Synopses & Reviews
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 that twinkle from behind his new-fangled spectacles. By bringing Franklin to life, Isaacson shows how he helped to define both his own time and ours. andlt;BRandgt; 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. andlt;BRandgt; 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. andlt;BRandgt; 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. andlt;BRandgt; 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.
"[A]n admirable work that takes its place among recently acclaimed biographies by H.W. Brands and Edmund Morgan as one with special appeal to a general audience." Library Journal
"[Franklin] remains an ideal American type and one well served by this sympathetic and admiring study....a solid contribution to Frankliniana." Kirkus Reviews
"Isaacson...has a keen eye for the genius of a man whose fingerprints lie everywhere in our history. The oldest, most distinctive and multifaceted of the founders, Franklin remains as mysterious as Jefferson." Publishers Weekly
"Isaacson has crafted a wonderfully written biography, and his treatment of Franklin's youth and rise to prominence is insightful and imaginative." John Ferling, The Washington Post
"It is a thoroughly researched, crisply written, convincingly argued chronicle that is also studded with little nuggets of fresh information." Joseph J. Ellis, The New York Times
The Washington Post Book World The most readable full-length Franklin biography available.
The New Yorker Energetic, entertaining, and worldly.
The New York Times In its common sense, clarity and accessibility, it is a fitting reflection of Franklin's sly pragmatism....This may be the book that most powerfully drives a new pendulum swing of the Franklin reputation.
The New York Times Book Review A thoroughly researched, crisply written, convincingly argued chronicle.
Rescuing Benjamin Franklin from the clich of genial codger, this book celebrates the most interesting, advanced, and earthy of the founding fathers. 16-page four-color insert.
This portrait of Benjamin Frankin's public and private life also examines American and European political history of the time. The author examines the run up to the Revolutionary War, the relations between Britain, France and the colonies and the events that led to America's independence.
In this authoritative and engrossing full-scale biography, Walter Isaacson, bestselling author of andlt;Iandgt;Einstein andlt;/Iandgt;and andlt;Iandgt;Steve Jobsandlt;/Iandgt;, shows how the most fascinating of America's founders helped define our national character.andlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;Benjamin Franklin is the founding father who winks at us, the one who seems made of flesh rather than marble. In a sweeping narrative that follows Franklinand#8217;s life from Boston to Philadelphia to London and Paris and back, Walter Isaacson chronicles the adventures of the runaway apprentice who became, over the course of his eighty-four-year life, Americaand#8217;s best writer, inventor, media baron, scientist, diplomat, and business strategist, as well as one of its most practical and ingenious political leaders. He explores the wit behind andlt;Iandgt;Poor Richardand#8217;s Almanacandlt;/Iandgt; and the wisdom behind the Declaration of Independence, the new nationand#8217;s alliance with France, the treaty that ended the Revolution, and the compromises that created a near-perfect Constitution.andlt;BRandgt; andlt;BRandgt; In this colorful and intimate narrative, Isaacson provides the full sweep of Franklinand#8217;s amazing life, showing how he helped to forge the American national identity and why he has a particular resonance in the twenty-first century.
About the Author
Walter Isaacson, the CEO of the Aspen Institute, has been chairman of CNN and the managing editor of andlt;iandgt;Timeandlt;/iandgt; magazine. He is the author of andlt;iandgt;The Innovators: andlt;/iandgt;andlt;iandgt;How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolutionandlt;/iandgt;; andlt;iandgt;Steve Jobsandlt;/iandgt;; andlt;iandgt;Einstein: His Life and Universeandlt;/iandgt;; andlt;iandgt;Benjamin Franklin: An American Lifeandlt;/iandgt;; and andlt;iandgt;Kissinger: A Biographyandlt;/iandgt;, and the coauthor of andlt;iandgt;The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Madeandlt;/iandgt;. He lives in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter @WalterIsaacson.
Table of Contents
andlt;Bandgt;Contentsandlt;/Bandgt;andlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;Chapter Oneandlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;andlt;Iandgt;Benjamin Franklin and the Invention of Americaandlt;/Iandgt;andlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;Chapter Twoandlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;andlt;Iandgt;Pilgrim's Progress: Boston, 1706-1723andlt;/Iandgt;andlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;Chapter Threeandlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;andlt;Iandgt;Journeyman: Philadelphia and London, 1723-1726andlt;/Iandgt;andlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;Chapter Fourandlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;andlt;Iandgt;Printer: Philadelphia, 1726-1732andlt;/Iandgt;andlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;Chapter Fiveandlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;andlt;Iandgt;Public Citizen: Philadelphia, 1731-1748andlt;/Iandgt;andlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;Chapter Sixandlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;andlt;Iandgt;Scientist and Inventor: Philadelphia, 1744-1751andlt;/Iandgt;andlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;Chapter Sevenandlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;andlt;Iandgt;Politician: Philadelphia, 1749-1756andlt;/Iandgt;andlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;Chapter Eightandlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;andlt;Iandgt;Troubled Waters: London, 1757-1762andlt;/Iandgt;andlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;Chapter Nineandlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;andlt;Iandgt;Home Leave: Philadelphia, 1763-1764andlt;/Iandgt;andlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;Chapter Tenandlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;andlt;Iandgt;Agent Provocateur: London, 1765-1770andlt;/Iandgt;andlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;Chapter Elevenandlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;andlt;Iandgt;Rebel: London, 1771-1775andlt;/Iandgt;andlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;Chapter Twelveandlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;andlt;Iandgt;Independence: Philadelphia, 1775-1776andlt;/Iandgt;andlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;Chapter Thirteenandlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;andlt;Iandgt;Courtier: Paris, 1776-1778andlt;/Iandgt;andlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;Chapter Fourteenandlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;andlt;Iandgt;Bon Vivant: Paris, 1778-1785andlt;/Iandgt;andlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;Chapter Fifteenandlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;andlt;Iandgt;Peacemaker: Paris, 1778-1785andlt;/Iandgt;andlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;Chapter Sixteenandlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;andlt;Iandgt;Sage: Philadelphia, 1785-1790andlt;/Iandgt;andlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;Chapter Seventeenandlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;andlt;Iandgt;Epilogueandlt;/Iandgt;andlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;Chapter Eighteenandlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;andlt;Iandgt;Conclusionsandlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;Cast of Charactersandlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;Chronologyandlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;Currency Conversionsandlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;Acknowledgmentsandlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;Sources and Abbreviationsandlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;Notesandlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;Indexandlt;/Iandgt;
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?