Most Americans think of Benjamin Franklin as a Founding Father who was also a printer, a ladies' man, a writer of maxims, and an inventor who was lucky he didn't kill himself when - or if - he flew his kite in a thunderstorm. But, as Walter Isaacson shows us in this compelling new biography, Franklin was a far more complex and interesting man who was absolutely central to the success of the American Revolution.
Franklin was born in Boston and was apprenticed to his older brother James. But he soon chafed under his brother's authority and ran away to Philadelphia, where he established himself as an exceptionally hardworking and successful printer. So successful that he "retired" in 1748, at the age of 42, to pursue other interests that alone would have secured his place in history.
Ambitious from the start, he convened a small group of tradesmen, known as the "Junto," to debate philosophical issues and ways to achieve success in business. He spent a great deal of time developing maxims advocating frugality, industry, and self-reliance that became wildly popular. In doing so, writes Isaacson, Franklin was the forefather of the self-help gurus like Dale Carnegie, and his lessons and maxims remain commonplace in American life.
An accomplished writer, he frequently contributed articles to his own newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, as well as others. Many of these were humorous columns published under a pseudonym that blended wry folk tales with homespun wisdom and laid the groundwork, according to Isaacson, for generations of American humorists, from Mark Twain to Will Rogers to Garrison Keillor.
He was a world-class scientist who also pioneered civic betterment projects - a hospital, volunteer fire companies, a subscription library, and an insurance company - and thus helped establish the distinctly American tradition of volunteerism and community service. Defeated in his own hopes of attending college, he settled instead for founding the University of Pennsylvania.
But it was, of course, his role as a Founding Father that cemented his place history. For most Europeans, Franklin was the face of America in these years. He lived in London from 1765 to 1775, trying vainly to head off the conflict, returned to America to help write the Declaration of Independence and organize the American war effort, and then moved to Paris in 1779, where he stayed for the next nine years.
The most fascinating part of the book focuses on Franklin's role as head of the American delegation in France, where his job was to secure the support of the French monarchy. This small group of American diplomats was rent by personal conflicts and jealousy and was infiltrated by spies - and they knew it. Franklin himself often appeared more interested in womanizing than diplomacy. But thanks to Franklin's careful and deceptively easygoing approach, the Americans received and sustained French support and, largely because of it, won their freedom.
But Franklin - now 76 - wasn't through. He returned to Philadelphia, where he played a central role at the Constitutional Convention. Indeed, Franklin's contribution to America's founding is perhaps most easily gauged by citing four documents he signed: The Declaration of Independence, the Alliance with France, the Treaty of Paris, which ended the war, and the Report of the Constitutional Convention. He was the only person to sign them all.
Isaacson does not hide his subject's faults. He discusses at length Franklin's uneasy relationship with his family and his lack of sensitivity to those who were closest to him. Franklin managed to miss the wedding of both of his children and did not see his wife in the last 10 years of her life - something that seems strangely at odds with his popular reputation.
Isaacson is an accomplished writer, and he tells a wonderful story. The book is copiously researched, but it wears its scholarship easily. The writing, whether about diplomatic negotiations or scientific experiments, is clear, direct, and even humorous - a touch Franklin would have appreciated. Scholars and lay readers alike will appreciate this nuanced and thoughtful volume.
• Terry W. Hartle is a senior vice president of the American Council on Education in Washington.