'Young Benjamin Franklin' reintroduces an icon, seeing him as neither saint nor sage

Historian Nick Bunker has done a large amount of original research, tracing Franklin more minutely than any previous general biographer.

Young Benjamin Franklin: The Birth of Ingenuity By Nick Bunker Knopf 464 pp.

Alone of all the Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin is old. George Washington lived to be 67, but he will always be the ramrod-straight uniformed commander-in-chief. John Adams was a gaunt and querulous 90-year-old when he died in Quincy in 1826, but he will always be the middle-aged firebrand of the Revolution. Paul Revere died in his bed at age 83, but he will always be riding on horseback from village to village, warning that the British are coming. Only Franklin comes to us already an elderly sage, the fleshy white-haired saint captured in Jean-Antoine Houdon's 1792 marble bust, made when Franklin was 72.

Historian Nick Bunker muses on that bust at the beginning of his new book Young Benjamin Franklin: The Birth of Ingenuity, seeing in it some of the questions Franklin always raises: “Where had he come from? What were his origins? Who were his family? How had he become the genius that he was?”

These have been familiar questions for two centuries, despite endless research and despite Franklin himself writing a book about his origins. Bunker cites many of these earlier books, biographies like those by Carl Van Doren and Walter Isaacson, as well as previous studies of young man Franklin like A. B. Tourtellot's 1977 "Benjamin Franklin: The Shaping of Genius." In crafting his own account of Franklin's formative years, Bunker has done a large amount of original research; indeed, he traces Franklin more minutely than any previous general biography, filling in details not even present in Leo Lemay's terrifyingly comprehensive multi-volume life.

His portrait centers around the quality of ingenuity, a word he tries to re-invest with some of its 18th-century broader meaning: “a hybrid virtue, a blend of many different ingredients: intellect, of course, but also imagination … It required not only diligence and learning but also an element of playfulness and sociability.” This is partly reverse-engineering to arrive at Franklin himself; Isaac Newton was neither playful nor sociable, after all. (About Newton, Bunker asserts, in a fit of partisan hyperbole we must neither hold against him nor believe, that Franklin became his “American heir,” “helping to engineer another scientific revolution, not quite as profound as Sir Isaac's but close enough ...”)

Benjamin was born in Boston in January 1706, and "Young Benjamin Franklin" follows him through all the sign-post events of his early life: Boston's 1722 smallpox epidemic, his happy childhood, his apprenticeship to this older brother James in the printer's trade, his tutelage by “the eccentric pastor of the Old South Meeting House” Ebenezer Pemberton, who “rammed home the message that a thinker needed to be clear and precise,” and onward as Franklin leaves “that irritating town” for the broader opportunities of Philadelphia.

Franklin, who “could not stop reading,” there fell in with a “junto” of like-minded hustlers on the make. The bulk of Bunker's book concerns Franklin the enterprising printer, always looking for new business contacts, always eager to expand his network of customers. In Philadelphia he prospered as an entrepreneur and newspaperman, having honed his writing style through long hours of work that started while he was a teenager in Boston. By the time he was writing a regular column for The American Weekly Mercury in 1729, he fully warranted the praise Bunker heaps on him: “Cleansed of vulgarity, his diction was wide but always polite, his grammar was flawless, and his flowing syntax did what syntax should, always drawing the reader forward, making the columns immensely easy to read.”

The difficulty of writing a book about the young manhood years of somebody like Franklin is obvious and should caution the reader: Franklin was constantly re-inventing himself. Posterity tends to remember him, Bunker writes, as “the apostle of hard work,” but reminds: “This is the way he hoped to be remembered.”

Bunker himself makes some high claims for his hero: “He hoped to make people understand that science, engineering, philosophy, and wit were simply four sides of the same ingenious square.” Which makes Franklin sound like a tedious paragon of disembodied virtue. Fortunately for readers, the man who lives in the pages of "Young Benjamin Franklin" is much more interesting. He has a loving heart, a caustic wit we watch him learn to temper, and a huckster's instincts for the main chance that never deserted him and seldom led him astray. Franklin the sage, making disinterested quips at Constitutional conventions, has become one of our indispensable national icons, the grandfatherly patron every desperate endeavor needs.

Young Franklin is no saint, and he's no sage – and he's all the more refreshing for that. It's good to make his acquaintance again.

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