When Jean-Baptiste Greuze, who specialized in sentimental canvases, painted Benjamin Franklin in 1777, he predictably failed to capture his essence. Thomas Penn, the proprietor of Pennsylvania, had come closer: “He is a dangerous Man and I should be very Glad he inhabited any other Country.” John Adams called him “the old conjurer.” In this book, Edmund S. Morgan, emeritus history professor at Yale, takes on the elusive sage.
Studies of Franklin exist in hundreds and his "complete" biographies grow very fat. Also, authors are oppressed by a doppelganger, Franklin’s eloquent Autobiography, which for literary worth cannot easily be rivaled. By a series of essays, Dr. Morgan avoids these perils and gives us a good picture of the man in about half the usual pages.
Franklin assisted at the dismemberment of one empire, the bankruptcy of another, and the birth of a third. Almost alone of the Founding Fathers, he was a city boy, with street smarts; a printer, thus a member of an ofttime seditious trade. He masked his sophistication with the cracker-barrel maxims of Poor Richard, yet became a familiar of the scientists and intellectuals of the Enlightenment; he seemed to know everybody who mattered. Celebrated universally for his experiments with electricity, he moved tolerantly through the dissipated European courts of his time. It has even been suggested, at a stretch, that he would be at home with the vagaries of the twenty-first century. But he had his own vision of an honest hard-working democracy.
Everyone looks at the world through the bifocals he invented, but he noticed things. People in his day sailed for weeks through contrary Atlantic currents on the way to the English colonies before Franklin saw what was the matter and mapped the Gulf Stream. He was the best known American of his time, and close to indispensable at crucial junctures.
In a finely-done first chapter Professor Morgan gives us the essence of Franklin’s open-eyed progression through life. Later, he takes us through the stages by which the colonists’ hearts and minds became disaffected with British rule, this despite Franklin’s earnest schemes to win representation within the Empire. It is hard to match Franklin’s prowess; once he gave up on an imperial solution, he could plot and make the opposite happen. For this he was publicly excoriated by the Crown’s Attorney General.
After the Revolution broke out in the colonies, Franklin was sent to Paris to secure loans and an alliance, endeavors in which he was successful. He took advantage of French infatuation with "radical chic" by renting a chateau with attached gardens and posing as an example of homespun virtue. Louis XVI was reported to be so fed up with his mistress prattling on about Ben that he presented her with a vase de nuit bearing the philosopher’s image, done by Sèvres.
Franklin got along better with the French than he did with the parade of Americans sent over to assist him. Thus he became the first, if not the last, American diplomat, to be pestered by envoys from the home office. When the gouty old man at last left for America, he used one of Marie Antoinette’s mule-borne litters to take him to Le Havre.
In Philadelphia he had an impressive list of firsts: first lending library, fire insurance company, municipal firemen, and lightning rods. He founded the American Philosophical Society and the University of Pennsylvania. If he worried unnecessarily about the influx of German immigrants, he also worried about the persecution of harmless Indians. He had a way of getting things done.
Franklin was a big man, muscular and adept at swimming. On Atlantic crossings he thought nothing of diving overboard and circumnavigating the ship. He arrived in Philadelphia by walking across New Jersey from Perth Amboy to Burlington. Within hours after he arrived at Market Street he was spotted by his future wife: dirty, tired after rowing downriver from Burlington, munching on a loaf. In his fiftieth year he was riding the Pennsylvania frontier along the Lehigh, establishing stockades to keep the hostile Indians from slipping in from the Poconos.
Interpretations of Franklin have not varied much over the years since Carl Van Doren claimed that he had rescued him from the “dry, prim people” (Benjamin Franklin, 1938). Major biographies of the sage have been written recently along with a wave of bestsellers on the Founding Fathers from Tom Paine to John Adams. Conservatives have been reexamining the politics of the Early Republic. Franklin took no great part in the Constitutional Convention and died in 1790, during Washington’s first administration, and before the outbreak of party warfare.