THE FIRST AMERICAN: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF BENJAMIN FRANKLIN By H.W. Brands Doubleday 759 pp., $35
Benjamin Franklin's reputation, like that of other Founding Fathers, has undergone a series of reevaluations since the good doctor's death in 1790. His fellow countrymen accorded Franklin such respect and admiration that an estimated 20,000 people gathered in Philadelphia to follow or witness his funeral.
Across the Atlantic, in Paris, a motion "that the National Assembly, during three days, shall wear mourning for Benjamin Franklin" was carried by acclamation.
During the 19th century - perhaps because of the widespread popularity of Franklin's "Autobiography" (first published in 1818) - America's "multidimensional 18th-century man" retained much of his legendary acclaim.
In the 20th century, however, Franklin's reputation as an exemplary man began to fragment. On one side was Carl Van Doren's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Benjamin Franklin" (1938); on the other side stood D.H. Lawrence's scathing portrait of Franklin in his "Studies in Classic American Literature" (1923). He described the statesman as a "dry, moral, utilitarian little democrat" who set up in his autobiography "this unlovely, snuff-coloured little ideal, or automaton, of a pattern American."
The publication of H.W. Brands's "The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin" may be a sign that, during the 21st century, the reputation of this Renaissance man of many hats - journalist, inventor, diplomat, propagandist, moralist, humorist, and revolutionary - is experiencing an upswing. A professor of history at Texas A&M University and author of "T.R.: The Last Romantic," Brands tells Franklin's story as "the story of the birth of America" - an America that Franklin "discovered in himself, then helped create in the world at large."
A master storyteller himself, Brands begins his narrative with what he sees as the formative moment in Benjamin Franklin's life - Franklin's Jan. 29, 1774, ordeal in London's Cockpit. Solicitor General Alexander Wedderburn, with the full-throated approval of the lords of the Privy Council and most of the spectators at the hearing, branded Franklin "a liar, a thief, the instigator of the insurrection in Massachusetts, an outcast from the company of all honest men...."
During those two hours in the Cockpit, Brands writes, it was not just Wedderburn insulting Franklin, "it was also Britain mocking America." Franklin left, Brands suggests, "seething - yet enlightened. Wedderburn had answered the question that Franklin had been asking all his life, and that his fellow Americans had been asking of late: Who were they? They must be Americans, for they could not be Britons."
From that arresting beginning, throughout the narrative, Brands peoples Franklin's story - as the practical printer evolves into international savant - with the authentic voices of the era, drawn from letters to and by Franklin, as well as from recollections of Franklin's contemporaries.
For instance, when Lord Howe confessed after the battle of Long Island that "he felt for America as for a brother, and if America should fall he would lament it like a brother," Franklin replied, "My Lord, we will do our utmost endeavours to save your Lordship that mortification."
This is a vivid portrait of the 18th-century milieu and of the 18th-century man who, in Van Doren's felicitous phrase, "seems to have been more than any single man: a harmonious human multitude."
Franklin's life "cannot be captured in a phrase - or a volume," Brands concludes, but "if a few words had to suffice, a few words that summarized his legacy to the America he played such a central role in creating," they would be those words he spoke in September 1787, as he left the final session of the Constitutional Convention. A matron of Philadelphia demanded to know what, after four months' secrecy, he and the other delegates had produced. "A republic," he answered, "if you can keep it."
*Robert C. Jones is editor of Mid-America Press in Warrensburg, Mo.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society