Saturday, July 17, 2021

Review of Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson

This book review is written by Eugene Kernes

Book can be found in:
Genre = History

Short Description

Elaborate Description
Benjamin Franklin was a complex character who is seen differently depending on the nation’s changing values.  With humble origins, Franklin would shape the identity of the U.S. and the structure of power.  Showcasing his changing mind and the lessons learned over his lifetime.  Franklin had a practical view of engagement, and avoided dogma.  Even while engaged in business, Franklin inspired many public works.  Although not formally trained in science, his innovations harnessed the power of lightning.  With his ability to handle difficult negotiations, he was designated as a representative for international affairs.  Much like most colonialists, Franklin was a loyal Englishmen who supported the British Empire, but because of the way colonies were treated, became a revolutionary who sought Independence.

The way Benjamin Franklin would argue his ideas would change over time.  Learning quickly how to influence people more effectively.  Going from being contradictory, to becoming less contentious and less confrontational.  Taking on the style of a humble enquirer, learned from books that described the Socratic method.  As much as possible he tried to not to show pride.  Franklin made personal rules that he would like to hold such as being frugal, sincerity, industriousness, and not speaking ill of others.  Some of his rules he was better able to follow than others.  Franklin had a moral ledger, as he kept trying to make amends for mistakes he made.  Created sheets of pros and cons to help make decisions.  

In politics, business, science, and in religion, Franklin tried to be pragmatic, and avoided being dogmatic about any idea.  An outlook into wealth that became known as middle class.  Being seen as part of the masses rather than being derogatory towards the masses.  Had a personal magnetism that attracted people who were able to help him.  Franklin had a charm about him, and willing and ready to win friends and patrons.  Although Franklin could easily obtain acquaintances and casual friends, he had difficulty nurturing deep bonds with people.  Lost many male friends, but would have many female friends which were not lost.  

Benjamin Franklin was the 10th child in the family.  His father, Josiah, wanted him to become a preacher.  The way to become a preacher was to send Benjamin to college, but Josiah had a change of mind.  Franklin did not go to college partly because of economic reason, partly because Josiah saw that Benjamin’s personality would clash with the demands of the pious or faithful.  Rather, Franklin’s education would be an apprenticeship to his brother James, who was setting up to become a printer.  During this tenure, there would be a lot of hard feeling with James mistreating Benjamin, and Benjamin wanting independence.  When an opportune moment came, Benjamin Franklin ran away from Boston, and headed to New York.  But on the journey to New York, Franklin met people, one of whom influenced Franklin to continue the journey to Philadelphia.  

At Philadelphia, while working for printer and writing papers, Franklin caught the attention of the Governor, Keith.  Governor Keith encouraged Franklin to open up his own printing shop.  As Franklin’s family was unwilling to invest, Keith claimed he would.  Keith sent Franklin to buy equipment in London, but provided no credit.  The governor was able to provide encouragement but could not give credit that he did not have.  

Back at Philadelphia, Franklin went back to his former print job with Keimer, but Keimer was mistreating Franklin by using arbitrary authority.  Their work relationship was strenuous but each needed the other to get the work done.  Given the relationship hardships, Keimer started to get apprentices which Franklin would teach, as in Franklin understood that he was being used to teach his replacements.  Franklin was willing to use Keimer as well, by entering a partnership with an apprentice who’s father would fund their own print shop.  

While running a print shop, Franklin did not stop to network.  He founded a club called the Junto, for tradesmen and artisans to meet, rather than a club for the social elite.  At the club, Franklin created former rules that would allow each member to get along with each other, and taught how to better make their arguments.  The emphasis in the club was self-improvement.  Many ideas came about from discussions in the Junto.  Ideas such as a police department, a school, and a fire department.  The club was so successful, that Franklin encouraged others to form their own spinoff clubs.  The Junto was also helpful in creating demand for Franklin’s print shop. 

