The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin
by Gordon S. Wood

It’s important to understand that this is not a biography of Franklin in the normal sense. It does tell the story of his life and his rise to political influence, but it’s more about how his reputation and image was molded into something different over the years. Wood’s goal was to remove the myths and get to the heart of who Ben Franklin truly was, but answering that question isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Franklin was the youngest son of 17 children. Despite his huge family and low stature, he managed to get a position as a printer’s apprentice and start to learn a trade. He was one of the first truly a self-made men in America. Over the years he wrote columns for his newspaper under dozens of pseudonyms. He was vocal about his beliefs and never shied away from stating an opinion, though he might only do it anonymously.

He was a scientist, political leader, ambassador, inventor, post master, printer, free mason, and a self-made gentleman. He fell hard for London society and then later France, and lived in both places for years. It was interesting to learn that he was a staunch loyalist to the crown until late in life when he felt like he had been passed over for a position in England.

Over the centuries his image has been distorted by historians. He is sometimes painted as prudish, miserly, or as the all-American tradesman. Depending on what the historian decided he needed, Franklin’s legacy was warped to fit a mold.  His incredible talent as an ambassador was often overlooked.

It felt like the author admired his influence, but he didn’t like him as a man. Honestly, the more I learned about his personal life the less I respected him.  When he lived in England he left his wife and daughter in America, rarely writing them and skipping his daughter’s wedding. He took his illegitimate son with him, but later disowned the son when he was loyal to the country (England) that Ben Franklin had taught him to love.

BOTTOM LINE: Wood paints an honest portrait of Franklin. There are no rosy glasses with which to view his life, but he sticks to the facts and I appreciated the candid portrayal. I am in awe of how much Franklin did for our country, especially since he received little thanks for it. No man is perfect and Franklin’s impact on the founding of our Nation and the alliance that was formed with France was truly priceless.

“‘The players of our game are so many,’ he told a French correspondent. ‘Their ideas so different, their prejudices so strong and so various and their particular interests independent of the general, seeming so opposite that not a move can be made that is not contested. The numerous objections confound the understanding. The wisest must agree to some unreasonable things that reasonable ones of more consequence may be obtained and thus chance has its share in many of the determinations so that the play is more like trick track with a box of dice.’”


Sandy Nawrot said...

I'm totally interested in this one. It sounds a lot like Zealot did with Jesus...looking at history and seeing the real man, versus what the years and various "biographers" have wanted. I find it all very fascinating.

Anonymous said...

I had a fabulous history teacher in college who didn't use textbooks. Instead, we read diaries, compilations of letters, and autobiographies, including The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. As I recall, Franklin was pretty honest about his own shortcomings, and it made for interesting reading. My favorite from that class was Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Fascinating!

Trish @ Love, Laughter, Insanity said...

I'm going to put this one on my list. I've read a few books about Washington (some drier than others) but I still want to learn more about Franklin and Jefferson specifically. I often wonder how these guys would be viewed if they were living in today's society.

Monica said...

I definitely need to put this on my to read pile! It looks so interesting. I have a ton of books on the founders sitting on my shelves and adding another one wouldn't hurt. I feel like so many people misunderstand the men who founded the country. They put them all on a pedestal and refuse to acknowledge that they were human and had flaws too just like any normal person.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Sandy - I love learning the real history behind famous men.

Abibliophilestyle - I would have loved that class! What a wonderful idea. The Douglass book really is amazing!

Trish - The biography I read recently on Jefferson (by Meachum) was really incredible. Highly recommended!

Monica - Yes! They did some incredible things but they were just men. I love learning about their real lives.