The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin by H. W. Brands

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The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin


by H. W. Brands
A Book Review by Debra Costello

March 2009


Utter the name Benjamin Franklin and the first image to pop into the minds of today’s students is that of kites, keys and lightning. It is shameful that this important historic experiment is one of the few recollections that can be taken from the life of this esteemed man. The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin by H.W. Brands succinctly relates what more of us Americans need to recognize: Benjamin Franklin was the quintessential figure in the establishment of the United States of America. His character, intellect and especially his ability to reason directly influenced the development of this nation. He constantly strove to utilize logic and reason to overcome adversity. Franklin’s curiosity and never ending fascination with all things of nature caused him to test the world around him. Had he not been who he was, would our country be what it is?

Having had the distinct pleasure of hearing H.W. Brands speak, it is evident that his ability to write is as engaging as his oratory skills. Brands is a distinguished professor of history at Texas A & M University who has authored many books on the topic of history. Mr. Brands interjects the same kind of wit and humor in his books as he does at his speaking engagements. Having read his book Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times influenced choosing this biography to review, along with an acute interest in Franklin’s scientific endeavors. One of the many skills that H.W. Brands brings to his writing is adeptness in giving the back-story of the many characters that were a part of Benjamin Franklin’s life. Many see history as a series of dates; however, it is the people in that particular era and their personal experiences that create history. Brands keenly narrates the story in a way that heightens our understanding of these key figures in history as people who lived real lives that influenced generations to come. The author has extensive source notes that are placed in the back of the book. The source notes are taken from Benjamin Franklin’s correspondence, published works and autobiography. As a prolific author, Franklin left his legacy through his writing. Brand’s use of primary sources lends a sense of authenticity to demonstrate his belief that Benjamin Franklin was truly the first American. Franklin’s voice echoes throughout the book.

The Puritan pillar of society, Cotton Mather, controlled Boston’s thought process at the time of Benjamin Franklin’s birth. All came back to God. It was a place of tradition, which frowned upon the idea of freethinking. Benjamin Franklin was born to a well-respected chandler Josiah Franklin and his second wife Abiah Folger. He was the tenth child of sixteen. Since he was rather far down in the birth order, he could not inherit his father’s trade. Josiah encouraged Benjamin to be a minister and urged him to read at an early age. Early on, Benjamin had a love of the water and experimented with swimming. The sea beckoned him. Having lost one son to the sea, Josiah did all he could to keep Benjamin on the shore. Josiah worked to find Benjamin a trade that would keep him home. Benjamin became an apprentice to his brother, James Franklin. This apprenticeship required nine years of indentured servitude to his brother. While training with James, Benjamin would spend his free time interweaving prose with poetry and practiced Socracratic argument that he would use to undermine his opponent during arguments. He wrote as the character ‘Silence Dogood’ to challenge the authority of Cotton Mather’s hold on Boston. Had he gone off to sea, how would this country look today? Benjamin Franklin’s self-motivation to improve his ability to argue and willingness to challenge authority are characteristics that molded the man who shaped this country.

James tended to be a more incendiary character. His outspokenness landed him in jail. Benjamin took over the paper during his imprisonment. This period of time honed his skills in printing and the art of debate. However, he felt stifled by his servitude to James and fled. This eventually took him to his newly adopted home of Philadelphia. He found work with a printer named Samuel Keimer in Philadelphia. The Governor of Pennsylvania took notice of Franklin. He encouraged Benjamin to start his own print shop. He lacked the revenue. His father could only provide his blessing. He was introduced to Governor Keith who promised to help him set up shop after getting the proper equipment necessary in London. The governor never made good on his promise. This, however, caused him to learn a lesson that carried him throughout his life. “The promises of others, however pleasing to the ear, were trusted at peril.” (p. 82) He knew that he could only trust his own wit and wisdom. While in London, he met a merchant by the name of Thomas Denham who became a father figure to him. Franklin owed him his passage from England to the colonies. Under Denham’s tutelage he became a skilled merchant. Denham’s death freed Franklin of his debt, but left him without ownership of the business. On his own again, he returned to work with Keimer as a manager. A disagreement with Keimer led to him quitting this job. But, Franklin had a trademark gift that is witnessed throughout his life; he made virtue of necessity, that is, made the best of a bad situation. Franklin set up shop with Hugh Meredith whose father provided the revenue to support this venture. Meredith’s father was grateful that Benjamin Franklin was able to keep his son from drinking.

