Review by John Augustine
Another extremely popular subject right now is the Founding Fathers. Jefferson, Adams, Washington, Madison have all received full-length treatment recently, but we're not always eager to know what the great man ate for breakfast every morning. Which founder would you rather join for a leisurely dinner conversation? Who but Ben Franklin. Gordon Wood has provided just such a splendid brief biography with The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin.
In that small club of American founders, Franklin was perhaps the most remarkable. A self-made man, an autodidact, he rose to become a successful businessman, inventor, diplomat, and community leader. He was by far the most respected American abroad, thanks to his scientific accomplishments. The revolution could have not succeeded without him, for his ability to charm and wheedle the French into supporting us was crucial. Without French support, Washington, Jefferson and the rest would have been hung on the gallows as traitors.
But for most of his life, Franklin was a proud and satisfied Englishman, living abroad. And why not? He had prospered as a colonial and enjoyed correspondence with many distinguished friends in England. When the system has worked so well for you, why change it? What could induce this elderly, comfortable man to join the incredibly risky enterprise of the rebels and defy the country that had so rewarded him?
The key to his Americanization lies in his devotion to public service. Jefferson was shy and Washington austere, but Franklin was a committee man. He liked nothing better than good conversation in pursuit of community benefit with a group of like-minded Philadelphians.
When he was 31, he became the postmaster of Philadelphia and was dedicated to the benefits of postal service ever afterwards. He established the first public library in America. He promoted smallpox inoculation when it was a very controversial issue, and helped establish a city hospital available to the poor. In short, when the needs of the community clearly favored separation from Britain, he became Americanized and threw in his lot with the rebels. In the end, few of the leading founders were present for the deliberation and drafting of the Declaration of Independence and after the war, the Constitution, but Ben Franklin was one of them.
Three of his accomplishments struck me particularly. We picture him as a tubby elderly man, wearing wire-rimmed bifocals (which he invented, by the way), but as a young man, he was a strapping and athletic six footer who taught himself a very unusual skill: he learned to swim. He thought it would be an interesting challenge and good exercise. Even most sailors and fisherman in our sea-bound colonies couldn't swim, but Franklin could often be spotted doing something few people would dare to today, swimming in Philadelphia's Schulkyll River.
The kite and key electrical adventure is well known, and out of those experiments came not only Franklin's international prestige, but also the lighting rod. In a world of wooden homes and barns, everybody wanted one, or several. There was a fortune to be made, but Franklin refused to submit a patent application, ceding all rights to the invention to whomever wanted to manufacture them. In fact, he never patented any of his inventions, including the bifocals. As he said, "The field of knowledge is the common property of mankind. As we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours, and this we should do freely and generously."
Finally, towards the end of his life, he wrote a passionate appeal to the United States Congress, urging the nation to abolish slavery. Franklin himself had owned slaves as a younger man—all of the founders had, except Adams. But in his old age, the evils of the institution, its violation of the principles they had fought for, became supremely evident to him. His appeal was met with ridicule and scorn, predictably from the southern congressmen. Franklin had anticipated this response, but he pushed back against it anyway. At the age of 84, he was still willing to join the battle for the public good.
The book is The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin written by Gordon Wood, published by Penguin. This program is Lifelines, a production of Quality Delta College Public Broadcasting.
© John Augustine, 2011