Benjamin Franklin: an American life. byIsaacson, Walter. Publication date Borrow this book to access EPUB and PDF files. "Walter Isaacson's splendid Benjamin Franklin is both an absorbing narrative biography and an acute assessment of the man and his impact on his times and on. Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson - In this authoritative and engrossing full- scale biography, Walter Isaacson, bestselling author of Einstein and Steve Jobs.
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Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World is a national traveling exhibition for . Franklin biographer Walter Isaacson has written, “Franklin has a particular . Walter Isaacson, born on 20th May, , in Louisiana, is an American journalist and Walter Isaacson introduces us to Benjamin Franklin in this first chapter. A selection of Benjamin Franklin's writings, with an introduction and commentary by renowned author Walter ayofoto.infoed and annotated by the author of.
Josiah was admitted to membership, or permitted to own the covenant, two years after his arrival. But Samuel demanded an apprenticeship fee that struck Josiah as unreasonable, especially given the history of both hospitality and aggravation that existed between him and the elder Benjamin. These are questions just as vital for a self-satisfied age as they were for a revolutionary one. And like most romantic American myths, it also glosses over some significant realities. According to a nephew, he also practiced for diversion the trade of a turner [turning wood with a lathe], a gunsmith, a surgeon, a scrivener, and wrote as pretty a hand as ever I saw. They mistake his genial moral maxims for the fundamental faiths that motivated his actions.
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. 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.
It's all topped off with the old man's deft little affirmation -- "as I certainly did" -- in which his self-deprecation barely cloaks the pride he felt regarding his remarkable rise in the world. 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. In between, he created an image for himself as a simple yet striving tradesman, assiduously honing the virtues -- diligence, frugality, honesty -- of a good shopkeeper and beneficent member of his community.
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.
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. The complex interplay among various facets of Franklin's character -- his ingenuity and unreflective wisdom, his Protestant ethic divorced from dogma, the principles he held firm and those he was willing to compromise -- means that each new look at him reflects and refracts the nation's changing values.
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. But the lessons from Franklin's life are more complex than those usually drawn by either his fans or his foes. 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 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.
Through his self-improvement tips for cultivating personal virtues and his civic-improvement schemes for furthering the common good, he helped to create, and to celebrate, a new ruling class of ordinary citizens. 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. We can easily imagine having a beer with him after work, showing him how to use the latest digital device, sharing the business plan for a new venture, and discussing the most recent political scandals or policy ideas.
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. 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. As he put it in the motto for the library he founded, To pour forth benefits for the common good is divine. In comparison to contemporaries such as Jonathan Edwards, who believed that men were sinners in the hands of an angry God and that salvation could come through grace alone, this outlook might seem somewhat complacent.
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. During the late Middle Ages, a new class emerged in the villages of rural England: Proud but without great pretension, assertive of their rights as members of an independent middle class, these freeholders came to be known as franklins, from the Middle English word frankeleyn, meaning freeman.
When surnames gained currency, families from the upper classes tended to take on the titles of their domains, such as Lancaster or Salisbury.
Their tenants sometimes resorted to invocations of their own little turf, such as Hill or Meadows. Artisans tended to take their name from their labor, be it Smith or Taylor or Weaver. And for some families, the descriptor that seemed most appropriate was Franklin. His independent spirit became part of the family lore.
This obscure family of ours was early in the Reformation, Franklin later wrote, and were sometimes in danger of trouble on account of their zeal against popery. The stool could be turned over on a lap so the Bible could be read aloud, but then instantly hidden whenever the apparitor rode by.
The strong yet pragmatic independence of Thomas Franklin, along with his clever ingenuity, seems to have been passed down through four generations. The family produced dissenters and nonconformists who were willing to defy authority, although not to the point of becoming zealots. They were clever craftsmen and inventive blacksmiths with a love of learning. Avid readers and writers, they had deep convictions—but knew how to wear them lightly.
Sociable by nature, the Franklins tended to become trusted counselors to their neighbors, and they were proud to be part of the middling class of independent shopkeepers and tradesmen and freeholders. For some people, the most important formative element is place. To appreciate Harry Truman, for example, you must understand the Missouri frontier of the nineteenth century; likewise, you must delve into the Hill Country of Texas to fathom Lyndon Johnson.
