.07.21 — Ben Franklin: An American Life

What it is?

A measured look at one of the most iconic American founders, and possibly the most famous statesman to never be President, Benjamin Franklin. Isaacson’s biography is typical of his style in other works, with ample coverage of both the subject’s high notes and shortcomings. In waiting until his conclusion to devote significant attention to historical appraisals of Franklin, Issacson allows the reader to form their own judgements about the man many consider to be the quintessential American. By keeping a tight focus on Franklin, and rarely veering off onto the ensemble of notable figures who crossed paths during his prodigiously long life, Issacson is able to condense the life of a man whose accomplishments could easily justify enshrining at least two people in annals of history into a single volume.

My thoughts

The basic story of Ben Franklin, a poor Philadelphian who with his wit, curiosity, and printing business, rises to become a whimsical scientist and the senior and occasionally comedic presence of the Constitutional Convention is one that most Americans are familiar with at the outlines. What makes this look at Franklin intriguing is the further examination of the depth of his contributions in an array of fields, as well as the relatively broken personal life he juggled till the end of his long life. It seems plausible that America sees another George Washington, an awe inspiring general who becomes the rare political figure able to transcend partisan and ideological differences. Figures in the mold of Thomas Jefferson, a master of language capable of shaping the nation’s values, or John Hancock, a wealthy businessman whose commercial interests align well enough with the masses to spur him and his finances into action seem repeatable. Someone like Ben Franklin existing though, seems untenable in the modern world. The sheer knowledge and devotion required to become a leading figure in any single scientific field would constitute a life’s work for most. For someone to on top of that have time to lead a political and diplomatic career, build a nationwide business from the ground up, socialize incessantly, and live twice as long as the average person falls somewhere between preposterous and Forrest Gumpian. Franklin was a true one of one, and Isaacson does an excellent job chronicling his journey.