Benjamin Franklin, Walter Isaacson tells us at the beginning of his long (but never tedious) new biography, "is the founding father who winks at us." By that, Isaacson explains, he means Franklin is the most human--and most modern--of the men who forged the American republic. We admire Washington, Jefferson and Adams, but they remain creatures of the 18th century. The man we encounter in "Benjamin Franklin" (Simon & Schuster. $30)--funny, pragmatic and self-aware--seems like one of us, or at least someone we'd like to be.
Unlike Washington's cherry tree, Franklin's kite was real. His experiments with electricity made him one of the great scientists of his day. He was a middle-class business-man whose success as a printer and a journalist allowed him to retire at 42--and in notably un-Babbitt-like fashion, he devoted the rest of his life to his city and his country. He was the diplomat who persuaded the French to back the American Revolution and the author of the first great American autobiography. He was an excellent swimmer. There was almost nothing he couldn't do well, except write poetry.
But what truly distinguished Franklin was his knack of being great and human at the same time. He owned slaves as a younger man, but in his last years became an abolitionist. When he fathered an illegitimate son, he acknowledged his paternity and assumed the responsibility of raising the boy. Not that he ever managed to be more than an indifferent father or husband. When his wife died, Franklin, living in London, hadn't seen her for 10 years. Yet he loved to insinuate himself into other families, particularly ones with young women and teenage girls. But while he was a famous flirt, no evidence suggests that any of these relationships was other than platonic.
He seems kinkiest today in the joy he took in compiling and creating all those self-improvement maxims he published in Poor Richard's Almanac--"early to bed, early to rise" and so on. Generations of lazy boys--"boys who might otherwise have been happy," as Mark Twain put it--could have lived without that Franklin legacy. But he was no hypocrite. Isaacson--who, as former CEO of CNN and managing editor of Time, sounds as if he's followed those maxims--tells us Franklin practiced what he preached, and often laughed at himself while he did so. It's convenient to be "a reasonable creature," he wrote, "since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do."
By a happy accident, this is the second excellent biography of Franklin to appear in two years, after Edmund S. Morgan's sublime "Benjamin Franklin." Morgan, at 337 pages, is as terse as Isaacson (at 590) is loquacious, but both provide illuminating portraits of a quintessential, and perennially contemporary, American spirit.