Walter Isaacson’s biography Benjamin Franklin. An American Life is critically claimed as one of the best on Franklin. Having just finished, I can see why. At over 400 pages, it is a long book like most encompassing biographies on great historical figures. However, the book is chronological, which makes it easy to skip to the “fun” sections.
If you like history and biographies, give this book a read. It is factual, yet opinionated. It is dull where it should be dull. And, clever in unsuspected places. The read will not fly by, but it will be easy to pick-off where you left. In the end, you’ll most certainly learn something you did not know about the history of America along with one of its greatest sons.
Personally, I read this book for two reasons (well, three). First, biographies and histories are my favorite book genres. I enjoy reading about the past as a road-map for my life and understanding for the society in which I live. Second, Benjamin Franklin is interesting because his life was so multifaceted: Tradesman, Businessman, Inventor, Scientist, Diplomat, Rebel, among numerous others. Who exactly was he?!? (Third, I too need a break from reading book about Running once in awhile.)
There’s a lot of wisdom in this this book. Here are a few of my highlights:
Benjamin Franklin’s (and his fictional Poor Richard’s) advice was to have a core “trade” to financially support yourself. For Franklin, that was Printing. He argues that if you have a trade, you can most always provide your services to support yourself and family. Then, from that solid financial base, you can build: Scale the enterprise, participate in community activities, hold political office, invest time in interests and hobbies, or whatever else you would like to do. This makes sense to me. I started down this path with a Chemical Engineering Degree. If I had stayed that course, Engineering (especially with a Professional Engineer Certificate) is trade that can be reasonably relied on to provide services in the market. Eventually, I transitioned to Marketing and Business Management. This too — bringing products to the market and managing an enterprise — is a skill set that can be developed and relied upon. In Franklin’s era, perhaps this skill set would have been Shop Owner, Inn Keeper, or Merchant. In any case, good practical advice, especially for those starting out in life. What you did mattered less than at least doing something.
Franklin was a terrific and prolific writer. He developed his writing style early as a young printing apprentice where he wrote some of his most famous articles (e.g. Silence Dogood Letters). And, the last public address of his life (see below paragraph) is a masterpiece. As a printer, Franklin spent a large part of his life building and publishing newspapers. Franklin understood the power of the written word. How it can be precise, rationale, and distributed rapidly to far more places than you could travel on your own. By mastering the written world, Franklin learned how to influence millions without ever being there at all — influence that continues with the present generation.
A list of Franklin’s friends reads like the Who’s Who list of 18th century Europe and America. He seemed to know everyone. He exchanged ideas with the top philosophers, scientists, and politicians of his generation. However, in my reading, Franklin was foremost interested in sharing ideas as opposed to collecting business cards. This pursuit and his own contributions to science and politics eventually put Franklin in the same circles with history’s great characters. All of this despite beginning life as a poor, runaway teenager. Franklin was excellent at networking and this network ultimately helped him (and America) throughout life.
Back to writing, if you could only read one letter from Benjamin Franklin, I would make a strong case to read his last public address to the Continental Congress before the signing of the U.S. Constitution. Transcribed below from the notes of James Madison:
I confess that I do not entirely approve of this Constitution at present, but Sir, I am not sure I shall never approve it: For having lived long, I have experienced many Instances of being oblig’d, by better Information or fuller Consideration, to change Opinions even on important Subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow the more apt I am to doubt my own Judgment, and to pay more Respect to the Judgment of others. Most Men indeed as well as most Sects in Religion, think themselves in Possession of all Truth, and that wherever others differ from them it is so far Error. Steele, a Protestant in a Dedication tells the Pope, that the only Difference between our two Churches in their Opinions of the Certainty of their Doctrine, is, the Romish Church is infallible, and the Church of England is never in the Wrong. But tho’ many private Persons think almost as highly of their own Infallibility, as of that of their Sect, few express it so naturally as a certain French Lady, who in a little Dispute with her Sister, said, I don’t know how it happens, Sister, but I meet with nobody but myself that’s always in the right.
In these Sentiments, Sir, I agree to this Constitution, with all its Faults, if they are such; because I think a General Government necessary for us, and there is no Form of Government but what may be a Blessing to the People if well administered; and I believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a Course of Years, and can only end in Despotism as other Forms have done before it, when the People shall become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any other.
I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution: For when you assemble a Number of Men to have the Advantage of their joint Wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those Men all their Prejudices, their Passions, their Errors of Opinion, their local Interests, and their selfish Views. From such an Assembly can a perfect Production be expected? It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this System approaching so near to Perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our Enemies, who are waiting with Confidence to hear that our Councils are confounded, like those of the Builders of Babel, and that our States are on the Point of Separation, only to meet hereafter for the Purpose of cutting one another’s throats. Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best.
The Opinions I have had of its Errors, I sacrifice to the Public Good. I have never whispered a Syllable of them abroad. Within these Walls they were born, and here they shall die. If every one of us in returning to our Constituents were to report the Objections he has had to it, and use his Influence to gain Partisan in support of them, we might prevent its being generally received, and thereby lose all the salutary Effects and great Advantages resulting naturally in our favour among foreign Nations, as well as among ourselves, from our real or apparent Unanimity. Much of the Strength and Efficiency of any Government, in procuring and securing Happiness to the People depends on Opinion, on the general Opinion of the Goodness of that Government as well as of the Wisdom and Integrity of its Governors. I hope therefore that for our own Sakes, as a Part of the People, and for the sake of our Posterity, we shall act heartily and unanimously in recommending this Constitution, wherever our Influence may extend, and turn our future Thoughts and Endeavours to the Means of having it well administered.
On the whole, Sir, I cannot help expressing a Wish, that every Member of the Convention, who may still have Objections to it, would with me on this Occasion doubt a little of his own Infallibility, and to make manifest our Unanimity, put his Name to this instrument."
Wow. What a great speech to capstone an amazing life. How fortunate we are to have had these leaders during the formative years of America. Even for today, there is a lot of practical wisdom here:
“For when you assemble a Number of Men…with those Men all their Prejudices, their Passions, their Errors of Opinion, their local Interests, and their selfish Views. From such an Assembly can a perfect Production be expected?”
Of course not. How could it ever? Even back in 1787 our founders understood compromise. Practically speaking, it is the only to accomplish anything great and lasting.
“I confess that I do not entirely approve of this Constitution at present, but Sir, I am not sure I shall never approve it: For having lived long, I have experienced many Instances of being oblig’d, by better Information or fuller Consideration, to change Opinions even on important Subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise.”
It’s OK to change opinions with better information. In fact, what are the chances all your current positions are right? Are you really infallible? Odds are not. Are you willing to change with new information (and, more importantly, are you willing to listen to new information).
“The Opinions I have had of its Errors…Within these Walls they were born, and here they shall die.”
Make your case and if the group rejects your ideas, move on and join the broader group. That is what it means to be part of a team or organization.
Lastly, great biographies remind the reader that their subject is in fact human — filled with character flaws and mistakes. Benjamin Franklin was no exception. His relationship with his wife was borderline cruel in my reading. His estrangement from his son (although I understand the source of the distance) seems awfully harsh for any father to persist and carry through to his death. And, because I do read books about running, Franklin was not a good role model for healthy living, despite his advice in Poor Richard’s Almanac. In summary, Benjamin Franklin was human — but an effective one.
Overall, Walter Isaacson’s biography of Benjamin Franklin earns a spot on any history reader’s bookshelf. The challenge is where to categorize this book of such a multidimensional man.