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Benjamin Franklin: An American Life Summary

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Learn how to enable JavaScript on your browser. Essential Biographies. NOOK Book. Large Print. Audio Other. In this authoritative and engrossing full-scale biography, Walter Isaacson, bestselling author of Einstein and Steve Jobs , shows how the most fascinating of America's founders helped define our national character. Benjamin Franklin is the founding father who winks at us, the one who seems made of flesh rather than marble.

Lesson 1: Above all, Benjamin Franklin embraced learning. He was a true self-improvement nerd.

Chapter One: Benjamin Franklin and the Invention of America His arrival in Philadelphia is one of the most famous scenes in autobiographical literature: the bedraggled year-old runaway, cheeky yet with a pretense of humility, straggling off the boat and buying three puffy rolls as he wanders up Market Street. But wait a minute. There's something more. Peel back a layer and we can see him as a year-old wry observer, sitting in an English country house, writing this scene, pretending it's part of a letter to his son, an illegitimate son who has become a royal governor with aristocratic pretensions and needs to be reminded of his humble roots.

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A careful look at the manuscript peels back yet another layer. Inserted into the sentence about his pilgrim's progress up Market Street is a phrase, written in the margin, in which he notes that he passed by the house of his future wife, Deborah Read, and that "she, standing at the door, saw me and thought I made, as I certainly did, a most awkward ridiculous appearance. Benjamin Franklin is the founding father who winks at us.

George Washington's colleagues found it hard to imagine touching the austere general on the shoulder, and we would find it even more so today. Jefferson and Adams are just as intimidating. But Ben Franklin, that ambitious urban entrepreneur, seems made of flesh rather than of marble, addressable by nickname, and he turns to us from history's stage with eyes that twinkle from behind those newfangled spectacles.

He speaks to us, through his letters and hoaxes and autobiography, not with orotund rhetoric but with a chattiness and clever irony that is very contemporary, sometimes unnervingly so. We see his reflection in our own time. He was, during his eighty-four-year-long life, America's best scientist, inventor, diplomat, writer, and business strategist, and he was also one of its most practical, though not most profound, political thinkers.

He proved by flying a kite that lightning was electricity, and he invented a rod to tame it. He devised bifocal glasses and clean-burning stoves, charts of the Gulf Stream and theories about the contagious nature of the common cold. He launched various civic improvement schemes, such as a lending library, college, volunteer fire corps, insurance association, and matching grant fund-raiser. He helped invent America's unique style of homespun humor and philosophical pragmatism. In foreign policy, he created an approach that wove together idealism with balance-of-power realism.

And in politics, he proposed seminal plans for uniting the colonies and creating a federal model for a national government. But the most interesting thing that Franklin invented, and continually reinvented, was himself. America's first great publicist, he was, in his life and in his writings, consciously trying to create a new American archetype. In the process, he carefully crafted his own persona, portrayed it in public, and polished it for posterity.

Partly, it was a matter of image. As a young printer in Philadelphia, he carted rolls of paper through the streets to give the appearance of being industrious. As an old diplomat in France, he wore a fur cap to portray the role of backwoods sage. But the image he created was rooted in reality.

Born and bred a member of the leather-aproned class, Franklin was, at least for most of his life, more comfortable with artisans and thinkers than with the established elite, and he was allergic to the pomp and perks of a hereditary aristocracy. Throughout his life he would refer to himself as "B. Franklin, printer. Instinctively more comfortable with democracy than were some of his fellow founders, and devoid of the snobbery that later critics would feel toward his own shopkeeping values, he had faith in the wisdom of the common man and felt that a new nation would draw its strength from what he called "the middling people.

He has been vilified in romantic periods and lionized in entrepreneurial ones. Each era appraises him anew, and in doing so reveals some assessments of itself. Franklin has a particular resonance in twenty-first-century America. A successful publisher and consummate networker with an inventive curiosity, he would have felt right at home in the information revolution, and his unabashed striving to be part of an upwardly mobile meritocracy made him, in social critic David Brooks's phrase, "our founding Yuppie.

He would laugh at the latest joke about a priest and a rabbi, or about a farmer's daughter. We would admire both his earnestness and his self-aware irony. And we would relate to the way he tried to balance, sometimes uneasily, the pursuit of reputation, wealth, earthly virtues, and spiritual values. Some who see the reflection of Franklin in the world today fret about a shallowness of soul and a spiritual complacency that seem to permeate a culture of materialism.

They say that he teaches us how to live a practical and pecuniary life, but not an exalted existence. Others see the same reflection and admire the basic middle-class values and democratic sentiments that now seem under assault from elitists, radicals, reactionaries, and other bashers of the bourgeoisie. They regard Franklin as an exemplar of the personal character and civic virtue that are too often missing in modern America.

Much of the admiration is warranted, and so too are some of the qualms.


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But the lessons from Franklin's life are more complex than those usually drawn by either his fans or his foes. Both sides too often confuse him with the striving pilgrim he portrayed in his autobiography. They mistake his genial moral maxims for the fundamental faiths that motivated his actions. His morality was built on a sincere belief in leading a virtuous life, serving the country he loved, and hoping to achieve salvation through good works. That led him to make the link between private virtue and civic virtue, and to suspect, based on the meager evidence he could muster about God's will, that these earthly virtues were linked to heavenly ones as well.

As he put it in the motto for the library he founded, "To pour forth benefits for the common good is divine. In some ways it was, but it was also genuine. Whatever view one takes, it is useful to engage anew with Franklin, for in doing so we are grappling with a fundamental issue: How does one live a life that is useful, virtuous, worthy, moral, and spiritually meaningful? For that matter, which of these attributes is most important? These are questions just as vital for a self-satisfied age as they were for a revolutionary one. Reading Group Questions and Topics for Discussion 1.

Why does Walter Isaacson, in the opening pages of his biography, call Benjamin Franklin "the founding father who winks at us"? Isaacson portrays Franklin as a man who has a particular resonance in 21st-century America. What aspects of American life today do you think would please him, and which would likely inspire his genial, mocking, or caustic wit? Were you surprised by the range and variety of Franklin's activities? In which of his many roles do you think Franklin had his most impressive accomplishments? Most of us learned when we were growing up about Franklin's flying a kite and discovering electricity and his invention of a lightning rod.


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  • Which of his many lesser known inventions or scientific experiments did you find especially interesting? He cared more about public behavior than inner piety, and he was more interested in building the City of Man than the City of God," Isaacson writes. He was a writer, postmaster, inventor, politician, Freemason. The amount of things Benjamin Franklin accomplished in his life time is immense and admirable.

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    Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life | New York Society Library

    Benjamin Franklin was the youngest child of Josiah Franklin, a soap and candle maker. When he was 16, he became his brothers apprentice in his printing shop. This is where Franklin got his start as a writer publishing under the pseudonym, Silence Dogood. Eventually, his older brother discovered it was a young Franklin writing as Silence Dogood. This caused tension between the two brothers. Franklin would wind up running away from home not long after.

    He traveled up to New York and Boston before eventually making his return home.