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Benjamin Franklin: An American Lifeby Walter Isaacson
Reading Group Guide
Reading Group Questions and Topics for Discussion
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 were growing up about Franklin's flying a kite and discovering electricity and his invention of a lightning rod. Which of his many lesser known inventions or scientific experiments did you find especially interesting? Why?
4. "The essence of Franklin is that he was a civic-minded man. He cared more about public behavior than inner piety, and he was more interested in building the City of Man than the City of God," Isaacson writes. Talk about some of the community groups that Franklin founded and how they reflect his belief in civic virtue for the common good.
5. Ben Franklin, Isaacson tells us, "had faith in the wisdom of the common man and felt that a new nation would draw its strength from what he called 'the middling people.'" Discuss the ways in which Franklin helped to create, and to celebrate, a new ruling class of ordinary citizens — a new political order "in which rights and power were based not on the happenstance of heritage but on merit and virtue and hard work" Do you share Franklin's faith in the virtues and values of the middle class? Why or why not?
6. Benjamin Franklin 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. Discuss the unique stamp that Franklin left, or attempted to leave, on each of these documents? How might American history have unfolded differently had the colonial assemblies adopted Franklin's Albany Plan with its federalist concept? What is the significance of Franklin's edit of the Declaration of Independence, changing Jefferson's "We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable" to "We hold these truths to be self-evident"?
7. In what sense is Franklin "an exemplar of the Enlightenment"? Why did the French public consider Voltaire and Franklin to be soul mates? Why did Franklin abandon the Puritan/Calvinist theology that he had grown up with? How did his religious beliefs evolve over time?
8. What do you think of the way Franklin treated his common-law wife, Deborah, and his illegitimate son, William, the identity of whose mother remains unknown to this day? The book makes clear that for 15 of the last 17 years of Deborah's life, Franklin lived an ocean away, including when she died. Why do you think Isaacson still concludes: "Nevertheless, their mutual affection, respect, and loyalty — and their sense of partnership — would endure"? How do you think it is possible to reconcile Franklin's long absence and his behavior — his flirtations with many women, the surrogate familial relationships he would establish wherever he traveled, the intimate correspondence he exchanged with Polly, Caty Ray, and his female friends in Paris — with Isaacson's contention that he felt affection, respect, loyalty, and a sense of partnership with Deborah?
9. Why do you think that Franklin, so adept at compromise in negotiating treaties with other nations, was so unyielding in the breach with his own son? Contrast Franklin's relationship with William and his closeness with William's son, Temple.
10. Discuss the evolution of Franklin's thinking on the moral issue of slavery. How did Franklin's views change from the time when he personally owned a slave couple and facilitated the selling of slaves through ads in his newspaper to his emergence in later life as one of America's most active abolitionists?
11. Franklin came late to the Revolutionary cause. From 1760-1764 he remained an unabashed Royalist. Even after the British Parliament passed the notorious Stamp Act in March 1765 Franklin was slow to join the frenzy back home. What finally drove Franklin, who had long cherished a vision of imperial harmony in which Britain and America could both flourish in one great expanding empire, to cross the threshold to rebellion? Why do you think that Franklin who had wrestled for so long with his royalist loyalties was so unforgiving of William's?
12. Discuss the complicated mixture of resentment and respect, disdain, distrust, and grudging admiration that characterized the relationship between Franklin and John Adams. How might American and world history have taken a different turn had Adams rather than Franklin been sent to negotiate the alliance with France during the Revolutionary War?
13. In an interview after the hardcover edition of Benjamin Franklin was published, Isaacson revealed that he had first started reading about Franklin's diplomatic activities when he was working on his acclaimed biography of Henry Kissinger — because he wanted to understand the peculiar mixture of realism and idealism that has characterized American foreign policy. Do you think that the loyalty and gratitude that Franklin expressed for French support — which he believed was founded in morality as well as European power balances — was overly naïve as Adams intimated? Do you think that Franklin helped to set a tone for future American foreign policy? Should foreign policy have an idealistic component, or do you agree with Adams that it should be more coldly realistic, based on national interests?
14. Isaacson portrays Franklin as the Founding Father who intuitively was more comfortable with democracy than were most of his fellow founders. How did his democratic leanings reveal themselves in specific proposals at the Constitutional Convention? During his life, and since, Franklin has been lauded by his admirers and derided by his detractors as a pragmatist and a compromiser. "Compromisers may not make great heroes, but they do make democracies," Isaacson concludes. Do you agree or disagree? Why?
15. How did this book change your impressions of Benjamin Franklin? What was the most interesting discovery you made about Franklin from reading this biography? Do you admire him? Do you like him? Why or why not?
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