His heritage was that of a people without place—the youngest sons of middle-class artisans—most of whom made their careers in towns different from those of their fathers.
He is thus best understood as a product of lineage rather than of land. Moreover, Franklin thought so as well. I have ever had a pleasure in obtaining any little anecdotes of my ancestors, reads the opening sentence in his autobiography. It was a pleasure he would indulge when he journeyed to Ecton as a middle-aged man to interview distant relatives, research church records, and copy inscriptions from family tombstones.
The dissenting streak that ran in his family, he discovered, involved more than just matters of religion. The inclination to defy the elite, and to write mediocre poetry, was to last a few more generations. He was a gregarious soul who loved reading, writing, and tinkering. As a young man, he built from scratch a clock that worked throughout his life. Like his father and grandfather, he became a blacksmith, but in small English villages the smith took on a variety of tasks.
According to a nephew, he also practiced for diversion the trade of a turner [turning wood with a lathe], a gunsmith, a surgeon, a scrivener, and wrote as pretty a hand as ever I saw.
He was a historian and had some skill in astronomy and chemistry. His eldest son took over the blacksmith business and also prospered as a school owner and a solicitor. But this is a story about youngest sons: Benjamin Franklin was the youngest son of the youngest sons for five generations. Being the last of the litter often meant having to strike out on your own. For people like the Franklins, that generally meant leaving villages such as Ecton that were too tiny to support more than one or two practitioners of each trade and moving to a larger town where they could secure an apprenticeship.
It was not unusual—especially in the Franklin family—for younger brothers to be apprenticed to older ones. While in Banbury, Josiah was swept up in the second great religious convulsion to hit England.
The first had been settled by Queen Elizabeth: Yet she and her successors subsequently faced pressure from those who wanted to go even further and to purify the church of all Roman Catholic traces. The Puritans, as these Calvinist dissenters who advocated this purge of papist vestiges came to be known, were particularly vocal in Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire.
Despite their puritanical views on personal morality, their sect appealed to some of the more intellectual members of the middle class because it emphasized the value of meetings, discussions, sermons, and a personal understanding of the Bible. By the time Josiah arrived in Banbury, the town was torn by the struggle over Puritanism. The Franklin family was divided as well, though less bitterly. John and Thomas III remained loyal to the Anglican Church; their younger brothers, Josiah and Benjamin sometimes called Benjamin the Elder to distinguish him from his famous nephew , became dissenters.
But Josiah was never fanatic in pursuing theological disputes.
There is no record of any family feud over the issue. Franklin would later claim that it was a desire to enjoy the exercise of their religion with freedom that led his father, Josiah, to emigrate to America. To some extent, this was true. Josiah was not zealous about his faith.
He was close to his father and older brother John, both of whom remained Anglican. At age 19, he married a friend from Ecton, Anne Child, and brought her to Banbury. In quick succession, they had three children. But there was not enough business to support both fast-growing Franklin families, and the law made it impossible for Josiah to go into a new trade without serving another apprenticeship.
As Benjamin the Elder put it, Things not succeeding there according to his mind, with the leave of his friends and father he went to New England in the year The story of the Franklin family migration, like the story of Benjamin Franklin, gives a glimpse into the formation of the American character. Among the great romantic myths about America is that, as schoolbooks emphasize, the primary motive of its settlers was freedom, particularly religious freedom.
Like most romantic American myths, it contains a lot of truth. For many in the seventeenth-century wave of Puritan migration to Massachusetts, as in the subsequent migratory waves that made America, the journey was primarily a religious pilgrimage, one that involved fleeing persecution and pursuing freedom.
And like most romantic American myths, it also glosses over some significant realities. For many other Puritan migrants, as for many in subsequent waves, the journey was primarily an economic quest. But to set up such a sharp dichotomy is to misunderstand the Puritans—and America. For most Puritans, ranging from rich John Winthrop to poor Josiah Franklin, their errand into the wilderness was propelled by considerations of both faith and finance.
