Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Benjamin Franklin

I just finished Benjamin Franklin by Edmund Morgan. Every American kid learns about Ben Franklin in history, but what I remember of those lessons is a vague montage of an old man flying a kite, writing pithy "Poor Richard" sayings, and somehow involved in establishing American independence. The school history books give the impression he was an old man his entire life.

This picture, by the way, is totally inaccurate. And no, I am not referring to the cherubs assisting in the advance of science, but rather to the fact that Franklin looks like he's about 80 years old when he did his famous kite flying experiment. In reality, he was in his early 40s. And was probably quite a looker, by all accounts. As a young man, Franklin was athletic--a powerful swimmer in a time when most people couldn't swim at all--charming and funny. Not to mention brilliant. The impression you get from reading his biography is that he was supremely charismatic. He loved people and people loved him. Women, apparently, found him irresistable, even in his old age.

Franklin was no provincial country bumpkin American. He spent years living in London, corresponded with influential people in Italy, France, Holland and other countries, was considered an authority on a variety of scientific topics, although he himself felt that devotion to public service was more important than furthering scientific knowlege. Franklin was a tinkerer, a figure-outer of things. He invented bifocals, the lightening rod, a new way of rigging ships. It was Franklin who figured out that lead is poisonous, by observing what handling lead type did to himself and other printers, plus observing and talking to painters, plumbers and glaziers (leaded glass). He also noticed that plants died in areas where lead was smelted.

Most of his life, Franklin considered himself an Englishman. He spent years devoted to a goal of a united English Empire in which the American colonies were full members, and not merely colonies. He also worked to move Pennsylvania from the rule of Proprietors, to the rule of a royal governor--thus earning the enmity of the Penn family.

When it became clear that his vision of America and England united in a single powerful empire would never happen, he devoted himself to the cause of American independence. Arguably, he was the only American sophisticated enough to parry with upper-level French government officials and lived in Paris during the American Revolution, gaining money and support from France.

The interesting thing about this book is the transition of Franklin from Englishman to American. We Americans, when studying our Revolution, emphasize the British as "other" when in fact they weren't. It's difficult to grasp the concept now, 200 years later, when we have a clearly established national identity different from the UK's, that the Revolutionary war was really a civil war--Englishmen fighting Englishmen.

I highly recommend this book although I confess I skimmed some of the more convoluted political passages.

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