In this relatively brief biography, Morgan (History/Yale) aims to depict Franklin’s personality as much as the deeds that made him famous.
Of course, the two are related: the author argues that, unlike his colleagues among the Founding Fathers who rose to their positions via oratory or elected office or family connections, Benjamin Franklin (1706–90) accomplished his goals by working behind the scenes. He owed his success to his affability, his work as a printer and writer, and his fame as an inventor. His success in England and France as ambassador from the colonies and then the fledgling US derived more from his experiments with electricity than from his diplomatic portfolio. Having founded most of the cultural institutions in Philadelphia at the time, usually by coordinating groups of friends to support his proposals rather than working personally on any one project, he easily fluttered in and out of the English and French courts, discussing everything from the new devices called hot-air balloons to the loans Congress had asked him to acquire for his new country. Franklin’s skills at adapting to his environment could also be a shortcoming, writes Morgan. At the outset of the Revolution, he was an unrepentant imperialist who believed America would someday be the center of the British Empire. He’d spent years hobnobbing with British officials, and his initial proposals to keep the colonies in the fold were completely out of touch with the facts on the ground in places like Boston, where noted citizens were dumping tea into the harbor. By the time Franklin became a member of the Constitutional Convention, he tended to sit silently, his gravitas contributing more than his sharp tongue. Morgan’s account is based almost exclusively on its subject’s massive collection of writings (now being edited for publication in 46 volumes), but Franklin was diversified enough to satisfy most readers.
An excellent portrayal of a patriot’s style and substance.