The Massachusetts Bay Colony was, after all, established by investors such as Winthrop to be a chartered commercial enterprise as well as to create a heavenly city upon a hill. For among the useful notions that they bequeathed to America was a Protestant ethic that taught that religious freedom and economic freedom were linked, that enterprise was a virtue, and that financial success need not preclude spiritual salvation.
What the literary historian Perry Miller calls the paradox of Puritan materialism and immateriality was not paradoxical to the Puritans. Making money was a way to glorify God.
As Cotton Mather put it in his famous sermon A Christian at His Calling, delivered five years before Franklin was born, it was important to attend to some settled business, wherein a Christian should spend most of his time so that he may glorify God by doing good for others, and getting of good for himself.
And thus the Puritan migration established the foundation for some characteristics of Benjamin Franklin, and of America itself: Josiah Franklin was 25 years old when, in August , he set sail for America with his wife, two toddlers, and a baby girl only a few months old. It was, however, a sensible investment. Wages in the New World were two to three times higher, and the cost of living was lower.
The demand for brightly dyed fabrics and silks was not great in a frontier town, especially a Puritan one such as Boston. Indeed, it was a legal offense to wear clothing that was considered too elaborate.
But unlike in England, there was no law requiring a person to serve a long apprenticeship before going into a trade. So Josiah chose a new one that had far less glamour but far more utility: It was a shrewd choice.
Candles and soap were just evolving from luxuries into staples. The odiferous task of making lye from ashes and simmering it for hours with fat was one that even the heartiest of frontier housewives were willing to pay someone else to do.
Cattle, once a rarity, were being slaughtered more often, making mass manufacture of tallow possible. Yet the trade was uncrowded. One register of professions in Boston just before Josiah arrived lists twelve cobblers, eleven tailors, three brewers, but only one tallow chandler.
He set up shop and residence in a rented two-and-a-half-story clapboard house, only thirty feet by twenty, on the corner of Milk Street and High Street now Washington Street.
The ground floor was only one room, with a kitchen in a separate tiny structure added in the back. Like other Boston houses, it had small windows so that it would be easier to keep warm, but it was brightly painted to make it seem more cheerful. Josiah was admitted to membership, or permitted to own the covenant, two years after his arrival.
Church membership was, for the Puritans at least, a social leveler. Although he was merely a struggling tradesman, Josiah was able, because of his membership in the South Church, to become friends with such colony luminaries as Simon Bradstreet, the onetime governor, and Judge Samuel Sewall, a Harvard fellow and diligent diarist. In , he was tapped to become a tithingman, the name for the moral marshals whose job it was to enforce attendance and attention at Sunday services and to keep an eye out for nightwalkers, tipplers, Sabbath breakers.
Six years later, he was made a constable, one of eleven people who helped oversee the tithingmen. Although the posts were unpaid, Josiah practiced the art, which his son would perfect, of marrying public virtue with private profit: He had an excellent constitution of body, was of middle stature, but well set and very strong.
He was ingenious, could draw prettily, was skilled a little in music and had a clear pleasing voice, so that when he played Psalm tunes on his violin and sung withal as he sometimes did in an evening after the business of the day was over, it was extremely agreeable to hear.
But his great excellence lay in a sound understanding, and solid judgment in prudential matters, both in private and public affairs.
I remember well his being frequently visited by leading people, who consulted him for his opinion in affairs of the town or of the church. He was also much consulted by private persons about their affairs when any difficulty occurred, and frequently chosen an arbitrator between contending parties.
This description was perhaps overly generous. As we shall see, Josiah, wise though he undoubtedly was, had limited horizons. Diligence in thy calling. Seest thou a man diligent in his calling, he shall stand before Kings. As Franklin would recall when he was 78, with the wry mixture of light vanity and amused self-awareness that pervades his autobiography, I from thence considered industry as a means of obtaining wealth and distinction, which encouraged me, though I did not think that I should ever literally stand before kings, which, however, has since happened; for I have stood before five, and even had the honor of sitting down with one, the King of Denmark, to dinner.
