Benjamin Franklin: An American Life
by Walter Isaacson
Simon and Schuster, 590 pp., $30.00
Americans cannot seem to get enough of Benjamin Franklin. During the past few years we have had several Franklin biographies, of which Walter Isaacson’s is the most recent and the finest; and more studies of Franklin are on the way. Part of the reason for this proliferation of Franklin books is the approaching tricentennial celebrations of his birth in 1706. But this isn’t enough to explain our longstanding fascination. He is especially interesting to Americans, and not simply because he is one of the most prominent of the Founders. Among the Founders his appeal seems to be unique. He appears to be the most accessible, the most democratic, and the most folksy of these eighteenth-century figures.
His many portraits suggest an affable old man with spectacles and a twinkle in his eye ready to tell a humorous story. People seem to feel he is the Founder with whom they would like to spend an evening, quite different from the others. Stern and thin-lipped George Washington, especially as portrayed by Gilbert Stuart, is too august and awesome to be approachable. Although Thomas Jefferson has democratic credentials, he is much too aristocratic and reserved for most people; besides, he was a slaveholder who failed to free most of his slaves. John Adams seems human enough, but he is too cranky and idiosyncratic to be the kind of American hero we can get close to. James Madison may seem too shy and intellectual and Alexan-der Hamilton too arrogant and hot-tempered: neither of them makes a congenial popular idol. It is Franklin who seems to have the common touch and who seems to suggest better than any other Founder the plain democracy of ordinary folk.
Scholars today tend not to believe anymore in the notion of an American character, but if there is such a thing, then Franklin seems to exemplify it. In 1888 William Dean Howells called Franklin “the most modern, the most American, among his contemporaries,” and many other commentators have agreed. He certainly appears to embody much of what most Americans have valued throughout their history. His “homely aphorisms and observations,” the historian Louis Wright has written, “have influenced more Americans than the learned wisdom of all the formal philosophers put together.” Although Franklin was naturally talented, one nineteenth-century admirer declared, he achieved his success by character and conduct that were “within the reach of every human being.” All of his teachings entered into the “every-day manners and affairs” of people; they “pointed out the causes which may promote good and ill fortune in ordinary life.” That was what made him such a democratic hero.
Unlike the other great Founders, Franklin began as an artisan, a lowly printer who became the architect of his own fortune. He is the prototype of the self-made man, and his life is the classic American success story of a man rising from the most obscure origins to wealth and international preeminence. Franklin, the author of The Way to Wealth, stands for American social …