Sunday, July 16, 2006

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (Part I)

Lightening rods, libraries, fire stations, modern diplomacy, The University of Pennsylvania, the Declaration of Independence, Voltaire, and the postal service, all have Ben Franklin in common. Walter Isaacson, in his biography about Franklin does a great job of objectively and chronologically laying out Franklin's life through much research, study of letters to and from Franklin, and a bit of analysis thrown in along the way.
This 493 page hardback edition (plus another 100 pages of notes and appendices), is a very well written story of a man who intersected with so many people, activities and ideas, it seems he could have lived several lives.

Early Life

Franklin was born in 1706. He was child number seventeen and because of this could not apprentice in the family business, which was candle making. Instead, he became an apprentice to his brother in the print shop. This he began when he was only ten years old.
At age seventeen he ran away from Boston, short-changing his duties as an apprentice to his brother and went to Philadelphia. Isaacson writes that Franklin
"...had the happy talent of being at ease in almost any company, from scrappy tradesmen to wealthy merchants, scholars to rogues. His most notable trait was a personal magnetism; he attracted people who wanted to help him. Never shy, and always eager to win friends and patrons, he gregariously exploited this charm."

As Franklin arrived in Philadelphia with no money and no reputation, he journaled a manner of living that became a kind of personal credo, or at least "version one" of it. Here, at age twenty, he came up with four basic "rational" rules for how he would live his life:

  1. It is necessary for me to be extremely frugal for some time, till I have paid what I owe
  2. To endeavor to speak truth in every instance; to give nobody expectations that are not likely to be answered, but aim at sincerity in every word and action--the most amiable excellence in a rational being.
  3. To apply myself industriously to whatever business I take in hand, and not divert my mind from my business by any foolish project of suddenly growing rich; for industry and patience are the surest means of plenty
  4. I resolve to speak ill of no man whatever.
As a blossoming businessman in Philadelphia, Franklin continued to network, creating a club of tradesmen called the "Junto" where members of the middle class could assemble on a regular basis and learn from one another. They would share ideas, strike deals and build networks. Franklin used this network to his advantage over many years to follow.

Franklin, even as a teenager was forever writing "letters to the editor" or various essays about public policies, issues of the day, religious and moral issues, what have you. Having his own printing press gave him much opportunity to distribute his essays and political thoughts throughout Philadelphia and Pennsylvania through his newspaper. He would also print pamphlets that would be distributed through out the colonies. One important thing he finally received as appointment was the role of the post master. This was significant because he no longer had to pay the previous post master (also a publisher/printer) a fee to distribute his papers. As post master, Franklin began to gain control of distribution, and eventually set up post offices around the colonies. Thanks to his organization, a letter previously sent by post from New York to Philadelphia could take weeks. After Franklin organized the postal service, that time was cut to just a couple days.

One of the interesting traits of Franklin was that he was never into theoretical abstractions. He would come up with an idea and along with it a plan to implement it. His prescriptions, weather it be the Albany Plan, or ideas on how to start a fire company or build a library, always consisted of a great amount of detail regarding the internal structure and inner workings of an organization. He was a very thorough writer and thinker and almost every letter he wrote or political plan he drew up featured tedious details on exactly how a given operation, trivial or monumental, should run.


Franklin's approach to politics can be boiled down to his belief in the common man's right to assemble and elect for themselves representatives. Through out his life, until the end of the American war for Independence, Franklin's opposition were the Penn family and supporters of the appointed governors. Among the supporters for the proprietary governorships was Philadelphia's other printer, Andrew Bradford. The rivalry escalated from poking fun at eachother's printing errors to serious clashes and personal attacks over the course of a few years.

Even in the tumultuous days of the Declaration of Independence, Franklin considered himself a subject of the king and always sought a profitable way to provide electable representation of the colonies to England. Even after the Declaration of Independence was drafted and signed, Franklin still desperately sought to make the colonies an extension of the crown. Franklin believed in the ability of the people to govern themselves, but still held to a "sovereignty-of-the-state" notion that he believed could be reconciled if each served the other fairly. This of course could not be resolved politically or diplomatically and eventual war resulted.


Isaacson notes that Franklin often alienated his male friends but never lost a female friend. He married Deborah Reed Rogers in 1730. Their relationship, as I'll note later was not a close friendship or romantic interest, but rather seemed to be more like a contractual obligation. She, the wife, he the husband. She work hard at home and helped with the general store in the print shop while Franklin, who loved to travel, did so frequently. While away, Franklin entrusted her with the duties on the home front, but rarely expressing a great deal of emotion regarding missing her while he was away, all while in letters, providing exact instructions regarding the finances and affairs of the home and the business.

Many of Franklin's letters reveal a quite flirtatious tone with many of the young women he met in his travels. This was the case through all his life, women of France, England, or the colonies loved him, or at least admired him, and returned the flirtatious rhetoric. Franklin, however, many times upon realizing he was approaching the moral boundaries of the relationship (especially in his letters) would suddenly feign a "but that will never happen" or a self-deprecating "Woe is me" kind of tone. As he got older, this tone would become abruptly paternal, particularly as his "intellectual" interests remained young enough to be his daughter. Franklin did genuinely enjoy the company of women, probably more than men, and found their conversations stimulating. The exceptions were Deborah, his wife, and Sally, his daughter, whom he constantly kept compartmentalized in familial roles, with more duty and obligation attached rather than love or passion of any kind.

More to follow...