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Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by…
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Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (2003)

by Walter Isaacson

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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Showing 1-5 of 37 (next | show all)
This book does a good job of highlighting Franklin's achievements, but often reads like an encyclopedia, especially in Franklin's early years. I would have appreciated more of an attempt to explore Franklin's motivations and inner life, even if some of it needed to be speculative.

Also, I don't quite trust that Isaacson has completely addressed the key points of Franklin's life and legacy, or put them in the appropriate context. For example, in the section on the Treaty of Paris, there is no mention of the secret codicil about Florida, which caused so much consternation in Congress (and is discussed in depth in Ketcham's biography of Madison). There is no mention of how Congress was split between those who trusted France and saw Franklin as their hero, and those who distrusted France and Franklin by extension. There is no exploration of whether the lack of public mourning for Franklin was due to his petition against slavery (as speculated by Chernow). It is surprising to me that biographies of these other founding fathers have information about Franklin that Isaacson does not even mention, much less explore.

Another example that made me wonder what I could trust was this line from Isaacson: "Jefferson was all too familiar with the darkness that infected Adams." This is a fairly strong statement, and seems quite out of line with the Jefferson-Adams relationship portrayed in McCullough. The only support from Isaacson for Jefferson's opinion was one sentence in a letter from Jefferson to Madison: "He hates Franklin, he hates Jay, he hates the French, he hates the English -- to whom will he adhere?"

So, I looked up the original letter. In the very next sentences, Jefferson went on to say, "His vanity is a lineament in his character which had entirely escaped me. His want of taste I had observed. Notwithstanding all this he has a sound head on substantial points and I think he has integrity. I am glad therefore that he is of the commission & expect he will be useful in it. His dislike of all parties, and all men, by balancing his prejudices, may give the same fair play to his reason as would a general benevolence of temper. At any rate honesty may be extracted even from poisonous weeds."

I just don't think Jefferson's first sentence, in context, supports a "darkness" "infecting" Adams. Moreover, the overall context of Jefferson's letter may be that since Madison already really doesn't like Adams, Jefferson is trying to argue against Madison's most negative opinions in the least confrontational way possible, by seeming to agree with Madison's negative viewpoint perhaps more than he actually does. So, why would Isaacson make such a strong statement based on such flimsy support? He can't actually share Madison's antipathy of 200 years ago. Was it just sloppy research? I looked up the footnote to Isaacson's paragraph, and found that Isaacson's Jefferson quote was taken not from the original Jefferson letter, but from a secondary source. Was this book just assembled from other popular histories, instead of from primary sources and academic histories? ( )
1 vote read.to.live | Jul 8, 2014 |
Franklin is an American icon. Isaacson sees him as the quintessential American: self-made, independent, pragmatic, technical, anti-intellectual. Others view Franklin as a negative model, Isaacson is an apologist for him. Franklin was self-absorbed, narcissistic, destructive and dysfunctional in his personal relationships. It was always and only about Franklin. The author does a good job narrating how Franklin built his media empire, his wit and his love for the middle-class tradesman and his values. His fascination with science at the practical level would gain him the label "geek" if he were alive today. As a politician, he understood that the essence of politics is compromise: everyone gets something, no one gets everything they want. Isaacson's biography is an honest one, even if he gives Franklin a "pass" on moral matters. Definitely recommended as an excellent modern "read" of this prototypical American.
1 vote KirkLowery | Mar 4, 2014 |
"Benjamin Franklin is the founding father who winked at us" (p 2). What a great way to start a biography about a man whose life is such common knowledge you don't feel like you could read yet another one and get anything new out of it. It is Isaacson's writing style that sets him apart from all the other biographies. From the very beginning, Isaacson draws you into Franklin's world with such ease and humor. His style of writing is charming and winsome in a myriad of ways, but I liked that he used such words as "sassy" and "spunky" to describe people. A lot of Isaacson's information is drawn from Franklin's own words, either from his autobiography (even correcting Mr. Franklin from time to time) or from Franklin's personal letters. I particularly enjoyed Franklin's tongue in cheek research about the smell of farts correlating to the type of food one eats. But, Isaacson's playful account doesn't mean he refrains from personal critical opinion about our founding father's actions, especially concerning Franklin's treatment of his immediate family. He defends Franklin as much as he can concerning the relationships Franklin has with women other than his wife, claiming they were mostly nonsexual. However, Isaacson has sympathy for Franklin's family who spend nearly two decades without him. In addition to Franklin's personal life, Isaacson also is extremely thorough in detailing Franklin's civic contributions, political dealings and public life. ( )
1 vote SeriousGrace | Jan 24, 2014 |
Benjamin Franklin: An American Life
by Walter Isaacson published in June 2004

