Monday, April 09, 2012

An American Life

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life
Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

"As his friend the French statesman Turgot said in his famous epigram, Eripuit coelo fulmen sceptrumque tyrannis, he snatched lightning from the sky and the scepter from tyrants." (p 492)

Peter Gay, writing in The Enlightenment: The Science of Freedom, assayed the views of the French Philosphes toward Benjamin Franklin. He quoted Condorcet, who said in his eulogy to Franklin in 1790, “Men whom the reading of philosophic books had secretly converted to the love of liberty became enthusiastic over the liberty of a foreign people while they waited for the moment when they could recover their own, and they seized with joy the opportunity to avow publicly the sentiments which prudence had prevented them from expressing.” Franklin, who had spent years in France representing first the thirteen colonies and later the United States of America, had earlier been embraced by Voltaire who, according to Gay, was joined by spectators who saw him “embrace Franklin and bless Franklin's godson with these charged words: “God and liberty.” By now God had become the guide to American philosphes, and liberty an American specialty.
The Benjamin Franklin described in Walter Isaacson's magisterial survey of his life was truly an American philosphe and a friend of liberty. The image of Franklin that I took away from this biography was all of that, but even more one of a practical man whose never-ending search for knowledge and wisdom was always used to further the ends of practical applications both in his own life and for his country.
The early years of his life are probably the most familiar to most Americans, for he is one of the “Founding Fathers” whose life has been elevated to mythical status. Issacson adds to the familiar story the details of family and the episodes that are less familiar but all-important to Franklin's development. The prodigal son would be one metaphor for his life. One event that I found notable was his retirement from business (he had a very successful printing business in Philadelphia) at the age of 42, exactly halfway through his long life. It was his achievements in the second half of his life, scientific, social, political, diplomatic, and philosophic that made him the man who would be embraced by Voltaire and others within and without his home country. He would charm philosophers in England as well, persuading David Hume to support the colonial cause.
“Of one of Hume's essays favoring free trade with the colonies, Franklin enthused that it would have “a good effect in promoting a certain interest too little thought of by selfish man . . . I mean the interest of humanity, or the common good of mankind.”(p 197)
Isaacson uses the theme of “pouring oil on troubled water” to tie together separate sections of the book. This is originally based on Franklin's observation of the physical effect of oil on the wake of the ship (evidence of his consistently putting to use his powers of observation in the cause of science), but it would take on metaphoric status and could also refer to his diplomatic achievements and, to a lesser degree, his family relations. Overall the author's journalistic style is fluent enough to keep you going through the less exciting passages until you reach the years of conflict: Coercive measures, war for independence, and diplomatic intrigue in France.
While Franklin labored long in London to maintain the uneasy relationship between the Crown and the colonies he reached a turning point with the intolerable taxes and other coercive acts. These led him to “abandon his moderation in the colonies' battles with Parliament. The turning point had been reached.”(p 247)
The concluding section tells of Franklin's final and perhaps finest performance as grand old man at the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787. Here he used his status as diplomat emeritus to silently (mostly) help usher into existence the document that would be the foundation for the new Republic to this day. The combination of his thoughts and actions, the events in which he participated, and the effect he had on family and country lead his life to rightly be called “An American Life”.

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson.  Simon and Schuster, 2003.

The Enlightenment: The Science of Freedom by Peter Gay. Alfred A. Knopf, 1969.

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