In 1727, Benjamin Franklin’s quest for knowledge caused him to create the ‘Junto.’ The Junto was an intellectual thought tank pondering religious, political and philosophical queries. Franklin was not a man of organized religion, but did see its civic benefits. He subscribed to a sense of pragmatic moralism that greatly influenced his outlook on life. While many colonists at the time saw faith as their only way to salvation, Franklin viewed good works, morals, and virtues ahead of dogma. He logically states that, “No point of faith is so plain as that morality is our duty, for all sides agree in that. A virtuous heretic shall be saved before a wicked Christian.” (p.144) In his old age, he did soften a bit on his outlook on God, but always ascribed to the concept of virtue.

Events led to he and Meredith purchasing the Pennsylvania Gazette from Keimer. In 1730, he bought out Meredith to gain professional independence. He also wed Deborah Read the same year. Benjamin Franklin found the uncertainty of life to be comforting. He did not want all of life’s questions answered. This philosophy is evident in the way he operated his newspaper. He was open to other’s opinions and encouraged the hearing of all sides. Some did not concur with this philosophy. While trades such as smiths and cobblers needed to worry about the opinions of others, Franklin embraced the idea that a printer should allow everyone to have a voice even if it was not popular. He shared his viewpoints under a variety of pseudonyms, which brought forth discourse and civil change among Philadelphia’s citizens. He carried his open-minded philosophy throughout his life. No doubt, this country would be different if not for his willingness to negotiate and discuss varying ideologies. In addition to the Pennsylvania Gazette, Poor Richard’s Almanac allowed Franklin to show his true wit and intelligence without fear of retribution or of being labeled a braggart.

The establishment of the Philosophical Society in 1744 in Philadelphia greatly influenced Benjamin Franklin. Members of this group represented many aspects of the arts and sciences. Franklin was able to network with some of the greatest minds of the time in the colonies. He fed off their intellect and stimulated his own. Franklin eventually entered a partnership with David Hall who took care of day-to-day operations while Franklin supplied the capital. This enabled him to retire and pursue intellectual interests that he discussed at the Philosophical Society, like the concept of electricity. His experiments on electricity influenced many scientists across the globe. He became world renowned for his experimentation in the sciences.

During the 1750’s Benjamin Franklin became politically active. Philadelphia was leading the way in discussions of the reform of British rule. The average people had long protested the proprietary rule of the Penns and their autocratic rule of Pennsylvania. While in the legislature, Franklin was key in raising revenue through taxes to light and patrol Philadelphia’s streets. This, however, did not stop Great Britain from shipping over its criminals who were left to roam the streets of the colonies. The English and the colonists were embroiled in land disputes with France. Many citizens called for a union of the colonists, but the leaders feared losing their power. Franklin felt that if “savages” were capable of forming a union, they should be able to as well. He designed a blueprint for such a union. “The colonies were suffering badly from their lack of cooperation.” (p. 237) The seeds of this country were being sown. Franklin’s intentions were for the union to be a recognized part of the British Empire, but he wanted no restrictions on trade within the colonies. The crown frowned upon this idea because it minimized trade with the “Mother Land.” Franklin believed that “The strength and wealth of the parts is the strength and wealth of the whole.” (p. 240) The land dispute with France led to the French coercing many Native American tribes to turn against the colonists. Pennsylvanians needed to fund this fight through taxes. The proprietors refused to be taxed. This began Benjamin Franklin’s bitter battle against the proprietary government. He was appointed to the Pennsylvania assembly where he hoped to be able to extinguish proprietary rule and replace it with the rule of the crown.

Benjamin Franklin yearned to know more about his heritage. H.W. Brands eloquently stated, “Yet as the road behind him grew longer, and the road before him presumably shorter, he paid more heed to his family’s origins.” Franklin and his son William headed to Great Britain to learn more about the land of his father’s birth. Franklin spent many years in Great Britain working on behalf of the colonies. When King George III came to power, eventually, William Franklin was appointed the governor of New Jersey, unbeknownst to the Penns. While in Great Britain, events in the colonies were beginning to tear it apart. A cardinal tenet of the English constitution declared that taxes could only be levied on those who had representation; which the colonies did not. The Sugar Act, the Proclamation Line of 1763 and the Stamp Act caused the colonists to feel as if they had no say or control on the actions dictated by the British government.
Benjamin Franklin’s morals were an impetus for his view on non-violence against the British for the Stamp Act. He could not condone this behavior on a political level, either. Franklin worked toward compromise. However, the crown and rioters did not. The colonists placed an embargo on British imports in an effort to hurt British merchants. They hoped the merchants would then pressure the government. His voice of reason led to the repeal of the Stamp Act one year after it was enacted. Franklin was highly praised for his inspired presentation at the parliament. Although the Stamp Act was repealed, the Quartering Act and Townshend Acts came into effect causing anger amongst the colonists. The British were stubbornly holding to their beliefs. All the while, Benjamin Franklin was speaking out for peace and reason on both sides. Some felt Franklin was acting in a duplicitous fashion.