At Franklin’s shop, he made a show of being seen as industrious.  Using prior skills, Franklin wrote many papers for the shop using pseudonyms.  Many of the articles were satirical accounts of current events.  Fabricating events to draw in readership.  Within a town that could support only two printers, Franklin third shop was only possible because of the business he received from Junto members.  What became evident was that he would need the distribution aspect of printing, which was held as a monopoly by a competitor.  This created tension, as the rivalry between the three papers caused them to attack each other in print.  Franklin’s paper was becoming more partisan, while making a case that it was for consideration of a free press to express different ideas to enable their dialogue.  With the acknowledgment that the printing business required an income at the same time as informing the public.  Without the control of the distribution, Franklin needed to bribe the carriers to deliver his paper.  Franklin became the postmaster, the distributer after finding that then postmaster was not keeping appropriate accounting.  

When he was a printer, he made a common-law arrangement with Deborah.  Deborah’s husband had left her, but there was no divorce, so a common-law arrangement protected both Franklin and Deborah.  Franklin and Deborah had a partnership in which the way the household was to be run.  Deborah helped Franklin with the print shop as well.  Franklin liked to travel, and as Deborah did not, they were apart for long periods of time.  Their respect and loyalty would endure.  Franklin and Deborah had few children, but they also had William, Franklin’s illegitimate son.  During this era, couples tended to have a lot of children.  Children helped with the menial chores and other tasks, which made them a resource rather than a burden.  Many children would die before becoming of age.  Franklin and Deborah lost some children in their youth, and did not have many children in total.  Franklin and William would eventually take opposite sides for the War of Independence. 

Franklin became more religion the older he got, but he was always pragmatic about religion.  Despising dogma.  Wanted religion to be an influential factor in peoples lives, to make them more virtuous.  Given the dogmatic problems he saw, Franklin created a moral perfection project.  A practical guide on how to be more virtuous.  The focus was on virtue and rational utility rather than the nature of God and religious faith.  This fits in with the era’s enlightenment movement.  

With the post of postmaster, Franklin and the Junta were able to influence policy.  A public policy that they had contributed to was a police patrol.  Initially, the police force was meant to defend against the France and France’s allies.  But later, the police force would become a military organization that would facilitate independence from the British Empire.  The police force would be a private institution because the government, controlled by the Penn’s, did not want to finance the association.  Pennsylvania being a Proprietary colony, as in governed by a family via a monopoly from the British Empire.

When Franklin retired, he pursued science.  Franklin had no background in science, and saw the science as amusement, in which practical applications could be derived.  Electricity was then used for amusement purposes, jolts provided from static electricity and other glass objects, but Franklin experimented with electricity to make it useful.  Many terms created by Franklin, are still used to describe electricity.  The invention of the lightning rod was how the science of electricity was put into practice.  Lightning storms before the lightning rod, wreaked havoc to infrastructure and people.  

Franklin was taking up a more political role in the late 1740s.  Wanted to avoid too much authority but saw a role for government which came in the form of a public-private partnership.  Believed in order, but wary of too much social engineering.  One of his public policy beliefs was to provide everyone an opportunity to succeed, not just the elite.  In economic policy, he had a problem with the mercantilist way the British Empire prevented manufacturing in America and use it only for natural resources, because American demand would be far greater than the available supply.  

Franklin’s views on slavery were ambivalent initially, but then became abolitionist.  During certain times of his life, he had slaves but found it uneconomical and weakened those who had slaves because they would be prejudice against work.  

Although the British Empire did not want too much cooperation between the colonies, the French threat made it necessary.  During a meeting of the colonial commissioners and Indian groups, Franklin proposed a plan that would later be known as federalism.  United in defense of all the colonies, but each would have their own local governing power.  At this point, many colonists, which included Franklin, were still favoring the British Royalty.  Although Franklin wanted the colonial assembly to choose the federal congress, others favored the king choosing the congress.  In these arguments, the germinal stage of taxation and representation would be set.  The assembly would later send Franklin to London regarding the issue of the Penn’s tax issues.  

Franklin would go to London as a loyal Englishmen to strengthen ties, rather than seek independence.  Seeing America as integral part of the empire.  But wanted the colonists to have full rights as any British subject, rather than second-class citizens.  Rather, the British government did not even recognize the rights the colonists did have.  As the argument that Franklin was trying to make was against the Penns, Franklin would even propose to turn the colony to a Crown colony.  After the frustration with arguing against the Penns, Franklin had a reprieve back in Philadelphia, but it was not long before he was needed back in London.

