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L_Monty
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Finally Franklin! — A Thread for June

In response to requests that we read about Franklin this month (or last month!), the featured book for June will be Walter Isaacon's Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

Benjamin Franklin is the founding father who winks at us, the one who seems made of flesh rather than marble. In this authoritative and engrossing full-scale biography, Walter Isaacson shows how the most fascinating of America's founders helped define our national character.

In a sweeping narrative that follows Franklin's life from Boston to Philadelphia to London and Paris and back, Isaacson chronicles the adventures of the spunky runaway apprentice who became, during his 84-year life, America's best writer, inventor, media baron, scientist, diplomat, and business strategist, as well as one of its most practical and ingenious political leaders. He explores the wit behind Poor Richard's Almanac and the wisdom behind the Declaration of Independence, the new nation's alliance with France, the treaty that ended the Revolution, and the compromises that created a near-perfect Constitution.

Above all, Isaacson shows how Franklin's unwavering faith in the wisdom of the common citizen and his instinctive appreciation for the possibilities of democracy helped to forge an American national identity based on the virtues and values of its middle class.



Obviously, there are hundreds of books on Franklin, and this isn't the end-all be-all offering on the subject. However, given it's availability (nobody should have trouble getting a library or store copy), accessibility (it's written in a clear, straightforward style) and general academic praise (it got thumbs up from some of the other Franklin-related authors nominated), it seemed like a smart choice.

However, if you've read other books on Franklin, please feel free to contribute to the discussion by examining their take on specific events. (I know that Redcatlady has volunteered to examine historiographical differences on major issues by posting some short excerpts from other Franklin books she is reading/has read.) Similarly, you don't have to wait on any "official" discussion on a topic to broach it; post here or start your own thread. If you have some Franklin knowledge you think helpful/interesting, you don't have to wait on anyone's OK for it, and if you have a Franklin question, the only way it's getting answered is if you fire away!
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PhilsFolly
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Re: Finally Franklin! — A Thread for June

I confess I have read only half of Isaacson's bio so far.  But one of the many issues I found of interest was the author's explanation of Ben Franklin's religious views.  I mention the topic not to generate a discussion of religion, but as a way of illustrating the complexities of Franklin.  When discussing the religious views of the Founding Fathers, there are typically two views of Franklin - those who view him as "godless" and those who view him as a strictly rational Enlightenment deistIsaacson takes exception to both of these views.  He makes a convincing case that Franklin's deism was more complex than many historians are willing to admit.

 

"Unlike most pure deists, he concluded that it was useful (and thus probably correct) to believe that a faith in God should inform our daily actions; but unlike other deists, his faith was devoid of sectarian dogma, burning spirituality, deep soul-searching, or a personal relationship to Christ." (page 85

 

But even on the earnest topic of religion, Franklin's humor is evident.  With a story that any Monty Python fan would appreciate, Franklin skewered the Puritan practices regarding witchcraft.  In doing so, he displayed the tolerance and humor that make him one of the more likable Founding Fathers:

 

"He wrote for his newspaper a tale called 'A Witch Trial at Mount Holly,' which was a delightful parody of Puritanical mystical beliefs clashing with scientific experimentation.  The accused witches were to be subjected to two tests: weighed on a scale against the Bible, and tossed in the river with hands and feet bound to see if they floated.  They agree to submit to these tests - on the condition that two of the accusers take the same test. . . The accused and accusers all succeed in outweighing the Bible.  But both of the accused and one of the accusers fail to sink in the river, thus indicting that they are witches.  The more intelligent spectators conclude from this that most people naturally float.  The others are not so sure, and they resolve to wait until summer when the experiment could be tried with the subjects unclothed." (page 88)

 

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L_Monty
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Re: Finally Franklin! — A Thread for June


PhilsFolly wrote:

Isaacson takes exception to both of these views.  He makes a convincing case that Franklin's deism was more complex than many historians are willing to admit.

