Book: Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

Ben Franklin is one of my heroes, along with Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, and a few others. As I start my march through reading books about American presidents, I figured I’d start with a famous American who was never a president but was deeply involved in creating the situation where there could be American presidents.

I’m a big fan of Walter Isaacson and his biographies (I’ve read many of them.) Benjamin Franklin: An American Life didn’t disappoint. Isaacson is great at making a biography flow easily so it reads like a cross between a novel and a non-fiction book. The stories aren’t embellished, but they are well written, generally efficient, and extensive. If you are worried about biography as “facts and figures over time”, that’s not the mark of a good biography and definitely not Isaacson’s approach.

Being a fan of Ben Franklin, I’ve read plenty, especially as a teenager, about him. I had a healthy list of “Ben Franklin firsts” and things that Franklin was involved in. But as Amy and I watched the HBO Series John Adams recently, I became curious about how much, or how little, about Ben Franklin I really knew.

It turned out to be “how little”, not because I didn’t know much, but because the list of things Ben Franklin created, did first as a human, or enabled in America, is just remarkable. While everyone knows about his role in the American Revolution, American postmaster, printer, experiments with lightening, and invention of bifocals and the Franklin stove, here are a few that are not commonly known.

Ben Franklin:

  • was an amazing swimmer and created swimming fins (well – wooden ones)
  • created the first volunteer fire department
  • created the odometer
  • created the urinary catheter
  • loved to travel and was extremely nomadic between America, France, and England
  • created the first American musical instrument (the glass armonica)
  • created all the electric terminology, such as battery, charged, condense, conductor, plus / minus, positively / negatively, to go along with his experiments
  • helped create the first American hospital

and the list goes on and on and on.

The early Franklin was well-known for the virtues he stated and then worked on personally, not all at once, but systematically over time. When I reflect on them, I find them remarkably contemporary.

  • “Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.”
  • “Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.”
  • “Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.”
  • “Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.”
  • “Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.”
  • “Industry. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.”
  • “Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.”
  • “Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.”
  • “Moderation. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.”
  • “Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.”
  • “Tranquility. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.”
  • “Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.”
  • “Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

His personal life was fascinating, complex, and non-traditional. It evolved over his life time and while it doesn’t parallel mine in any way, Isaacson’s portrayal of it is robust, although there are points in time in the book where I felt Isaacson let Franklin off the hook for things that weren’t “awesome” and could have been dug into further. But, after all, we are all bags of chemicals and have lots of flaws.

His skills as a politician and negotiator were just awesome. His ability to stay calm in intense situations was awe inspiring. I knew plenty of the specific situations, but seeing Franklin’s role in them from the perspective of a biographer of Franklin was mindblowingly interesting and educational.

I’ll leave you with a few famous Franklin quotes that we repeat or hear regularly.

  • In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.
  • Early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.
  • An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.
  • Be slow in choosing a friend, slower in changing.
  • Content makes poor men rich; discontentment makes rich men poor.
  • Wine is constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy.
  • They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.