For his first four decades, Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) strived for success as a printer, publisher, and journalist.
Franklin’s fame as a statesman and scientist, based on his achievements in the last half of his life, far overshadows his early business career in London and Philadelphia. Bunker (An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America, 2014, etc.), a former reporter for the Financial Times and an award-winning historian, creates a vibrant, perspicacious, and well-researched portrait of a man hungry for knowledge and ambitious for financial success. Unhappy as an apprentice to a candle and soap maker in Boston, the adolescent Franklin became an assistant to his brother, a printer, which at least put him in proximity to words and ideas. A printer’s boy by day, he became a “scholar” at night, devouring books he borrowed from a local bookstore. In addition to Milton, Pope, and Socrates, Franklin read with delight Joseph Addison’s daily publication The Spectator, rewriting items to teach himself style. Soon, the “scandalous ideas about God and the cosmos” that Franklin gleaned from his readings “opened a rift between the boy and his family,” never to be healed. When Franklin “put the Christian God to the test of dialectic,” God failed. No wonder Franklin escaped from Boston to more open-minded Philadelphia, where he found work with a printer. Inexperienced and somewhat credulous, he sometimes “tipped headlong into adult situations he was too naive to comprehend.” In the 1720s, he decided to launch himself in London, a teeming, squalid city aptly captured by William Hogarth. Leaving Philadelphia, Franklin broke off a relationship with Deborah Read. Married and abandoned by the time Franklin returned, she became his common-law wife, raising his illegitimate son (the child of a relationship that Franklin kept secret for the rest of his life) along with their own children. Bunker adroitly describes Franklin’s involvement in the religious and political controversies of the day, including slavery, as well as in the scientific projects for which he became renowned.
An engaging, illuminating biography of a captivating figure.