The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin
In the first comprehensive biography of Benjamin Franklin in over sixty years, acclaimed historian H. W. Brands brings vividly to life one of the most delightful, bawdy, brilliant, original, and important figures in American history.
A groundbreaking scientist, leading businessman, philosopher, bestselling author, inventor, diplomat, politician, and wit, Benjamin Franklin was perhaps the most beloved and celebrated American of his age, or indeed of any age. Now, in a beautifully written and meticulously researched account of Franklin’s life and times, his clever repartee, generous spirit, and earthy wisdom are brought compellingly to the page.
His circle of friends and acquaintances extended around the globe, from Cotton Mather to Voltaire, from Edmund Burke to King George III, from Sir Isaac Newton to Immanuel Kant. Franklin was gifted with a restless curiosity, and his scientific experiments with electric currents and the weather made him the leading pioneer in the new field of electricity on both sides of the Atlantic; among his many inventions were the lightning rod, the Franklin stove, and the harmonica, a musical instrument that became the rage of Europe.
From his humble beginnings in Boston as a printer’s apprentice, he became, within two decades, the leading printer and one of the most important businessmen in the Colonies. A longtime Philadelphia civic leader, he created Philadelphia’s first fire department, wrote the bestseller Poor Richard’s Almanac, served as Postmaster General for the Colonies, and in the process, completely modernized the mail service. A bon vivant and ladies’ man throughout his life, he matched wits with Parliament and the Crown during the decade leading up to the Stamp Act; and as the official agent to Parliament, representing several of the Colonies, he helped push the Colonies into open rebellion.
Tracing Franklin’s gradual transformation from reluctant revolutionary to charismatic leader in the fight for independence, Brands convincingly argues that on the issue of revolution, as Franklin went, so went America. During the Revolutionary War, Franklin was charged by Congress with wooing the King of France to the American cause, and it was the diplomatic alliances he forged and funds he raised in France that allowed the Continental Army to continue to fight on the battlefield. In his final years, as president of the Constitutional Convention, it was Franklin who held together the antagonistic factions and persuaded its members to sign the Constitution.
Drawing on previously unpublished letters to and from Franklin, as well as the recollections and anecdotes of Franklin’s contemporaries, H. W. Brands has created a rich and compelling portrait of the eighteenth-century genius who was in every respect America’s first Renaissance man, and arguably the pivotal figure in colonial and revolutionary America. A fascinating and richly textured biography of the man who was perhaps the greatest of our Founding Fathers, The First American is history on a grand scale, as well as a major contribution to understanding Franklin and the world he helped to shape.
Benjamin Franklin may have been the most remarkable American ever to live: a printer, scientist, inventor, politician, diplomat, and—finally—an icon. His life was so sweeping that this comprehensive biography by H.W. Brands at times reads like a history of the United States during the 18th century. Franklin was at the center of America’s transition from British colony to new nation, and was a kind of Founding Grandfather to the Founding Fathers; he was a full generation older than George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry, and they all viewed him with deep respect. “Of those patriots who made independence possible, none mattered more than Franklin, and only Washington mattered as much,” writes Brands (author of a well-received Teddy Roosevelt biography, T.R.: The Last Romantic). Franklin was a complex character who sometimes came up a bit short in the personal virtue department, once commenting, “That hard-to-be-governed passion of youth had hurried me frequently into intrigues with low women that fell in my way.” When he married, another woman was already pregnant with his child—a son he took into his home and had his wife raise.
Franklin is best remembered for other things, of course. His still-famous Poor Richard’s Almanac helped him secure enough financial freedom as a printer to retire and devote himself to the study of electricity (which began, amusingly, with experiments on chickens). His mind never rested: He invented bifocals, the armonica (a musical instrument made primarily of glass), and, in old age, a mechanical arm that allowed him to reach books stored on high shelves. He served American interests as a diplomat in Europe; without him, France might not have intervened in the American Revolution. He helped draft the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He possessed a sense of humor, too. In 1776, when John Hancock urged the colonies to “hang together,” Franklin is said to have commented, “We must indeed all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” Franklin’s accomplishments were so numerous and varied that they threaten to read like a laundry list. Yet Brands pours them into an engrossing narrative, and they leap to life on these pages as the grand story of an exceptional man. The First American is an altogether excellent biography. —John J. Miller