Saturday, May 1, 2010

Book review: The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin

"Of making many books," the Hebrew Bible warns us, "there is no end"  (Ecclesiastes 12.12b, Revised Standard Version).  In the last 10 or 15 years, that seems to be the case regarding biographies of Benjamin Franklin.  Top tier American historians like Brand and Morgan have solid overviews of Franklin's life and work, and popular writers like Walter Isaacson have written books on him as well.  Editions of Franklin's Autobiography are numerous.  One recent biography from the last 10 years stands out, though, both in its tone and its approach to Franklin: Gordon Wood's book The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin.  A comprehensive yet reasonably sized volume, Wood's book recounts Franklin's life through the lens of his shift from a dedicated proponent of the British Empire to one of the pivotal Founding Fathers of the American Republic.  Wood uses Franklin's intellectual and emotional journey from loyalist to revolutionary as a template for understanding Franklin's life and accomplishments.  It is a fascinating way for Wood to approach his subject.

Wood looks at Franklin's intellectual history through the prism of Franklin's various life experiences.  From his extremely humble origins as a workingman printer's apprentice to the heights he reached as a diplomat and founding father, Franklin's shifts of opinion, of conviction and of purpose are not only well-documented by Wood, but perhaps most importantly, well-explained.  Franklin is a remarkably difficult figure to understand, for the most part.  Part of this is due to his own practice of not revealing his own inner thoughts, part of it is due to the remarkable length of his career, a career that saw massive social, economic and political changes in Pennsylvania, the British Empire, and the American nation.  Wood's approach to Franklin helps to clarify and make sense of much of Franklin's work, both as a businessman, diplomat and politician.  While not every mystery about Franklin is resolved via Wood's approach, it does shed a great deal of light on the consistent aspects of Franklin's ideas, ideals and beliefs over time.

Some examples of the topics that Wood explores and brings light to are:  
  • Franklin's early efforts -- prior to the French and Indian War -- to facilitate the creation of a Union of the English colonies in the New World;
  • Franklin's devotion of the British Empire, grounded in a belief that the American colonists were full participants and members of that Empire;
  • Franklin's loyalty to the King, and his happiness at the elevation of George III to the throne of the Empire;
  • Franklin's growing disillusionment with the King and the Empire as it became increasingly clear that the British would never consent to the full equality of the colonists within the Empire;
  • Franklin's diplomatic efforts in France as an outgrowth of his love of Europe.
In addressing all of these topics (and several more, it should be said), Wood examines the consistencies in Franklin's thought over time, as well as the events that caused Franklin to change his views as circumstances around him changed.  What Wood really makes clear is that most of Franklin's fundamental principles remained constant throughout his life.  While Franklin was fluid when it came to the means and methods that he employed to achieve the realization of those principles, the principles themselves remained remarkable stable over a long career. In fact, much of the value of Franklin's career as a teaching tool revolves around his willingness to be flexible in the methods he used to pursue his goals. 

In addition to exploring Franklin's life, Wood also devotes space to exploring Franklin's reputation, both during Franklin's own life but also after Franklin's death. 

This is one of the most insightful and helpful books about Franklin that I've read in quite some time -- it may in fact be the best single-volume book about Franklin available in English.  That is not to say that the book is perfect.  Wood spends relatively little time discussing Franklin's religious beliefs and his discussion of Franklin's troubled family life is uneven and lacks the kind of revelatory insight that Wood brings to bear on Franklin's professional history. 

That said, Wood's biography of Franklin is top notch and well worth a read.  As the lazy days of summer appear on the horizon, this would be a good book to have as one plans a July beach vacation or August bank holiday.


Jonathan Rowe said...

Hi Mark,

Even though I am an expert blogger, I don't know how to (I'm not sure if I can) put my latest post below yours. I asked Brad to do that for me. I don't want you to think I am burying you.

Mark D. said...

Thanks! BTW, feel free to post above me on the blog -- this is a group blog and I take that to mean that lots of folks will be posting. If I get bumped from the top of the blog there's a simple remedy for that: I'll blog another post!