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Review: Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

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Benjamin Franklin: An American Life
Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I didn’t plan it this way, but choosing to read Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson when I did was providential. While reading it, Pope Francis visited the United States and Speaker of the House Boehner announced his resignation. I think my timing was providential because I think that given his interest in the sciences, Franklin would have appreciated the Pope’s thoughts on our poor stewardship of the natural world and given his ability to compromise, he would decry what our Legislative Branch has become.

“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.’”

Throughout the book, Isaacson shows how Franklin was not only a product of and influencer of the Age of Enlightenment, but an influencer and shaper of America. It isn’t a difficult jump to imagine, with his curiosity, practicality, networking skills, and gregarious personality how well he would fit into the internet age. What could he have done with the ready access to information we have and the social media of today? Could you imagine a Poor Richard on Twitter? I have to agree with Isaacson, he truly would feel right at home in today’s America.

“For Franklin, who embodied the Enlightenment and its spirit of compromise, this was hardly a fault. For him, compromise was not only a practical approach but a moral one. Tolerance, humility, and a respect for others required it.”

On the other hand, I think Franklin would be at the least saddened by what has become of the government played a key role in shaping. Franklin was not only a firm believer in compromise, he was instrumental in the compromise that brought about our Constitution and government. I think he would be shocked at the lack of tolerance we have for differing opinions and our lack of humility. I don’t think he would approve of the zero sum game American politics has become. He would decry not the inability, but the abject refusal of both the Republicans and Democrats to even attempt compromise – something that has seen the fall of Speaker Boehner.

Benjamin Franklin is a very good read; it follows Franklin’s life chronologically and Isaacson indulges in some historiography, looking at how historians and pundits viewed him through the years before closing by looking back on Franklin’s life and his influence on the development of the United States. It seems to be a balanced look at Franklin’s life. Certainly Isaacson points out Franklin’s accomplishments and good points, but it is also clear that he has trouble reconciling his relationship with his wife and children compared to his relationships with his “adopted” families in England and France. I particularly like how he develops Franklin’s personality through the different stages of his life, from apprentice to printer/businessman to politician and diplomat as well as his continuing interests in philosophy and science, pointing out Franklin’s strength in practical matters as opposed to theoretical matters. Isaacson also traces Franklin’s transformation from loyal subject to revolutionary. The book is very readable; Isaacson delves into and explains politics and diplomacy both domestic and foreign without delving too deep into analysis. I truly enjoyed reading this book; it gave me some new insights into Franklin and I even learned a few things in the process. This is a book that should be on the reading list of any interested in American History.

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