Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Review of H. W. Brands, The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin (Doubleday, 2000)

I have always been fascinated by Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790).  This was probably initially prompted by seeing the Disney short film, Ben and Me, as a child, where it is revealed that a mouse really developed all the inventions of the great man.  I even used Franklin as a minor character in my ‘secret history’ science fiction novel, Anasazi Exile.  Recently, I read that Franklin had written an essay on the future American population of colonial Pennsylvania, in which he described how the availability of land and early marriage was leading to a faster increase in white population for the colony than in Europe.  This essay was read by Thomas Malthus, who later wrote his famous “An Essay on the Principle of Population” in 1798.  Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, who both discovered the theory of natural selection, were directly inspired by Malthus’ essay.  In terms of intellectual history, we can trace a direct line from Franklin to Malthus to Darwin to the modern theory of biological evolution.  Once again, I found Franklin to be a fascinating man, so I read H. W. Brands, The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin (Doubleday, 2000).

Franklin was truly a polymath.  He was a self-made man as a printer, an accomplished writer and humorist, founder of numerous public services like a fire department and library, postmaster for both the colonies and the new nation, an effective politician, the ambassador who encouraged France to support the American Revolution, and a scientist with many varied interests.  His education came from voracious and wide reading.  These accomplishments were built upon a physically strong and robust body, which he nurtured with regular swimming as a youth.  He followed a strict diet, though that did not prevent him from suffering from gout in his old age.  Franklin was rarely limited by sickness and his long life of eighty-four years allowed him to even greater impact.  Oddly enough, for a man of so many skills, he was not a powerful public speaker.  He often wrote his speeches and then had someone else deliver them.  He also confessed in his autobiography that he had a weakness for consorting with “low women.”  His first child was illegitimate, raised by his wife, who he married at about the time that the child was born.  The real mother is unknown.  That child later became the Royal Governor of New Jersey and remained loyal to the king during the American Revolution.  He tried to reconcile with his father after the war, but the older man could not find it in his heart to forgive his son and they never saw each other ever again.

Franklin’s research on electricity is most commonly known through his kite experiment with lightning.  Some scholars have doubted that this was anything more than a thought experiment, because the effort itself will usually lead to either death or severe injury.  His research in electricity made him a celebrity in Europe among the educated who were fascinated by science.  He used that social status as a tool to promote the cause of the colonies.  He also did research on many other scientific topics, such as the Gulf Stream.  His numerous inventions included the lightning rod, a more efficient stove, and a musical instrument, the glass harmonica.  He was a true scientist who studied what was already known on a topic, conducted his own experiments or observations, speculated on what he had found, and strove to divine the deeper rules of nature.

The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin is an excellent book, very readable, well researched, and it is not surprising that it was a  2001 Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Biography or Autobiography.   Aptly named, because through the narrative we see Franklin gradually move from being an Englishman loyal to his king and country, to becoming an ardent believer that the English Parliament itself was corrupt and had betrayed the ideals of what it meant to be English, and that the American colonies needed to break away from crown and country in order to truly fulfill what it meant to be an enlightened nation of liberty.  Franklin had become the ‘First American.’

Posted: 27 August 2013

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