THE FIRST AMERICAN: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin, H.W. Brands, Anchor Books, 2000, 760 pp, index, source notes
It’s almost impossible to describe Benjamin Franklin in a single line. His achievements were legendary. As H.W. Brands indicates, even in his last years, Franklin was exercising his intellect. While speculating on the nature of earth’s magnetism and the fluid core of the planet, he invented a device to pluck books from ceiling-high book shelves in his library, the largest private library in the country, used a rolling press of his devising to copy letters, and reading in his chair, had at his disposal a foot-pedaled fan to fan himself and to keep off flies.
Brands calls Franklin The First American in the sense that he was the foremost of Americans. Although he doesn’t say, maybe this phrase also stems from something else covered in the very first chapter. Perhaps Brands is suggesting that, upon the occasion of his public humiliation by the Privy Council meeting in the Cockpit, Franklin realized that the colonies would never get fair treatment from the government. More than one person has said he entered the cockpit as a British subject but left as an American. This could be viewed as a landmark moment…when the radical movement for independence became the will of the common citizen.
Benjamin Franklin, born to a large family, was a man who learned the power of reason early,always seeking an answer to seemingly insoluble problems. Often the result was a compromise that everyone could live with. In signing the U.S. Constitution he noted that it lacked perfection, but believed it the best that the signatories could come up with. Franklin started his autobiography in his 60’s and Brands relies on that to fill in some of the details about Franklin’s early years. When he was 16, he worked as an apprentice for his printer brother James, who published a paper. Ben secretly submitted to James letters he had convincingly written as if from a widow named Silence Dogood, a common practice at the time.
The letters were well-received, not the least by James, until he learned Ben was the author and jealousy arose. Ben left his apprenticeship to his brother, fairly assured by circumstances at the time that James wouldn’t try to haul him back.
Franklin had outgrown Boston, he later outgrew Philadelphia, and graduated to the world stage .
Retiring from his printing business at 42 and in a common-law marriage with his wife Deborah whose legal husband’s death was unconfirmed, Franklin first delved into science and public service. Initial acclaim had come early in his retirement when Franklin conducted experiments with his son (25 years old, not a kid, as often suggested) which confirmed that lightning was made up of electricity. He then developed the lightning rod that diverted lightning strikes into the ground.
Other authors have indicated that this was a monumental find, substituting scientific understanding for religious awe. People of the time thought lightning was from a god angered by his subjects and many bell-ringers died during thunderstorms trying to drive off the lightning, when the bell tower, usually the tallest building in the community, was struck. Brands seems to make somewhat less of this achievement. Nevertheless, it did lend fame to Franklin.
As for public service, he helped establish a university, the first Philadelphia fire department, the first lending library at a time when books were too expensive for common folk to buy, raised money with a lottery for guns to defend the city, led a military unit defending the city during the French and Indian War, and many other things.
Franklin accepted the job as agent for several colonies, spending long fruitless years in London ending with his public humiliation before the Privy Council after the Boston Tea Party which led him to realize the colonies would never get fair treatment from the government. He then returned home to help draft the Declaration of Independence and was dispatched to France to achieve the unimaginable…getting the king of France to agree to support a revolution against another king.
Amazingly, it succeeded. Only Franklin, as Brands notes, could have achieved it, despite the machinations of the British, the reluctance of the French, and the ever-present suspicions and paranoia of his two fellow diplomats John Adams and the odious Richard Lee.
This is a great book. A lot of reading, but worth the trip.