This book is just my cup of tea, but, I must admit a couple of times at least I tired of reading this biography, however every time I returned to read this book, I quickly re-engaged. In essence the language is fluid and throughout is easy to comprehend. The biographical time line is straight from birth to death covering the years from 1706 to 1790. The final chapter, a verdict on our current perception of his life is a great finale. Ben was a remarkable workaholic and was a great scientific experimentalist. Ben was a pragmatic tinkerer who invented the first lightning conductors that still today are used to protect our buildings from fire by lightening. Ben truly was one of the major US founding fathers and retired as a successful business entrepreneur at age 42, and then mostly spent his time as a Statesman, first for the State of Pennsylvania, and then later as the first US Ambassador to France. Ben spent a total of 16 years in London and 9 years in Paris. Ben sailed across the Atlantic a total of 8 times. This book was a great follow on to my recent study of the peculiarities of the US Constitution resulting from the conference of 1787. Ben was unique in that his signature is attached to the four major documents of his time, namely, the Declaration of Independence, the 1783 Treaty of Paris that concluded the Peace Conference with the British, the Treaty of Alliance with France and the US Constitution. The Isaacson book is a history buff’s dream as it includes a 2 page chronology of Ben’s life time, a short life summary of all the individuals referenced, an extensive listing of all the sources employed and an extensive index. The text of the biography itself extends over 493 pages. The reference pages add another 115 pages. This is a truly top notch academic work as well as a great read.
21 August 2013 ( )
1 vote MichaelHodges | Aug 21, 2013 |
This is very slow going... not nearly as interesting as his Job's book. Chronology seems to be missing.

At about 40% in I found this quite tedious...Issacson jumps around illogically and repeats himself -- the last is quite confusing on a Kindle Touch because sometimes it will just leap forward chapters or pages...

I was surprised how much I didn't like Franklin as a person because of the way he neglected his immediate family.

Yes he was an amazingly accomplished man.

But.

I'm not sure that makes up for the way he acted personally.

But maybe he was just acting in tune with the times. I dunno. ( )
1 vote Clueless | Jul 8, 2013 |
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Walter Isaacsonprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Runger, NelsonNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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His arrival in Philadelphia is one of the most famous scenes in autobiographical literature: The bedraggled 17-year-old runaway, cheeky yet with a pretense of humility, straggling off the boat and buying three puffy rolls as he wanders up Market Street.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 074325807X, Paperback)

Benjamin Franklin, writes journalist and biographer Walter Isaacson, was that rare Founding Father who would sooner wink at a passer-by than sit still for a formal portrait. What's more, Isaacson relates in this fluent and entertaining biography, the revolutionary leader represents a political tradition that has been all but forgotten today, one that prizes pragmatism over moralism, religious tolerance over fundamentalist rigidity, and social mobility over class privilege. That broadly democratic sensibility allowed Franklin his contradictions, as Isaacson shows. Though a man of lofty principles, Franklin wasn't shy of using sex to sell the newspapers he edited and published; though far from frivolous, he liked his toys and his mortal pleasures; and though he sometimes gave off a simpleton image, he was a shrewd and even crafty politician. Isaacson doesn't shy from enumerating Franklin’s occasional peccadilloes and shortcomings, in keeping with the iconoclastic nature of our time--none of which, however, stops him from considering Benjamin Franklin "the most accomplished American of his age," and one of the most admirable of any era. And here’s one bit of proof: as a young man, Ben Franklin regularly went without food in order to buy books. His example, as always, is a good one--and this is just the book to buy with the proceeds from the grocery budget. --Gregory McNamee

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:42:09 -0400)

(see all 7 descriptions)

Chronicles the founding father's life and his multiple careers as a shopkeeper, writer, inventor, media baron, scientist, diplomat, business strategist, and political leader, while showing how his faith in the wisdom of the common citizen helped forge an American national identity based on the virtues of its middle class.… (more)

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