Benjamin Franklin by Edmund S. Morgan
Yale University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-300-09532-5.
When I was twelve (12) years old and haunted my local public library, one of my favorite finds was an over-sized, illustrated, large-print edition of Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography. Not only was I delighted by the book itself as an enormous artifact, but the tale of youthful Franklin running away from his home in Boston and establishing himself in far-away Philadelphia inspired me like it has inspired generations of clever, restless, and ambitious American boys.
Long before conservative "czars" soured the topic for me, Franklin's realistic and humorous approach to virtues as guide stars for self-improvement became fixed in my mind as the epitome of morals. Subsequent study of the classic sources of Franklin's ideas, and criticism of those sources, has not hurt my impression of Franklin's wisdom, but rather only increased my admiration.
At this time my family was living in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a part of the country where Franklin is less a historical figure and more a secular patron saint. My town had an excellent science museum for kids called the Franklin Institute, and it seemed that every valuable civic institution, from schools to libraries to fire departments, claimed Franklin as its founder.
I wanted to be a printer when I grew up, inspired by Franklin's tale of his life, but also by field trips to a newspaper, where I saw them melting lead into bars for a Linotype machine, and a tour of the Kingsport Press in Tennessee, where my uncles worked, which included seeing room-sized photo-lithographic equipment and house-sized paperback manufacturing equipment. Wouldn't Franklin have loved to see how the technology of his business had developed? I would fantasize about bringing Franklin into the present to discuss politics and technology. (Imagine my surprise when I discovered on E2 that I wasn't the only one with the fantasy of discussing the marvels of the modern age with Franklin himself.)
Still and all, this childish hero-worship of Franklin doesn't quite do justice to a man who was, in fact a bona fide hero. The portion of his life which is truly heroic, however, his later career as a statesman, isn't covered in his Autobiography and tends to get short shrift in the histories of the period. While he very much enjoyed being a famous scientist and businessman, he seems to have had no particular desire for fame or repute in his political activities. Franklin often worked behind the scenes, was not always successful, and even when he was, usually let others take the credit.
It is this Franklin which Yale professor Edmund S. Morgan brings to life for us. I must admit that I received Professor Morgan's little tome with some of the same delight I felt when I found the over-sized copy of the Autobiography when I was a kid. Only now, the fine print I would like to have magnified for me are the original papers of Franklin. I even have a volume of the papers from the period which interests me, given to me as a gift by my in-laws (who are aware of my Franklin hero-worship because I named their first grandchild Benjamin Franklin Hammel). Who can be bothered, however, to sift through such stuff? How wonderful to have the source materials explicated by a famous historian whose lectures, by some coincidence, my wife attended when she was a student at Yale! (I would never trade my own undergraduate education for the Ivy Leagues' version of same, but the fact is, Yale gets some pretty darn good lecturers).
Morgan does not disappoint. This is a well-written, well-digested tale of Franklin's later years as a statesman. If you have read the Autobiography and are familar with the history of the colonies and the American Revolution, this biography presents an ideal opportunity to go deeper. This is not a book for children nor an introduction to the man. His Autobiography is the best work I know for those purposes. Nor is this an expose of a "Founding Father" as a beer-guzzling, farting, womanizing sleaze ball, though fans of Franklin the Flirt will probably enjoy reading about his exploits with the ladies in France. Professor Morgan, like Franklin himself, manages to rise above petty partisan politics and sectarian religious arguments. This biography covers primarily Franklin's work as an agent for the Colonies in England before the war, and an Ambassador to France during and after the war.