Book Review: Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Issacson

I finished reading “Benjamin Franklin: An American Life” by Walter Issacson today – it was an engaging read that informs the reader on Franklin’s life and times. My first encounter with Franklin was reading his Autobiography a few years ago and I’ve been meaning to learn more about the Founding Fathers and their struggles. In the fall of 2012, Tim Ferris recommended Benjamin Franklin: An American Life in a webcast. I should note that Franklin’s personal and family life is far from admirable but I don’t think that should cause a reader to ignore his other achievements. To my delight, I received the book for Christmas (thanks Mary!) and much enjoyed reading it over the holidays.

Unlike some of the other Founding Fathers, Franklin was a keen businessman. Despite his identification as a middle class shop keeper, Franklin actually built up a substantial publishing empire with affiliates and relationships across the colonies. Issacson describes in vivid detail how Franklin learned the technology of printing and the challenges of the trade. While Franklin was more than happy to challenge the establishment in print, he understood that radical publishing alone could not sustain his business. Franklin was enthusiastic in seeking printing business from the government and printing popular texts with a strong demand. In his 40s, Franklin decides to retire from business (though he establishes a partnership agreement that effectively yielded him a +$100,000 income for close to 20 years) and pursue public life.

In reading Franklin’s Autobiography and Issacson’s biography, I was struck by Franklin’s varied civic interests. As a young man, he establishes a reading and debating club called the Junto:

I should have mentioned before, that, in the autumn of the preceding year, [1727] I had form’d most of my ingenious acquaintance into a club of mutual improvement, which we called the Junto; we met on Friday evenings. The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss’d by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased.
Our debates were to be under the direction of a president, and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute or desire of victory; and to prevent warmth, all expressions of positiveness in opinions, or direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband, and prohibited under small pecuniary penalties.

Throughout his life, Franklin was a keen founder of civic organizations. Whether it was scientific inquiry -  it is easy to forget that Franklin’s reputation as one of the foremost scientists and inventors of his time – , organizing a militia or promoting education, Franklin was happy to get involved. Issacson points out that Franklin loved to craft details, create rules and generally leave nothing to chance in his schemes. Franklin’s success in civic organizing stands in stark contrast to Robert Putnam‘s thesis in Bowling Alone that found 21st century civic engagement is declining. Franklin’s organizational genius in establishing public organizations inspires me to renew my engagement in volunteering.

The final section of the Issacson’s book considers how Franklin’s image has changed and evolved over American history. His reputation in the 19th century suffered significantly as the Romantics were not impressed by Franklin’s pragmatic views, toleration and middle class views. My own view is that Franklin speaks to people in different ways. His rise to diplomatic and business success through hard work, connections and some measure of luck is sure to inspire. His measured approach in diplomacy and politics – he favored stories that gently made his points rather than harsh personal attacks – is something badly needed today.

Note: this is the first of 25 book reviews I plan to publish on this blog in 2013. I am declaring my 2013 goal to read (and post reviews) of 25 books in 2013 by December 31.

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