 

"Unlike most pure deists, he concluded that it was useful (and thus probably correct) to believe that a faith in God should inform our daily actions; but unlike other deists, his faith was devoid of sectarian dogma, burning spirituality, deep soul-searching, or a personal relationship to Christ." (page 85

 



You made an interesting comment in the other thread, which I still want to get back to in relation to the thing *I* was planning on writing up today, which I think applies to how I responded to Isaacson's handling of Franklin's religiosity. You were talking about how Isaacson had approached this subject historiographically, kind of summarizing all the major perspectives on Franklin out there, and I think he's doing it here, too. It's an interesting take, and often it seems like his major aim is to try to split the difference by two reasonable approaches he's encountered. In this case, I think it works really well, because Franklin didn't embrace either the personal relationship with Christ, the doctrine of predestination or the gloomy/angry piety of Jonathan Edwards that suggested we're all essentially horrible. In the process, I think Franklin devised a pleasantly and uniquely American progressive theology that bypasses assumptions of either being chosen or damned. It neatly fits into his social conscience as well: that we are all responsible for trying our best to be both productive and moral, and that we should seek to devote those energies to the betterment of both ourselves and others. A kind of salvation by personal work and public works, rationally organized. I think you can probably draw a straight line running from Franklin to the late-19th/early-20th century mainstream progressives who eschewed pieties in favor of inclusive humanitarianism.

Hmm, I feel like I'm wandering all over the place with this point.
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PhilsFolly
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Re: Finally Franklin! — A Thread for June

Monty

 

You made an effective summation of what you termed Franklin's progressive theology. Isaacson said much the same: "He [Franklin] cared more about public behavior than inner piety, and he was more interested in building the City of Man than the City of God." 

 

Historians often neglect that crucial point.  It is vital in explaining Franklin as the moving force (starting while he was still in his 20s) in the establishment of the Philadelphia fire company, a public library, and the first nonsectarian college in the colonies.  It also explains why Franklin never patented his numerous inventions, and freely shared his scientific findings with others.

 

As I finish reading the bio, it should be interesting to see if/how Franklin's progressive instincts shaped his role as a Founding Father.  

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fordmg
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Re: Finally Franklin! — A Thread for June

I read this book a few years ago, and found it well written.  It is a nice overview of Franklin without lionizing him.   This book does show the essense of the man, with his flaws.  I especially like the way Issacson treated Franklins relationship with his "wife".  Because they actually never married, she was a common law wife.  Also Franklin's relationship with his son and daughter and grandson.

MG

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L_Monty
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Re: Finally Franklin! — A Thread for June

You made this post in another thread, and it's something I wanted to get back to:


PhilsFolly wrote: Meanwhile, I eagerly await an opening comment/question on the Franklin biography. It's an easy read, but I find it interesting that Isaacson frequently mentions other historians' perspectives with which he disagrees.

Well, Isaacson's primarily a journalist, and this is something I've noticed a lot with journalist's histories. Adam Cohen's Nothing to Fear had a similar approach. Now, this isn't to say that Isaacson or Cohen aren't doing any research of their own or are bad analysts, but their overall approach seems to be to jump into a few primary texts and otherwise read a ton of secondary texts and then write a kind of historiographical arbitration. Perhaps a kind of insecurity informs their interpretation (i.e. "I'm not one of the big boys, so I can't throw too many stones or throw them too hard" etc.), where they feel that an absence of really new scholarship among a wealth of archival primary sources kind of pushes them out of the game of having strong opinions about an incident or person. The result tends to be this enumeration of the two or three prevailing interpretations of an event and then an effort at reconciliation amongst them: thesis as triangulation, if you will.

I think also the authors' choices inform this approach. Put simply, Isaacson wouldn't be writing about Franklin if he didn't admire him, just as Cohen probably would not have been writing about FDR's inner circle had he not found them striking and laudable. (The journalist-historians as a rule, I've noticed, tend not to write about people they find objectively despicable. For instance, you're never going to see Tom Brokaw's Hitler: A Jerk.) Because they're writers for a popular audience, I think they feel an impulse to transmit the popular attributes (and popularize) someone they esteem. Thus another reason for the effort at reconciling major interpretations. It's as if to say that with one person conceding a bit here and another person conceding a bit there, we can all agree that Franklin was great.

I think this struck me most over the course of the book as I was noticing a streak of a kind of dismissive narcissism in Franklin that Isaacson seemed to be at pains to reason away. I'd go into it more, but I'll wait for your reply.
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Re: Finally Franklin! — A Thread for June

As this is the history book club, I'm sure this is true for most readers.  You're browsing the history section of the library or a book store, and you see something on the face or spine of a book that compels you to read the jacket.  Perhaps it's the words "Civil War" or "Napoleon Bonaparte" or "Austrian Habsburgs."  You feel compelled to buy or check out the book, no matter how many other books you have read on the subject, simply because you hope there will be something new to read.  Fans of history are eternal optimists, and we keep reading about our favorite subjects because we want there to be something new. Unfortunately, there is a historical equivalent of the law of diminishing returns.  At some point good historical research will exhaust the reputable sources.  Certainly,this is pretty much the case with American colonial history for which there is no version of classified documents yet to be declassified.

