Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson

Ben Franklin

 

Summary
  1. Isaacson does an amazing job of recounting Franklin’s impressive life and how it helped shape America’s values and character. Franklin rose through the ranks to become one of the world’s most foremost scientist, writer, inventor, diplomat and political leader.
Key Takeaways
  1. Benjamin Franklin was a scientist, inventor, entrepreneur, author, political thinker and more. He was one of the most illustrious Renaissance men ever
  2. Only man to shape all the founding documents of America – alliance with France, treaty with England, Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution
  3. Multitudes of inventions – stove, bifocals, 2 party legislature, electricity, and continually reinvented himself But maybe his most important invention was an American identity based on the virtues of the middle class
  4. Over anything else, he was pragmatic and wanted to do well unto others
  5. No really deep, long-term relationships and cannot be considered a great father or husband as he spent most of his time away from them
  6. Franklin was not very religious but preached tolerance of every sect
  7. He was like a chameleon who adapted to the times and the people/culture around him. His pragmatism, maxims, frugality and industriousness drew critics for its lack of romanticism but far more fans. His ideas were ripe for the period and increasingly so during the boom of the American economy and industrial revolution
What I got out of it

  1. So impressive to me how many different fields Franklin was successful in. He took practical and actionable steps in every one of these fields and I think that is what set him apart. He did not waste much time on theorizing or on other pursuits that would not have some immediate benefit.

Boston: 1706-1723

  • Family tradition of being a dissenter, curious and inventive
  • Father was the youngest son and entered into apprenticeship with one of his older brothers as a silk and cloth dyer
  • Puritans established new lands in New England to pursue faith and economy – industriousness and faith linked
  • Father, Josiah, came over from England in 1683 and created candles and soap from fat. Mother was Mary (Josiah’s second wife) and married in 1689 and had Ben in 1706 in Boston
  • Ben Entered into an apprenticeship at 12 with his brother James at a print shop. Launched first truly independent newspaper in the colonies – the New England current
  • Thought himself a weak writer so developed for himself an improvement course and eventually became the most popular colloquial writer in America, known under the pseudonym Silence Dogood. This character was a slightly prudish widow. First example of American humor which mark twain and others would eventually characterize. Entwined many of his ideals in these 14 essays (1722). Revealed himself in last essay and this boosted his stature in Boston but annoyed his older brother James

Philadelphia and London: 1723-1726

  • Reason allows man to find an excuse for anything his brain wants to do
  • Franklin learned early that people will admire your work more if they are not jealous of you. Had an incredible magnetism that attracted friends and people who wanted to help him
  • Headed to London in 1724 to buy equipment to set up a new press in Philadelphia for the governor. However, the governor did not give him the letters of credit he said he would. So Franklin instead started working at a printing house
  • Franklin easily made casual relationships but had trouble fostering long term ones
  • Was not religious but embraced religious doctrines because it encourages good behavior and moral societies
  • Wrote himself a code of conduct and was very adept at studying human nature and exploiting it

Philadelphia: 1726-1732

  • Started his own print shop and became known as one of the most industrious people in the city and also knew how to make himself appear industrious
  • Was the consummate networker and started a group called the Junto to help further the members careers
  • Argued for talking less and listening to others more, being humble and correcting others indirectly
  • Busy-Body series – a publication series by Franklin which was gossip based
  • Bought and improved the Pennsylvania Gazette
  • Ended up marrying Deborah Read but had an illegitimate child, William, before then. They didn’t have a very romantic relationship but he very much respected her industriousness and frugality. Their first son together was Francis who was very clever but he died of smallpox at 4 and later they had Sally
  • Grew out of his original puritanical beliefs and came to believe that you could reach salvation through good works – helping others. He treated women relatively well for this time and was tolerant of others beliefs. Believed in one supreme God that sometimes interferes in people’s lives. God best served by helping others
  • Pragmatism was one of his main characteristics
  • Wrote a guide on how to live and be moral without referencing religious texts. Often didn’t follow but was proud of the list – temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, humility
  • Wrote Poor Richard’s Almanack which became a huge success – practical advice and how-to’s
    • Offered insights into what Franklin thought was useful and amusing. Many famous sayings such as early to bed early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise came out of this (dozens more too)
  • Often had to overcome pride and had to remind himself to bring himself down and be humble
  • One of the main contributors during the Enlightenment. Focus on the observable and reason
  • Common human foible is pursuing wealth to no end

Public Citizen: Philadelphia (1731-1748)

  • Man a social animal
  • Often tried to avoid getting credit for things as people were more reluctant to try and adopt. People will eventually know who deserves the credit
  • Founded first fire fighter company
  • Ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure
  • Joined the Freemasons and helped him step up the social ladder. Move from tradesman to being with lawyers and statesman
  • Franklin Effect – ask a small favor of others and they will come to like you
  • A bit promiscuous even into his old age but very much appreciated women

Scientist and Inventor: Philadelphia (1744-1751)

  • Was the most famous scientist alive even during his lifetime. More practical than theoretical (of course)
  • Spurred weather prediction, Franklin stove, a catheter, electricity
  • Had one of the most famous discoveries ever in that lightning and electricity are one in the same and made of one fluid. Made him an international hero and one of the most famous scientists (1752)

Politician: Philadelphia (1749-1756)

  • Founded University of Pennsylvania
  • Originally had a slave but later did away with him because it was not “economical.” Changed many of his prejudiced views later in his life
  • In order to protect Philadelphia from France and Indians, Franklin began thinking about how to unify the colonies and its armies and became colonel of the Pennsylvania unit
  • Several flirtatious relationships with younger women but often for fun than sex – Katie Ray and Paulie Stevenson

