Monday, December 14, 2009

Benjamin Franklin: A Biography

by Ronald W. Clark

Having read four presidential biographies in my journey to read them all, I needed a break. Initially I thought I might take a break from biographies but in perusing my bookcase of unread books, I opted for a biography on Benjamin Franklin. Although not as well written as the biography on John Adams, it was none-the-less a good book and easy to read unlike the last biography I read on James Madison. Following is my review of this biography by Ronald W. Clark.

Benjamin Franklin was born Jan 17, 1706, the fifteenth child and tenth son of a large family. His father was a candle and soap maker and as often was the case in large families with many sons to inherit a small business, Josiah Franklin enlisted young Benjamin into school to eventually become a clergyman. However, Benjamin wasn't keen on this idea and evidently his father not persistent and at age of ten, he dropped out of school permanently and joined his father for a couple years before beginning an apprenticeship with his older brother James, a printer and editor of the first truly independent newspaper of the colonies, The New-England Courant.

Soon, we see the first glimpses of Benjamin's true talents when after being refused to be published in his brother's newspaper, he writes under a pseudonym and becomes the talk of the town. His brother not to be outdone also gets into a bit of a scrap for libel against the Penn government and is forced to give up ownership of the paper to Benjamin though it is in name only. James and Benjamin didn't get along well but I suspect James saw the value that Benjamin brought to the newspaper and partly did this to keep Benjamin around but it wasn't to be. Under the cover of night, Benjamin left his apprenticeship without permission, thus becoming a fugitive, and ran away to Philadelphia.

He sought work there as a printer and eventually got hooked up with the Governor of Pennsylvania Sir William Keith who sent Benjamin to London to acquire equipment to set up Benjamin's own newspaper but not before he proposed to Deborah Read. Reads mother denied his request of marriage and thus probably helped Benjamin readily decide to go to London on behalf of Keith. However, all Governor Keith sent were letters asking for credit, which Benjamin belatedly learned were no good to the business people of London. Benjamin stayed for a couple years anyway cultivating a love for Europe that would stay with him the rest of his life.

Back in Philadelphia at age 21, Franklin became a clerk and bookkeepers for a local businessman and in his spare time created the first volunteer firefighting company and the first subscription library where members pooled their books for the benefit of the others. The businessman soon died and Franklin returned to being a printer but this time setting up a printing house of his own and soon started a newspaper called the Pennsylvania Gazette. About this same time, he again established a relationship with Deborah Read who had married a man by the name of John Rogers who took the dowry and fled to Barbados to avoid debts and prosecution. Since Read was legally not able to remarry due to bigamy laws, Franklin and Read established a common-law marriage on September 1, 1730.

A non-traditional marriage was par for the course with Franklin since he also had an illegitimate son named William from an unknown mother who not surprisingly would go on to have an illegitimate son of his own. Deborah took in William with Benjamin and they would have two children, Francis Folger Franklin who soon died of smallpox and Sarah Franklin who eventually married Richard Bache and cared for Benjamin in his old age.

About this time, Benjamin had a famous meeting with an ancestor of mine (some have surmised by proximity and name though I have yet to prove) by the name of Cotton Mather. Benjamin's brother James had gotten into a verbal war over inoculation against smallpox when Benjamin was an apprentice. James Franklin had felt it wrong to believe fighting a disease with the disease could work and Cotton Mather believed that it did work and even inoculated his own children, one of who nearly died though as we all now know, probably do to the procedure and not the theory. Later when Benjamin was an established printer, he met with Cotton Mather again and as he was leaving, ran into a low beam. Cotton Mather is credited as having said, "You are young and have the world before you; stoop as you go through it and you will miss many hard thumps," advise Benjamin Franklin carried to his grave.

In 1733, Franklin began to publish the famous Poor Richard's Almanac under another of his many pseudonyms, a book full of hundreds of famous saying still in use today such as the misquoted "A penny saved is a penny earned" which was in reality, "a penny saved is twopence dear." This book along with the newspaper and now several printing businesses soon brought wealth to Franklin and he decided to retire by hiring someone to run the day-to-day operations. Never one to sit around, he focused his energies into the sciences and soon had numerous creations to his name including the lightening rod, glass armonica, Franklin stove, bifocal glasses and the flexible urinary catheter. He always felt that people enjoyed great advantages from the inventions of others and thus never patented any of his. He also furthered understanding in such phenomenon as the Atlantic Ocean Gulf Stream, prevailing winds, and refrigeration.