 

So why do historians keep mining the same vein?  Why another biography of Ben Franklin? More to the point, why write a biography which essentially presents no new scholarship, but which ambitiously attempts to rationalize the contradictory nature of Ben Franklin (something other historians have failed to do)?  I think Monty covered those issues more effectively than I can.  Yes, it is clear that Isaacson admires Franklin.  It is clear he hopes his readers will admire Franklin.  And to give him credit, perhaps Isaacson believed he could reconcile the major interpretations by presenting his own.  But his biography, while well written (and yes, "we can all agree that Franklin was great") did not break new ground, nor did it effectively put to rest the conflicting historical views of Franklin the Man - versus Franklin the Public Figure - versus Franklin as told by Franklin!

 

Two phrases from Monty that I think worthy of discussion: "thesis as triangulation" and "a kind of dismissive narcissism in Franklin."   

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Re: Finally Franklin! — A Thread for June

Phil's,

 

Somehow, despite checking back here multiple times per day, I missed seeing the "last poster in thread" notification with your name by it and mistakenly assumed this thread had gone unreplied-to. I kept thinking, "Where's Phil's?" The answer, as always, is that I'm an idiot. Or there are ghosts in the board code.

 

You ask, "Why do historian's keep mining the same vein?" I think there are multiple reasons, most of them cynical, but some pretty good:

 

1. Histories, like technologies, always seem more important if there's something new in there. "OK, cool, my phone can play MP3s to me. But now you say I can add any of my MP3s as my ringtone in this new phone? This is the greatest thing ever." Historians, like technology early adopters, are a manipulable fanboyish audience. Even a 500-page retread on Franklin will be a must-have book if 10 of those pages include a really compelling re-interpretation of some aspect about him. Which flows to: 

 

2. Books about Franklin will always sell. Historians like making money, and publishing houses like looking like contributors to culture, so rolling out more Franklin stuff makes everyone happy. If you have one new feature to it, the purchase seems reasonable. No offense to Russians or English, but you just don't get that with, say, Crimean War histories. With some topics, all you need is Shelby Foote or John Keegan or Doris Kearns Goodwin saying something good on the front and three or four Harvard/Yale/Oxford/Cambridge profs saying something good on the back, and you've backed a winner.

 

3. Though there are probably some 19th century Franklin bios that still hold up, sometimes the language of the culture needs an upgrade. I think we'd both rather read Isaacson than his 1880s counterpart.

 

4. Our frames of reference change, as do our priorities, as do the analogs that would most illuminate. I think part of the reason Franklin spoke to Isaacson is that — as a CNN executive and a quasi-pioneer of a new form of news (24-hour) — Franklin's nationalizing content and his efforts to reduce lag times between communities in terms of receiving information evoked Franklin as an analog for communication ingenuity. Also, he was writing after the immoderacy of the dot-com boom and amidst the insanity of a housing+mortgage-backed-securities boom. The immoderacy of both made Franklin's commitment to frugality, dislike of the extravagantly wealthy, and promotion of public services for the advancement of a hard-working middle class resonant again with a new audience that had made another leap forward technologically and economically but quite a few backward insensibly.

 

 

As for "a kind of dismissive narcissism in Franklin," I think Isaacson was far too light-handed with him on that one. Franklin all but ignores his wife for years prior to her death, abandons one son out of either pride or spite, dismisses a grandson when he becomes inconvenient, forgets his daughter and his son-in-law for years until they become useful again, etc., etc. Meanwhile, he goes to great lengths to court other people around him, to take people who aren't essential to his life, who aren't family, and make them like him.

 

It all seems like a very familiar narcissism: the disposability of the certain personal victory compared to the thrill of achieving the difficult one. Family is meaningless: they'll love you anyway, especially sons. But think of the validation of converting a rival to your friendship! In a way, Franklin's constant reinvention of himself and his household reads to me like a person without the confidence and the sure hand that Isaacson assigns to him and rather like someone generally uncertain of the worth of himself and constantly clinging to new tabula rasa validations of himself.