Yes, he actually flew that kite, and his greatest invention, the lightning rod, occasioned great debates about humankind’s audacious interference with God’s judgments.
Dray’s previous title (At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America, 2002) was a Pulitzer finalist, but this latest effort lacks its predecessor’s gravitas. One of many recent works about the Founding Fathers—including Franklin (see Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, 2003, for example)—Dray’s volume is comparatively slender. The subtitle indicates a focus on the lightning rod—and, indeed, references to it do appear throughout—but the author offers, as well, a Bio Lite of Franklin, from birth to death, from slave-owner to abolitionist, from journalist to constitutionalist. We hear stories about Franklin’s inventions and are treated to an epilogue charting the frequency and destructiveness of lightning strikes, the pervasiveness of electricity in our everyday lives and octogenarian Franklin’s concerns about an afterlife. We must wait nearly 150 pages to find out if lightning rods work (no reason to spoil it here). Some amazing personalities appear along the way: Robespierre, Mozart, Handel, Phillis Wheatley and Mary Tofts, who claimed she gave birth to rabbits. Of greatest interest and relevance are Dray’s stories about Franklin’s electrical experiments (he electrocuted animals, just to see), about his scientific, religious and political opponents. Then, as now, there were some religious leaders—and myriad followers—who believed science should not interfere with God’s providence; others feared that sending electrical forces into the ground via lightning rod would cause earthquakes. For some reason, Dray does not really comment about the contemporary relevance of any of this.
Very little that shocks or illuminates. (Illustrated throughout)