A trip to Scotland and Ireland opened his eyes to British treatment of other colonies. The abject poverty and shabby treatment of the working class disheartened him. Franklin’s ability to reason caused him to wonder, “If not the crown, if not the proprietors, then what?” This was a turning point in his outlook on the colonies.

Franklin’s hometown became a hotbed of resistance on the verge of eruption. During the winter of 1770 violence did occur. The Boston Massacre was the result of the citizens’ resentment of the soldiers patrolling their streets, taking away jobs and being forced to house them. Although the Townshend Acts were eventually repealed and only one tax was levied on the citizens, resentment over the Boston Massacre lingered. The colonists eventually stopped all trade, which only strengthened their resolve to be more self-sufficient.
The turning point against the crown for Benjamin Franklin was personal. He had intercepted correspondence between Boston’s Governor and Lieutenant Governor, Thomas Hutchison and Andrew Oliver respectively. They wrote of how the colonies could not survive without the rule of England. They were also bartering their way to greater position and financial status at the expense of the taxpayers. Franklin believed it was Hutchison and Oliver who were the problem, not the crown. These letters were forwarded, in confidence, to Cushing back in the colonies. However, they did not remain secret. This caused great animosity against the British. Franklin kept tight lipped about this until it led to a duel where an innocent man was being accused of disseminating the information. Franklin called for the removal of Hutchison and Oliver; however the British parliament viciously attacked Franklin and his character. He would leave England a changed man.

While Franklin and others hoped for conciliation, it was too late. Franklin lost a great deal during this time. His wife, Deborah died. William continued as Governor of New Jersey against his father’s wishes causing a rift that would never be mended. Benjamin Franklin spent decades away from Philadelphia and his wife. Had he been a more loyal family man, would we be the United States of America?

The shot heard round the world rang out in Concord. Franklin had hoped to retire, but the war caused him to get involved at the Continental Congress. His proposal for a confederation sparked the creation of the Articles of the Confederation adopted by the Congress and eventually the states. Franklin was appointed Post Master General and named to the “secret committee” that was responsible for the creation of the army. Benjamin Franklin was also on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson drafted it while Franklin revised and edited. Franklin went to Pennsylvania to help draft the Pennsylvania constitution. Ironically, it was his goal to rid Pennsylvania of the proprietors while in England. Ultimately it was America’s independence from Great Britain that garnered Pennsylvania’s freedom.
It can be argued that Benjamin Franklin’s relationships with people directly influenced the independence of this country from England. Franklin helped to bring Thomas Paine to and get established in America. It was Paine’s pamphlet, “Common Sense” that urged undecided colonists to join the cause of freedom. Franklin had established close, personal relationships with many people in Great Britain. He was now at odds with those he used to call his friends.

Benjamin Franklin initiated a relationship with France that lasted many years. He asked for arms and clothing to sustain the army. This led to his being named ambassador to their new ally, France. In the late 1770’s and early 1780’s, America had begun to lose ground in the war. The troops needed money for the basics. Again, Franklin’s ability to reason and argue persuaded the French to send more resources. He pleaded to France on the argument that to lose America would be a coup d'état for the British and a defeat for Europe. Led by the brilliance of George Washington, Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown.

Congress would not allow Benjamin Franklin to retire. He was appointed a peace commissioner in the negotiations for treaties with the French and British. Franklin viewed the revolution as a victory over vice. He had hoped that America would learn from the mistakes of corruption exemplified by the British government.
Again hoping to retire, Franklin joined the Continental Congress to amend the Articles of the Confederation. Benjamin Franklin and George Washington were the two men held in highest esteem at this event. Franklin deferred to Washington as president of the convention. However, it was Franklin’s ability to compromise that saved the convention when the issue of representation seemed to be at an impasse. Franklin spoke out for the rights of the common people at the convention. Although there were issues that Franklin was not completely satisfied with in the constitution, he felt it was a good compromise. Ratification of the states was needed. New York and Virginia held out until a powerfully persuasive piece of writing in the Federal Gazette by Franklin pushed the states to ratify.
Benjamin Franklin was eventually allowed to retire. In April of 1790 at the age of 83, Benjamin Franklin died. In death as in his life, he felt a call to civic duty. He bequeathed funds to both Philadelphia and Boston for civic improvement and scholarship. These funds remain to this day.
Some could argue that teachers should know of the life of Benjamin Franklin just because he is a key leader in U.S. history. However, his example of open mindedness and compromise should be the true emphasis of understanding Franklin. While some fought blindly for freedom, Franklin had a way of viewing and respecting all perspectives. He was not so stubborn that he could not change his beliefs if they were based on reason and logic. This viewpoint could benefit everyone and should be brought to the classroom for future generations to learn.

The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin

H.W. Brands



Book Review by Debra Costello


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