused a greater interest in opening new channels of thinking, but always practical ideas rather than esoteric or theoretical ones. Franklin began discoveries of electrical conversion and conservation by creating primitive batteries, curiosities around electric fencing, and paved the way for future theoretical scientists to formulate some of the ideas Franklin found while tinkering. Isaacson presents Franklin's ideas in such a way as to elevate his stature without leaving the reader to think he was better than anyone else, something biographers of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson fail to do in their respective tomes. Franklin did things for the curiosity of it and used that questioning spirit to help those around him. These ideas have, presently, become so ensconced in daily life that to learn of their inventor may leave the reader in awe.

    Franklin's concern for the common man and his innovative mind spawned a retired life where politics played a central role. Early in the tome, Isaacson mentions that Franklin was the only Founding Father who had a hand in all of the documents related to the eventual sovereignty of America. While he was strongly loyal to the British Crown, he did see some of the issues his fellow colonists felt, particularly in the realm of taxation and control of local affairs. Isaacson discusses Franklin's plan to create a form of legislative agreement that would allow regional and even colonial issues to be handled within the region, while working with the Crown and permitting a British overseer. This idea could have, Isaacson posits, curtailed the need for the Revolutionary War and likely allowed a more Canadian-based solution to the colonial quagmire (the latter part of this point is not Isaacson's but my political insight). It failed and Franklin stood firm with his colonial brothers in fighting for equality and representation. Franklin was elected to represent Pennsylvania at the bargaining table in London, but all his insight could not sway the likes of HRH George III, which precipitated the eventual War of Independence. With extensive sections of the tome dedicated to Franklin's various diplomatic positions, in both London and Paris, during those years ahead of the War and the period of peace negotiations. Franklin stopped at nothing to secure America's support from European allies and to temper the issues arising in the Mother Country. Isaacson does a masterful job at presenting this, as well as arguing that Franklin was likely the single man able to quell the size of the fight put up by the British during this colonial divorce proceedings. All this and the number of "who's who" historical figures that Franklin encountered and liaised with will surely astound the reader to no end. Isaacson does not shy away from examining Franklin's extensive work on constitutional documents, after Britain negotiated a settlement. While Franklin was elderly and not the greatest orator, his ideas were firmly rooted in democratic means, to benefit the people. Some ideas fell by the wayside when the consummate politicians scoffed at his empowering the common man, while others received strong consideration and eventually inclusion in the final constitutional documents. To call Franklin an important character in the political realm of America seems an understatement.

    While Franklin showed a varied and pleasantly passionate side, a quasi-fourth theme emerges throughout the tome; Franklin's complete abandonment of his family, particularly the women. Franklin galavanted throughout the colonies and into Europe with little regard for his wife, Deborah, penning letters to her on occasion and discussing how the woman whose home he shared while working in London had become so close to him. Franklin did not return when he discovered she'd had a stroke, nor did he rush back when she died. Franklin seemed to be divorced from his spousal responsibilities and did not give it a second thought. While he penned pleasant notes to his daughter and her husband, again, Franklin made little effort to attend her wedding or play any role in her life leading up to that point. Like the man always tinkering in the garage, Franklin had too much to do and too little time for those around him, unless they were as ensconced with his actions. Add to this, the aforementioned William, his bastard son, became a Royal Governor of New Jersey and thus put him opposite Franklin for much of the younger's adult life. It is interesting to note that Franklin had a wonderful relationship with his grandchildren, as Isaacson shows throughout, no matter how poorly he treated his own children. This is an interesting theme, familial abandonment, and one that I have not seen in any of the previous Founding Father biographies. Very poignant and it does balance well against all the good that Franklin did in his life.

    Isaacson's biographical sketch of Franklin is both thorough and entertaining, keeping the reader away from the quagmires of the mundane while not skimming over key aspects. Full of wonderful insights throughout, Isaacson shows the attention to detail and extensive research he undertook to weave this together. With strong themes and exceptionally off the wall observations (that Franklin's fathering of William led to two additional generations of bastard children begetting bastards) keep the reader pushing forward with interest and awe, rather than out of a sense of necessity. Like the previous figure Isaacson tackled that I have already read (Steve Jobs), the man appears to come alive through the author's wonderful prose.

    Kudos, Mr. Isaacson for your sensational biography. I cannot wait to sink my teeth into your other political juggernaut (Kissinger) or scientist (Einstein).

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