Thursday, July 7, 2011

Father of The American Dream

Benjamin Franklin might be the second most well-known Founding Father after George Washington. But why? He wasn't a president. He wasn't a general. He didn't write the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution (although he signed both). In fact, even though he was influential in so many ways he was also quite old by the time the American Revolution occurred. Gordon Wood explains that although Franklin passed in and out of public favor during and after his life, his enormous influence upon the nation and our ideals was far more than just political.

The Americanization of Benjamin FranklinAmerica has long been called the "land of opportunity" but Franklin is possibly the biggest reason behind the idea of the "American Dream." The nations of Europe in the 1700s were very class-conscious. You were either part of the wealthy gentry or you labored with your hands. To be certain, there were a few successful people - the "middling" classes - who were financially successful, but they were still looked down upon for having earned their fortunes by work. It sounds almost silly now, but work was seen as morally debasing and it was believed that only by being born into a state of not having to spend time and effort at work (particularly with your hands) could one's best traits be developed. Franklin was one of those who amassed immense wealth by his industry... but he also made a show of extolling the virtues of being a "self-made man," especially through his Autobiography which became immensely popular. Wood explains that Franklin was perhaps the single greatest influence in creating this idea that Americans had the opportunity to make something more of themselves than their birth might have implied. (I even worked for a company called Franklin that taught his ideas of self-improvement.)

The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin generally follows a chronological format but isn't precisely a biography in the traditional sense (such as Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson). It focuses more on the important points of Franklin's life and the many and varied accomplishments for which he is remembered. Of course it details his achievements as a revolutionary, especially his influence in persuading the French to assist the American Revolution, but it also explains his very late conversion to the cause of the Revolution. In fact, Franklin was a very loyal "British" subject until he finally realized how futile his efforts were to persuade Parliament to treat Americans fairly. This caused many patriots to wrongly view his conversion with suspicion, and he wasn't as highly valued in America as he was abroad. Wood doesn't shy away from covering his shortcomings, but he rightly praises him for his many contributions.

And this really is a good book about one of the greatest Americans and his personality and character and the context of his time. As he became an American he also created the image of an American. And he might just be the biggest reason for our expectation that anyone can - through their own efforts and hard work - make of themselves whatever they chose. And if that isn't a true "Founding Father," I don't know what is.

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