This time Franklin was to argue against taxes, particularly the Stamp Act.  Franklin accepted the imposition of external taxes, but not internal ones.  His claim was that it was unconstitutional to impose internal taxes without representation.  This frustration created another colonial assembly which now wanted to unite as a political unit.  The taxes made royal rule unpopular in the colonies, and contemporaneously colonial pleas unpopular in London.  Franklin’s view was that the enforcement of the Stamp Act would divide colonies and the empire, while he was still trying to prevent the separation.  British government wanted the taxes so that the colonies can be profitable to the empire, and to pay for debts in their defense.  But Franklin made the case that the colonies defended themselves, and by doing so defended British interests which had cost the colonies and for which were still unreimbursed.  Franklin’s defense of the colonies would gain him a reputation as being near indispensable for diplomacy. 

From the negotiations, many of the tariffs were removed, but the tea tariff remained and gave the East India Company a virtual monopoly on trade.  Franklin made the reports public to the colonies who then proceeded to destroy East India Company property and dump tea into the sea.  Even with the tensions, Franklin had supporters who tried to prevent further escalation and war.  Franklin had wanted reconciliation, but the British kept rejecting reconciliation and continuing to subjugate the colonies.  In response, over time, Franklin changed his mind and sought for independence.  Back in Philadelphia, Franklin was proposing the structure of colonial government.  The power that each state would have in the united nation.  Was part of the editing of the Declaration of Independence.  

To gain independence, the revolution would need international support and recognition.  As such, Franklin was designated to create ties with France.  While in France, there were many spies among Franklin’s patrons, but Franklin did not seem to mind, and used them in turn.  With France, Franklin facilitated recognition for the America’s without giving exclusive rights to France.  Although Franklin was highly supportive of France, he also did not want to not be dependent on European powers.  Throughout the negotiations, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin would have to cooperate which was difficult given their vastly divergent ideas about policies and work ethics.  While obtaining status for America, Franklin was willing to use France and British interests against one another.  With the conclusion of Revolution and obtaining Independence, Franklin came back to Philadelphia and helped shape national power structure.  

The book is a wonderful expression of the life of Benjamin Franklin from the perspective of his time, rather than how the same acts appear later.  Including all the complexity of his family life and the constraints on ideas.  The only limitation of the book is that sometimes, events are not given their full context and background, making it difficult to understand the reason for and outcomes of the events.  

Questions to Consider while Reading the Book
•What is the raison d’etre of the book?  For what purpose did the author write the book?
•Why did Franklin decide to start writing his autobiography? 
•How to describe Franklin’s personality?
•What was Franklin’s work ethic?
•Was Franklin religious?
•Did Franklin have a moral code?
•What were Franklin’s economic views?
•How did Franklin view his family members? 
•Describe Franklin relationship with Deborah?
•Why did Franklin not attend college?
•How was Franklin under apprenticeship to James?
•How was Franklin under apprenticeship to Keimer?
•Why did Franklin decide to get his own print shop?
•What was the purpose of the Junto?
•What public work projects came from the Junto?
•Why did Franklin use pseudonyms to write papers? 
•What did Franklin write about?  What manner did Franklin use to write in?
•How were the papers received? 
•Why did Franklin want to become the postmaster?
•Why did Franklin want to colonies to have a police patrol? 
•Why did Franklin take to science? 
•What were Franklin’s views on government? 
•How would a public-private partnership work? 
•How did Franklin view slavery?
•Why did Franklin want the colonies to be united?  What was the political structure that Franklin envisioned about the unity between the colonies?
•What were Franklin views on the British Empire? 
•How would Franklin handle negotiations with the British? 
•Why did the colonists not want the Stamp Act?  Why did the British try to impose it? 
•Why did Franklin seek Independence for America from the British Empire? 
•Why did the colonies need France as an ally? 

Book Details
Edition ISBN:  9780743260848
Pages to read:   498
Publication:     2003
1st Edition:      2003
Format:           eBook

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    5
Content          5
Overall           5