Franklin founded the American Philosophical Society, which was a gathering of scientific minded men to discuss discoveries and theories. During this time, Franklin became one of the leading scientists in the field of electricity and as we all learned in grade school, was the first person to prove that lightening was electricity with a kite and a key. However the kite was never struck by lightening as popularly imagined but rather extracted the electricity from the storm clouds. As an engineer with quite a bit of science background, I was very impressed at how simple Franklin's tests were but yet how much information he gathered.

Eventually Benjamin gravitated towards politics becoming a councilman, a Justice of the Peace, elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly and appointed Deputy Postmaster General of North America where he did a major reform of the postal system that was largely overshadowed by his later diplomatic services. As always he filled his spare time by establishing the first hospital in what would become the United States and organized the Pennsylvania Militia.

In 1757, Benjamin Franklin was sent to England to protest the political influence of the Penn family and try to get their charter revoked so that Pennsylvania could become similar to the other colonies. The Penn’s had a penchant for advocating taxes to pay for things within their colony just as long as their land was excluded from the tax rosters, something that didn't sit well with Franklin and the other colonists. Although his mission to England failed, Franklin began to develop his diplomatic skills in earnest.

Despite his common-law marriage to Deborah Read, I don't think Franklin found family life appealing and found reason after reason to continue what was to be a brief stay in England into one that lasted six years. When he did come home, he spent much of his time embroiled in the defense of the colony from an Indian uprising and the continuing feuding with the Penn’s until he left a year later again for England and again to protest against the Penn Charter. However, events beginning with the infamous Stamp Act would quickly change his mission. He would stay there for the next eleven years until some letters that he leaked to the American press in a scandal called the Hutchinson Letters would cause him to flee London to avoid arrest. By the time he reached home, his common-law wife Deborah had been dead not quite five months.

Perhaps with his common-law wife dead and his Tory supporting son now a disgrace and in jail, Franklin no longer had ties to remain home and willingly became a commissioner to France a year later and stayed there for the next nine years. Now an old man at 79, Franklin remained true to his past habit of never sitting still and became involved with the Constitutional Convention, finished writing his autobiography and was elected sixth President of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania, a position analogous to the modern day Governor

Franklin died on April 17, 1790 at the age of 84. In his will, Franklin bequeathed $4,400 to each his native city of Boston and his home of Philadelphia to be held in trust and gather interest for the next 200 years. His hope was that the astronomical sum of money would be spent on impossibly elaborate utopian projects. The Philadelphia trust, used in mortgage loans were in 1990 was worth $2 million and is given out in the form of scholarships for local high school students. The Boston trust was worth $5 million in 1990 and was used to establish and fund the Franklin Institute of Boston. Benjamin Franklin's desired epitaph in 1728 at age 22 was:

The Body of B. Franklin Printer; Like the Cover of an old Book, Its Contents torn out, And stript of its Lettering and Gilding, Lies here, Food for Worms. But the Work shall not be wholly lost: For it will, as he believ'd, appear once more, In a new & more perfect Edition, Corrected and Amended By the Author.


R. Sherman said...

A couple of years ago, the Missouri History Museum hosted a large exhibition on Franklin's life which was really well-done. He's as fascinating a character in American history as many of our presidents. One wonders what his contribution to the presidency would have been had he been younger and chosen to run for it. I've a sneaking suspicion the country lost out on that one.


Eutychus2 said...

A really great review. thanks.

sage said...

I like his epitaph--maybe I should write a few and have my blogger friends vote on them!

Good review, Ed.

Beau said...

Nice. I was just considering which author I would choose for his biography- now you've muddled the waters! I've always loved his epitaph.

geri said...

I learned a lot about Benjamin Franklin from this entry. I now picture him with Tom Wilkinson's face though after watching that John Adams movie :)

Ed said...

R. Sherman - I hadn't thought about that but I suspect he would have been a president similar to Adams, all but lost to history. Franklin would have disliked all the political bickering as Adams did.

Eutychus2 - My pleasure.

Sage - Maybe you can start one of those viral things of writing your epitaph and forwarding it to ten friends.

Beau - Don't let me stop you. Like I said, this book was okay but it wasn't the caliber of the book I reviewed on Adams. Perhaps you can find that gem of a biography on Franklin.

Geri - I really liked the Adams movie and have a hard time picturing the people in it other than the actors faces.

Eutychus2 said...

Ed..........and Sage
This whole concept of doing our own epitaph reminds me of the recent Mitch Albom book 'Have a little faith.'