Benjamin Franklin is one of the first rank “founding fathers,” along with Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and George Washington. But he was strikingly different from all of them. He was scientifically curious and accomplished—even more so than Jefferson—politically astute, fabulously extroverted, and culturally sophisticated. He was well-known throughout Europe and just as comfortable in the salons of Paris and at society gatherings in London as he was in colonial Philadelphia. He was also a rake and a rambler, flirtatious, and far removed from the buttoned-down reverence for the founders that most in modern America believe was the case.
This biography of Franklin by Edmund S. Morgan is a masterpiece by a master historian. Born in 1916, Morgan has been a major force in the study of colonial/Revolutionary War history since the 1950s. I read his work while an undergraduate in the 1970s and have kept up with his major books since that time. While in his 80s, Morgan published this Franklin biography, the product of a lifetime of research, thought, and analysis. What he offers here is a broad portrait of the sage of Philadelphia, a true product of the Enlightenment who epitomized the virtues of reason and rationality.
At sum, Morgan’s Benjamin Franklin is an introduction to a fascinating character elucidated in a little more than 300 pages. Rising from a common apprenticeship as a printer in Boston, Franklin migrated to Philadelphia as a young man, gained wealth and fame as a printer, especially Poor Richard’s Almanac, and turned his attention to many other interests, especially experimentation in electricity, creation of many different voluntary associations for fire, insurance, and library operations. He spent many years in Europe, especially England, and was certainly comfortable there. His fame as a naturalist/scientist led to his receiving an honorary doctorate from St. Andrews, and then his attaching the Dr. rather than Mr. to his name ever after. He married, had children, and presumably enjoyed a good relationship with his wife, they lived apart much of the time and he certainly enjoyed flirtations and more with many other women.
Franklin wrote much, even an autobiography which has been required reading in my history and literature classes ever since, and Morgan makes the most of this treasure trove of source documents, distilling a life of letters into a stunning narrative. At the same time, and Morgan admits this periodically in the telling of Franklin’s story, that Franklin obscures as much as he elaborates through his extensive writings. He fails to illuminate his relationships, his many intrigues both political and licentious, and his machinations in representing the cause of “American Empire.”
It is in this last arena that Morgan concentrates, appropriately so, since it was the dominant theme in the last decades of Franklin’s life. Beginning in the 1750s Franklin sought to create what was essentially an “Anglo-American Empire” with a union of individual colonies into a stronger continental entity. He took an approach that had served him well previously, allowing others to take center stage in the effort while he maneuvered in the background. The Albany Plan was the result of this effort, and while it failed many of the ideas in it would reemerge in the crisis of empire that led to the American Revolution of the 1770s. By then, Franklin had decided that the “American Empire” could not include an “Anglo” component and he pressed for the severing of governmental relations with England.
He spent the rest of his life working for the success of the United States. He served in the Second Continental Congress, was a member of the committee that oversaw the writing of the Declaration of Independence, traveled to France to work toward an alliance to defeat the British, was a key negotiator in the Treaty of Paris granting U.S. sovereignty, engaged in diplomacy and intrigue in Europe for several years thereafter, and returned to America in time to serve as an elder statesman in the Constitutional Convention of 1787. In essence, Franklin played a key role in every Machiavellian twist and turn in the gaining of American independence, sometimes those twists proved successful and sometimes not so much. Regardless, Franklin’s fingerprints were all over every aspect of them.
I found Morgan’s admissions about Franklin compelling: “Intellectual curiosity is one of the rarest gifts and…he was just loaded with curiosity. He never took things for granted.” At another point Morgan concludes, and I think appropriately so: “He is the most modern of all the Founding Fathers, the oldest in years but the youngest in outlook. He takes you by surprise.”
That is not so much the case for Edmund S. Morgan; we know that anything by him is outstanding. I have to tell this story: a week before I was to take my comprehensive exams for my Ph.D. in history, my advisor asked me to name the three great historians of colonial America whose names began with “M.” I sputtered for moment and made no serious answer, in part because of the trivial nature of the question, but he wanted me to say Edmund S. Morgan, Samuel Elliot Morison, and Perry Miller. It is books like this that only add to that reputation. It is an excellent biography of a truly astonishing character.