Exploring the complexities of Ben Franklin
December 3, 2008
I am benefiting from my older brothers retirement.He retired in May and found time for the extra reading he always wanted to do, so his library is rapidly expanding. He took a particular fancy to the recent flurry of biographies on the giants of American history. Im scavenging his finished pile. Its sort of like gold mining.The latest nugget I unearthed was Benjamin Franklin, An American Life by Walter Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute and former managing editor of Time magazine. (Sure, I am a little behind the times; the book was published in 2003, but, hey, I say better late than never.)I was already a fan of Isaacsons relaxed yet revealing interviewing style, which he has demonstrated at numerous Aspen Institute events. His writing style fits the same mold.He pieces together a fascinating account of Franklins life his brilliance, his flaws, his failings and his successes. Isaacson shatters myths about the revered icon. I figured, for example, that Franklin was the quintessential man of faith and family given all the homespun proverbs he crafted that revolve around the Protestant work ethic.But Isaacson shows how dysfunctional Franklin really was with his family and with many of his friends. Franklin let politics and pride drive such a large wedge between himself and his son that it couldnt be removed, even though his son clearly craved reconciliation.Old Ben even let his wife fade away to effects of age and illness without returning from England to comfort her. Even in the best of times, his relationship with his wife was odd. I squirmed when I read the excerpts that Isaacson selected from letters from Franklin to his wife. They are cold, stiff and in great contrast to the love notes that Franklin wrote to women and girls he flirted with. You cant but feel sorry for Franklins wife.Isaacson also educated me about Franklins complicated role in the American Revolution. I assumed that Franklin, like all who signed the Declaration of Independence, breathed fire on all matters concerning England. Not so. He preferred an ongoing union with Great Britain and worked hard to make it happen before he fully embraced absolute independence.Isaacson dives into all aspects of Franklins life, from his genius as an inventor to his wit as a writer and publisher, from his slyness as an American diplomat in France to his foresight in creating civic institutions in the colonial states.We live in a society that tries to draw everything in black and white (or red and blue). Partisanship rules the day. Compromise is for sissies. Isaacson shows us that perhaps the greatest strength of one of countrys most dedicated forefathers was the ability to chart a course for the greatest good.[Franklin] was on the side of religious tolerance rather than evangelical faith, Isaacson wrote in his conclusions chapter. The side of social mobility rather than an established elite. The side of middle-class virtues rather than more ethereal noble aspirations.We could benefit as much from Franklins lead today at the fledgling country did more than 200 years ago.