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The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin (2004)

by Gordon S. Wood

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An interesting examination of the changing public image of Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was a loyal advocate of the British Crown until he became convinced that England would not treat the colonies justly. His major contribution to the Revolution was his diplomacy in France, which was underestimated in his lifetime. Wood explains how Franklin's Autobiography contributed to America's image as a land of hard working, self-made men. ( )
  ritaer | Jan 28, 2017 |
A masterpiece of historical biography. Not only does Wood provide a compelling account of Franklin's life, recreating the rich political and social context of the eighteenth century Anglo-American culture, he explains how and why the subsequent layers of mythology have surrounded and distorted Franklin. ( )
  JFBallenger | Aug 13, 2015 |
It’s important to understand that this is not a biography of Franklin in the normal sense. It does tell the story of his life and his rise to political influence, but it’s more about how his reputation and image was molded into something different over the years. Wood’s goal was to remove the myths and get to the heart of who Ben Franklin truly was, but answering that question isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Franklin was the youngest son of 17 children. Despite his huge family and low stature, he managed to get a position as a printer’s apprentice and start to learn a trade. He was one of the first truly a self-made men in America. Over the years he wrote columns for his newspaper under dozens of pseudonyms. He was vocal about his beliefs and never shied away from stating an opinion, though he might only do it anonymously.

He was a scientist, political leader, ambassador, inventor, post master, printer, free mason, and a self-made gentleman. He fell hard for London society and then later France, and lived in both places for years. It was interesting to learn that he was a staunch loyalist to the crown until late in life when he felt like he had been passed over for a position in England.

Over the centuries his image has been distorted by historians. He is sometimes painted as prudish, miserly, or as the all-American tradesman. Depending on what the historian decided he needed, Franklin’s legacy was warped to fit a mold. His incredible talent as an ambassador was often overlooked.

It felt like the author admired his influence, but he didn’t like him as a man. Honestly, the more I learned about his personal life the less I respected him. When he lived in England he left his wife and daughter in America, rarely writing them and skipping his daughter’s wedding. He took his illegitimate son with him, but later disowned the son when he was loyal to the country (England) that Ben Franklin had taught him to love.

BOTTOM LINE: Wood paints an honest portrait of Franklin. There are no rosy glasses with which to view his life, but he sticks to the facts and I appreciated the candid portrayal. I am in awe of how much Franklin did for our country, especially since he received little thanks for it. No man is perfect and Franklin’s impact on the founding of our Nation and the alliance that was formed with France was truly priceless.

“‘The players of our game are so many,’ he told a French correspondent. ‘Their ideas so different, their prejudices so strong and so various and their particular interests independent of the general, seeming so opposite that not a move can be made that is not contested. The numerous objections confound the understanding. The wisest must agree to some unreasonable things that reasonable ones of more consequence may be obtained and thus chance has its share in many of the determinations so that the play is more like trick track with a box of dice.’” ( )
  bookworm12 | Jan 20, 2014 |
I must say this was a tough dose of reality to read; Ben Franklin has been my favorite Founding Fathers for a while now, but I never really knew him in such a three dimensional way until now.

In modern times, the Founders are either lauded or loathed. I generally distrust the lamenting accounts of these men, and to a fault, I trust elevating biographies of our country's founders. Yet Gordon S. Wood writes a book which is flat out honest and does not power the chaff. I underlined two sentences from the book's introduction which illustrate the notion I have come to find from reading so many biographies.

The first line I think best speaks to the honest of The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin reads: "We have more than two hundred years of images imposed on Franklin that have to be peeled away before we can recover the man who existed before the Revolution." Mr Wood speaks to the cyclical pattern of biographical accounts across the centuries since Dr. Franklin's passing. First, authors were approbative over the first couple of generations post-Revolution which slowly evolved to antagonistic writings as in a counterculture vein to discredit his fixation on the monetary, but more recent, the pendulum has swung back to the laudatory, downplaying his shortcomings and misgivings.