As Josiah prospered, his family grew; he would have seventeen children over a period of thirty-four years. Such fecundity was common among the robust and lusty Puritans: Samuel Willard, pastor of the South Church, had twenty children; the famous theologian Cotton Mather had fifteen.
Children tended to be a resource rather than a burden. They helped around the house and shop by handling most of the menial chores. To the three children who accompanied them from England, Josiah and Anne Franklin quickly added two more, both of whom lived to adulthood: Josiah Jr. Then, however, death struck brutally. Three times over the next eighteen months, Josiah made the procession across Milk Street to the South Church burial grounds: One-quarter of all Boston newborns at the time died within a week.
It was not unusual for men in colonial New England to outlive two or three wives. Of the first eighteen women who came to Massachusetts in , for example, fourteen died within a year.
Nor was it considered callous for a bereaved husband to remarry quickly. In fact, as in the case of Josiah, it was often considered an economic necessity. At the age of 31, he had five children to raise, a trade to tend, and a shop to keep.
He needed a robust new wife, and he needed her quickly. Like the Franklins, the Folger originally Foulgier family was rebellious but also practical, and they shared the same mix of religious and economic restlessness. Descended from reformist Flemish Protestants who had fled to England in the sixteenth century, the Folgers were among the first wave of emigrants to depart for Massachusetts when Charles I and his Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, began cracking down on the Puritans.
The family of John Folger, including his year-old son Peter, sailed for Boston in , when the town was a mere five years old. On the voyage over, Peter met a young servant girl named Mary Morrill, who was indentured to one of the Puritan ministers aboard.
Having found religious and personal freedom, the Folgers were restless for economic opportunities. From Boston they moved to a new settlement up the river called Dedham, then to Watertown, and finally to Nantucket Island, where Peter became the schoolmaster. Most of the inhabitants were Indians, and he learned their language, taught them English, and attempted with great success to convert them to Christianity. Rebellious in nature, he underwent his own conversion and became a Baptist, which meant that the faithful Indians whom he had led to Christianity now had to follow him through a ritual that required total immersion.
Displaying the robust resistance to authority that ran in both the Folger and Franklin families, Peter was the sort of rebel destined to transform colonial America. His passion overpowered his poetic talents: Later, his grandson Benjamin Franklin would pronounce that the poem was written with manly freedom and a pleasing simplicity. Peter and Mary Folger had ten children, the youngest of whom, Abiah, was born in When she was 21 and still unmarried, she moved to Boston to live with an older sister and her husband, who were members of the South Church.
Although raised as a Baptist, Abiah joined the congregation shortly after her arrival. By July , when the well-respected tallow chandler Josiah Franklin went there to bury his wife, Abiah was a faithful parishioner.
Less than five months later, on November 25, , they were married. Both were the youngest children in a large brood. Together they would live to unusually ripe ages—he to 87, she to And their longevity was among the many traits they would bequeath to their famous youngest son, who himself would live to be He was a pious and prudent man, she a discreet and virtuous woman, Benjamin would later inscribe on their tombstone.
Over the next twelve years, Josiah and Abiah Franklin had six children: It might seem impossible to keep a watchful eye on so large a brood in such circumstances, and the Franklin tale provides tragic evidence that this was so. Later that year, in , the Franklins had another son, but he also died as a child. So even though their next son, Benjamin, would spend his youth in a house with ten older siblings, the youngest of them would be seven years his senior.
And he would have two younger sisters, Lydia born and Jane , looking up to him. Benjamin Franklin was born and baptized on the same day, a Sunday, January 17, II Boston was by then 76 years old, no longer a Puritan outpost but a thriving commercial center filled with preachers, merchants, seamen, and prostitutes. It had more than a thousand homes, a thousand ships registered at its harbor, and seven thousand inhabitants, a figure that was doubling every twenty years.
As a kid growing up along the Charles River, Franklin was, he recalled, generally the leader among the boys. In the evening when the workmen were gone home, I assembled a number of my playfellows, and we worked diligently like so many emmets, sometimes two or three to a stone, until we brought them all to make our little wharf.