Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson (Simon and Schuster, 2003) is a fantastic portrait of a complex man. I have always loved Ben Franklin (ever since I read Ben and Me by Robert Lawlor as a child). Reading Isaacson’s biography helped me to see why I liked it him so much: he was, in general, a likeable man.
The subtitle of the biography, “An American Life” is well chosen. Benjamin Franklin represents all that was good about America. He was a self-made man, a man who worked hard in order to get where he ended up. Although he began as a printer’s apprentice, he literally ended his life dining with kings. And while he was a true devotee to the King of England, he was sensitive to the needs of his people in America and was able to seek independence when he saw it was right.
His ability to see what his community needed (and to then find a solution and implement it) likewise strikes me as an American trait. From his volunteer fire department to his community police brigade, he was a practical and generous man. Because of his humble beginnings, he was eager to aid other humble learners and people. His creativity was both practical and inspiring.
Given the lenghth of Isaacson’s biography, I cannot touch on all that Benjamin Franklin was or all that he did. Suffice it to say that Benjamin Franklin continues to delight me. His complexity goes beyond his creativity in inventions and his philandering nature. Isaacson’s biography also taught me about his complex political maneuverings. I am convinced that without Benjamin Franklin’s ingenuity, we may not have a constitution as flexible as we have, and the peace with England may not have developed as it ultimately did.
Although Franklin was a creative genius in many ways, his unique abilities differed from Madison and Jefferson’s political talents. Because Franklin was a self-made American man, he was inclined to compromise where other political leaders were inclined to argue for their opinions. Because of his conciliatory nature, Franklin lead Americans into a positive future, united as a group rather than divided into regional bickering and jealousy.
I have thoroughly enjoyed every biography I’ve read by Isaacson. I feel he could write a biography of a chair and I’d find it interesting. A biography by Mr Isaacson, then, of such a fascinating man as Benjamin Franklin is truly a masterpiece. I highly recommend this work for any one interested in American history, early American politics, and the American man Benjamin Franklin himself.