Friday, August 20, 2010

Everything but a poet

Benjamin Franklin: An American LifeEveryone knows good ol' Ben Franklin, the guy who flew a kite in a storm and 'discovered' electricity. Unfortunately, we don't often know much else of what he did, except that he was one of the "Founding Fathers." More than once, while reading this book, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson, someone said to me, "oh yeah, didn't he write the Declaration of Independence?" Um, no.

Benjamin Franklin was a printer, and he made such a good living that he was able to retire from it when he was 40 years old. He published "Poor Richard's Almanac" which included so many aphorisms and popular sayings that a great many of them are still in use today. He started volunteer fire departments and lending libraries and service clubs, and pushed for improvements such as paved streets. He was the postmaster for the colonies and greatly improved the system of mail delivery. He served in many government positions and argued for preserving the freedoms of the citizens. He was an old man by the time war was declared but influenced Thomas Jefferson's writing of the Declaration of Independence and signed it. In fact, he was the only one to sign (and profoundly influence) the four most important documents that began this nation: the Declaration of Independence, the treaty with France for their support of the colonies (while he served as ambassador there), the treaty with England to end the war, and the Constitution. In addition, his scientific contributions over his lifetime made him the foremost American thinker and earned the admiration and friendship of the greatest European minds of the time.

I used to work for the Franklin Day Planner company (long before the merger with Stephen Covey) and they practically idolized his philosophies for self-improvement, turning them into a successful business to help people gain better control over their time and lives (I still consider it one of the best companies I've ever worked for). But as Walter Isaacson points out so well, Franklin was so much more than just one character trait. He consciously worked on improving himself in many ways. He may not have had much success with humility (he couldn't help but take pride in his accomplishments) and he certainly wasn't a decent husband and father to his own family (preferring the surrogate families he surrounded himself with in England and France on his excessively long stays there) but his other accomplishments were many. Although initially reluctant to break ties with England, once he made up his mind there was no turning back and he was as essential to independence as any of the founding fathers.

Isaacson numbers his shortcomings along with his successes and presents a fairly well-balanced portrait of this giant of a man, and makes it all very readable and even entertaining. He addresses the critics of Franklin through the years, such as the "Romantics" of the early 19th century who complained about his folksy image and championship of middle class values (Herman Melville grudgingly called Franklin "everything but a poet"), and since his day Franklin and his thinking has drifted in and out of style. We may not always recognize the pervasive ways he's influenced society today, but he's always there.

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