An occasional review of technology, markets, and ideas.

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

These days, when you hear the name “Benjamin Franklin” you are more likely to think of $100 bills, rather than the genial Founding Father whose image adorns the front of those bills. Indeed, this is what prompted me to read Walter Isaacson’s biography “Benjamin Franklin: An American Life” to learn more about the man who helped shape the nascent United States. So who was Benjamin Franklin, what did he accomplish, and why is it important to understand his life?

The man, the legend.

When detailing Franklin’s achievements, it’s tough to know where to begin as Franklin’s interests were so varied. Franklin was known as a printer, a writer, a scientist and inventor, a politician, and ultimately a rebel and Founding Father.

Printing and Writing

In October 1729, Franklin began publishing The Pennsylvania Gazette, which filled its pages with news as well as essays and letters written by readers. Franklin, perhaps one of the best essayists in all of American history, used the letter section to pen articles himself under pseudonyms such as “J.T.” in order to write his true feelings about certain topics. This tactic was effective and Franklin would use pseudonyms such as Silence Dogood, Anthony Afterwit, and Alice Addertongue throughout his writing career to voice his unvarnished opinions.

Isaacson writes that “By the early 1730s, Franklin’s [printing] business was thriving” and he “set up partnership shops in places ranging from Charleston to Hartford” where he “would supply the presses and part of the expenses, as well as some content for the publications, and in return take a portion of the revenue.”

At the end of 1732, Franklin began writing Poor Richard’s Almanack in which the fictional Poor Richard Saunders and his wife Bridget offer weather forecasts, poems, aphorisms, and astronomical and astrological information. These pamphlets are best known for containing proverbs such as “Don’t throw stones at your neighbours, if your own windows are glass,” “God helps them that help themselves,” and “Well done is better than well said.”

Scientist and Inventor

Driven by sheer curiosity, Franklin intensely immersed himself into science in the 1740s. Despite not having formal academic training in any scientific discipline, Franklin was celebrated as one of the most famous scientists during his lifetime and Harvard professor Dudley Herschbach once declared “His work on electricity was recognized as ushering in a scientific revolution comparable to those wrought by Newton in the previous century or by Watson and Crick in ours.”

Examples of Franklin’s inquires include his examination of how dark fabrics absorb heat better than bright ones and how to minimize smoke and drafts from stoves. He also devised the first urinary catheter used in America, began to understand the science of weather prediction, and most importantly, he began to write about the nature of electricity which led Immanuel Kant to call him the “New Prometheus” for his kite-flying experiments.

Politician, Rebel and Founding Father

Of equal importance to his inquiries into the nature of electricity was Franklin’s influence in shaping what would become America. Franklin’s political career included time as a clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly, president of the Pennsylvania Executive Council, Deputy Postmaster for the Colonies, head of the Pennsylvania delegation to the Albany Congress, organizer of the Pennsylvania Militia, the Ambassador to France, and finally as a delegate to the Philadelphia Convention.

Franklin’s influence is summed up nicely by Isaacson:

Franklin’s most important vision: an American national identity based on the virtues and values of its middle class. 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.”

Moreover, the bedrock upon which America was built, the freedom to say whatever you want, was something that Franklin believed in dearly:

In those wretched countries where a man cannot call his tongue his own, he can scarce call anything his own. Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech… Without freedom of thought there can be no such thing as wisdom, and no such thing as public liberty without freedom of speech, which is the right of every man…-Silence Dogood no. 8, 1722

Of course, Benjamin Franklin had his foibles which are captured in the biography. For example, his feelings towards his marriage could at best be described as ambivalent given his years spent in Europe and his tendency to flirt with younger women. He was also chronically manipulative which helped him convince the French government to become a military ally against the British, but also irritated some of his detractors who included John Adams.

Regardless, Benjamin Franklin always seemed to be working on the most important issues of the time which ranged from how people get their news and information, the nature of electricity, all the way to the optimal way to structure a fledgling country. It's Franklin's unrelenting curiosity, dynamic range, and willingness to experiment and learn anything that continues to make him a figure worth studying.

Subscribe to Andrew Thappa

Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.
Jamie Larson