This book appears to faithfully whisk the reader along as Franklin's star rises with his success, ingenuity, and industry. He becomes world renown for his science and philosophic works; always involved in politics, he is incrementally prepared for the world stage and falls in love with Europe. In modern times we might consider Dr. Franklin to have become wealthy enough for "early retirement" or a gentlemen. From this point he delves into international politics. This is where the book grows morose only for the reason Dr. Franklin's life becomes less cheerful as well. The best way to describe Benjamin Franklin in London is similar to the son of parents living in an abusive relationship. Franklin, working in a official capacity, continually attempts to maintain and repair relations, trying to smooth over rough patches between Continental Congress and Parliament. Like a child who witnesses abuse between his parents, he doesn't full grasp the climate of America and cannot see the detriment the Crown is causing to its relationship with its transatlantic colony. Trying to not pick sides, the child attempts to involve himself in a situation he does neither fully understand nor sees both sides, yet tries to help anyway. Minister Franklin loses the palpable pulse of America while soaking in the splendor of London and government life. As with a child of the couple who fights and threatens each other, Franklin is distrusted by Americans and later publicly berated by England's government. He will have a similar experience as he fails to understand his reputation is suffering while in France; he will be treated better by France than he was England. Unfortunately, the Americans, as Franklin writes later, will accuse him of something short of treason.

As a scientist he excelled, yet as a politician, he got by on his reputation. Like a book-smart person, who often lacks street-smarts, he greatly failed to understand (or purposely ignored out of indifference) the political implications and feelings most of the time. Mr Wood writes that, while in France, the country was crawling with spies, Dr. Franklin couldn't care less if he was involved with any because he knew personally he was above espionage; in a Pollyanna sense, he let his reputation insulate him from suspicion of being duplicitous in traitorous activity. It really didn't protect him. As the book concludes, it is very sad to realize Dr. Franklin received a less than reasonable eulogy and his legacy was shrouded in a cloud of near indifference.

As I began my review, I primarily had read books that presented Benjamin Franklin as a man who could do no wrong, mentally agile up to the day he died and shrewdly astute in politics just as he was with science. In some sense, he was knocked down a peg for me, but it simultaneously made him more human as well. He still has a great story of success in achieving what he wanted, reaching gentleman status and breaking the birthright barrier. Having labored as a printer to the chagrin of the class he emulated, he strove to become a member of the upper class, once only attainable by birthright and not merely monetary value. As his popularity waned in America he realized work was commendable, and once again championed the laborer just as much as he hailed the gentry.

The second passage I made note of speaks to this: "Consequently, despite hundreds of biographies and studies of Franklin and over three dozen volumes of papers,... we still do not fully know the man." Gordon S. Wood's book is a great start. ( )
  HistReader | Aug 12, 2012 |
A rock solid, brief biography of Benjamin Franklin. Wood goes through great effort to belie many of the common images of Franklin, and really show him for the shrewd statesman he was.

One of my new favorites. ( )
  AdamRackis | Sep 19, 2011 |
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Benjamin Franklin has a special place in the hearts and minds of Americans. He is, of course, one of the most preeminent of the founders, those heroic men from the era of wigs and knee breeches. Men as diverse as Henry Cabot Lodge to George Wills have ranked him along with Washington as the greatest of the Founders.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0143035282, Paperback)

From the most respected chronicler of the early days of the Republic—and winner of both the Pulitzer and Bancroft prizes—comes a landmark work that rescues Benjamin Franklin from a mythology that has blinded generations of Americans to the man he really was and makes sense of aspects of his life and career that would have otherwise remained mysterious. In place of the genial polymath, self-improver, and quintessential American, Gordon S. Wood reveals a figure much more ambiguous and complex—and much more interesting. Charting the passage of Franklin’s life and reputation from relative popular indifference (his death, while the occasion for mass mourning in France, was widely ignored in America) to posthumous glory, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin sheds invaluable light on the emergence of our country’s idea of itself.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:17 -0400)

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Offers a portrait of the complex, often contradictory figure of Benjamin Franklin, a man who was at once the quintessential American and a cosmopolitan lover of Europe, and a one-time loyalist turned revolutionary.

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