The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin
by H.W. Brands
Paperback: 784 pages
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He was the foremost American of his day, yet today he is little more than a mythic caricature in the public imagination. Benjamin Franklin, perhaps the pivotal figure in colonial and revolutionary America, comes vividly to life in this masterly biography.
Wit, diplomat, scientist, philosopher, businessman, inventor, and bon vivant, Benjamin Franklin was in every respect America’s first Renaissance man. From penniless runaway to highly successful printer, from ardently loyal subject of Britain to architect of an alliance with France that ensured America’s independence, Franklin went from obscurity to become one of the world’s most admired figures, whose circle included the likes of Voltaire, Hume, Burke, and Kant. Drawing on previously unpublished letters and a host of other sources, acclaimed historian H. W. Brands has written a thoroughly engaging biography of the eighteenth-century genius. A much needed reminder of Franklin’s greatness and humanity, The First American is a work of meticulous scholarship that provides a magnificent tour of a legendary historical figure, a vital era in American life, and the countless arenas in which the protean Franklin left his legacy.
Benjamin Franklin may have been the most remarkable American ever to live: a printer, scientist, inventor, politician, diplomat, and--finally--an icon. His life was so sweeping that this comprehensive biography by H.W. Brands at times reads like a history of the United States during the 18th century. Franklin was at the center of America's transition from British colony to new nation, and was a kind of Founding Grandfather to the Founding Fathers; he was a full generation older than George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry, and they all viewed him with deep respect. "Of those patriots who made independence possible, none mattered more than Franklin, and only Washington mattered as much," writes Brands (author of a well-received Teddy Roosevelt biography, T.R.: The Last Romantic). Franklin was a complex character who sometimes came up a bit short in the personal virtue department, once commenting, "That hard-to-be-governed passion of youth had hurried me frequently into intrigues with low women that fell in my way." When he married, another woman was already pregnant with his child--a son he took into his home and had his wife raise.
Franklin is best remembered for other things, of course. His still-famous Poor Richard's Almanac helped him secure enough financial freedom as a printer to retire and devote himself to the study of electricity (which began, amusingly, with experiments on chickens). His mind never rested: He invented bifocals, the armonica (a musical instrument made primarily of glass), and, in old age, a mechanical arm that allowed him to reach books stored on high shelves. He served American interests as a diplomat in Europe; without him, France might not have intervened in the American Revolution. He helped draft the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He possessed a sense of humor, too. In 1776, when John Hancock urged the colonies to "hang together," Franklin is said to have commented, "We must indeed all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately." Franklin's accomplishments were so numerous and varied that they threaten to read like a laundry list. Yet Brands pours them into an engrossing narrative, and they leap to life on these pages as the grand story of an exceptional man. The First American is an altogether excellent biography. --John J. Miller
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