London: 1757-1762

  • Even through this time, though bickering with proprietors like the Penn family, Franklin was a royalist
  • Rifts between Franklin and his son William grew at this time – especially when William gained the title of governor through marriage

Home Leave – Philadelphia (1763-1764)

  • Received a lot of backlash from his time in the assembly and eventually left for London again

Agent Provocateur – London (1765-1770)

  • Got embroiled in the stamp act which hurt his reputation back home. Still a royalist and thought that parliament had the right to issue this tax
  • He changed his position on the Stamp Act and argued for its removal. Believes parliament can enact external taxes like tariffs but not internal ones which is not what most Americans believed
  • His only daughter Sally married a man in poor financial standing which Franklin originally didn’t agree with but eventually changed his mind. Did not attend this wedding or William’s
  • Wrote one of the first great autobiographies and it became world famous. He wrote it to the middle class which was rare and wanted to show how he rose to prominence
  • Franklin’s nemesis was Lord Hillsborough
  • He inherently disliked separation of classes by birth and believed deeply in meritocracy and that actions that benefited the common good were the most desirable
  • An extension of the Tea Tax gave the east India company a virtual monopoly on tea and in reaction colonists dressed as Mohawk Indians and dumped tea into the Boston harbor – Boston Tea Party
  • His wife Deborah died in 1774 when he was still in England
  • Franklin slowly changing his views on total independence for the colonies
  • Franklin was recruited to help mediate between colonies and the crown after the Boston tea party. Most importantly the colonies wanted sole control of imposing taxes instead of parliament

Independence – Philadelphia (1775-1776)

  • Arrived shortly after the battle at Lexington and Concord – “shot heard round the world.”
  • When he returned, he was greeted with salutes and parades. Was elected to the second continental congress. Purpose of war still ambiguous – full independence or simply assertion of American rights but being part of the British empire
  • The younger delegates of the Continental Congress were unsure about Franklin due to his silence and wouldn’t take a side on independence or assertion of rights
  • His son was a Loyalist but Franklin eventually fought for independence. He drafted proposals to define what the colonies wanted and why they were fighting
  • Don’t tread on me” rattlesnake and flag was designed and implemented as Americas motto
  • Paine’s Common Sense had a huge impact – no natural reason for distinction among kings and subjects. Hereditary Monarchy an abomination
  • Thomas Jefferson was the chairman of the committee and drafted the Declaration of Independence 
  • Franklin was chosen to go to France in order to try to garner aid and alliance without which their success would be unlikely

Courtier – Paris (1776-1778)

  • France absolutely loved Franklin and he played into that in order to secure their backing. Very simple dress and obviously his accomplishments played into their love of him. He played up the big balls and dinners too. France would only help secretly

Bon Vivant – Paris (1778-1785)

  • Franklin struggled with a lot of the people with him in Paris such as John Adams as he lived a French life full of pleasure
  • Franklin wasn’t the best father to Sally or his illegitimate son William but was softer and more present to his grandchildren (one an illegitimate child of his son). He also left his wife Deborah for years at a time to travel to England and France

Peacemaker – Paris (1778-1785)

  • John Paul Jones was a captain of an American fleet and a good friend of Franklin. He helped pester the English along their own coast
  • John Adams had left Paris but was now back in case they had to conduct peace talks with England. This was not the case when he arrived so he meddled in Franklin’s duties
  • In 1780 America was desperate for money and Franklin was able to secure 6 million livres, enough to keep America going. In March of 1780 he tried to retire from political life at the age of 75 but was refused. He instead got to be part of the group with Adams that would hold the peace talks if necessary
  • The war ended in 1783 and peace talks began. France wanted America to negotiate with England through them but England wanted direct communication. Franklin was the only one in France at the time and would seem to do it through France but eventually set up direct communication
  • Franklin wanted England to accept independence, to make reparations to America, remove British troops and allow America fishing and shipping rights off Canadian coast. They finally decided to deal directly with Britain and not involve France in the peace negotiations. This was difficult for Franklin as he had promised they would be consulted
  • Franklin was instrumental in drafting 4 of the most important documents in American history – Declaration of Independence, alliance with France, treaty with England and the constitution
  • Distaste for luxuries and the very wealthy lead him to support high taxes
  • Thomas Jefferson made his way to France to help Franklin and Adams draft deals with European countries around commerce and trade
  • Franklin left for America and his final communication with his son was tense and something he never spoke of again

Sage – Philadelphia (1785-1790)

  • Franklin spent his remaining days with his extended family and doing what he enjoyed
  • There were initial quarrels and issues with collecting taxes as the government had very few powers. Franklin played host to the delegation that would draft the most successful constitution in history. He was much older than anybody else in the delegation. A major issue faced by smaller states was the idea of representation
  • Franklin was against immediate abolition of slaves. More so because of the pragmatic implications of freeing so many people than outright racism
  • Franklin was not religious but preached tolerance of every sect
  • When he died every clergyman in Philadelphia was at the wake and showed their respect
  • Franklin left his family in somewhat of a disarray and was disfunctional overall. Son William and grandson Temple didn’t get along either
  • He left a trust to help struggling artisans which over time would become large enough and sustainable to help the cities of Boston and Philadelphia with any public projects
  • When he died even his critics mellowed and praised his industriousness and successes. He was like a chameleon who adapted to the times and the people/culture around him. His pragmatism, maxims, frugality and industriousness drew critics for its lack of romanticism but far more fans. His ideas were ripe for the period and increasingly so during the boom of the American economy and industrial revolution
  • Appropriate to say he lacked real and deep moral convictions as he never much considered the soul or God as there was no direct evidence. He never formed any really deep or long lasting relationships but he had very strong convictions which helped form the most perfect Constitution and country to date. Pragmatic and do good for others were his central tenets

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