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by Gordon S. Wood

Pub Date: May 24th, 2004
ISBN: 1-59420-019-X
Publisher: Penguin Press

A reluctant revolutionary? A French wannabe? A portrait of Ben Franklin in a decidedly contrarian—though careful—bit of revisionism.

“Although he may have eventually become the supreme symbol of America,” writes Wood (History/Brown Univ.; The Radicalism of the American Revolution, 1992, etc.), “he was certainly not the most American of the Founders during his lifetime. Indeed, one might more easily describe him as the least American and the most European of the nation’s early leaders.” This was not only because most of Franklin’s commercial and intellectual ties were with London, but also because he inclined, early on, to a somewhat aristocratic view of human affairs, sniffing at those who had to make a mere living and enjoying gentlemanly pursuits. So upper-crust English was he by temperament that Franklin relocated to England in the late 1750s and proceeded to write his American friends letters about the blessings of London for anyone with a brain: the city enjoyed “in every Neighbourhood, more sensible, virtuous and elegant Minds, than we can collect in ranging 100 Leagues of our vast Forests.” Franklin offered to pay the losses caused by the Boston Tea Party out of his own pocket, and he pressed for an English–American Act of Union that would forever bond the two. Yet something happened in England—something about which Wood offers intriguing guesses—so that Franklin returned to America convinced of the justice of the revolutionary cause: “What impressed most delegates” to the Continental Congress, Wood writes, “was the intensity of Franklin’s commitment to the patriot cause. He seemed deeply angry at the Crown and British officialdom and was impatient with all efforts at reconciliation.” He committed himself to that revolution even as other Founders suspected him of being a fair-weather friend, at considerable personal danger. Even so, he moved to Paris almost as soon as the war was over, and “the nearly eight years that Franklin spent in France were the happiest of his life,” far away from the postcolonial crowd.

An illuminating companion to Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin (2003) and other recent studies that cast the Founder in a new light.