Book Review: Benjamin Franklin – An American Life

Another well crafted biography from Walter Isaacson (he also covered Einstein and Steve Jobs). It provides a great narrative to Franklin’s life starting from his youth in Boston, to his death in Philadelphia, uncovering the finer details of Franklin’s actions and thoughts throughout. Franklin was a practical, industrious individual who had a curiosity and joy for life that was infectious. He was constantly coordinating and organizing people to come together, the culmination of which was his instrumental role in the creation of the United States of America.

In many ways, Franklin is the quintessential American – hard working, pragmatic, self-reliant and democratic. We take for granted the democracy we have today, but the formation of the United States and the fundamental principles it stands for were by no means obvious at the time. It was a great departure from any previous political and social experiments that came before. While Franklin cannot take all credit for the vision and realization of the United States, his hand helped shape virtually all the decisions and deliberations that led to the constitution we have today.

A truly great man!


On American values and democracy:

From these attitudes sprang what may be Franklin’s most important vision: an American national identity based on the virtues and values of its middle class. Instinctively more comfortable with democracy than were some of his fellow founders, and devoid of the snobbery that later critics would feel toward his own shopkeeping values, he had faith in the wisdom of the common man and felt that a new nation would draw its strength from what he called “the middling people.”

His economic conservatism was balanced, however, by his fundamental moral belief that actions should be judged by how much they benefit the common good. Policies that encouraged hard work were good, but not because they led to great accumulations of private wealth; they were good because they increased the total well-being of a community and the dignity of every aspiring individual. People who acquired more wealth than they needed had a duty to help others and to create civic institutions that promoted the success of others. “His ideal was of a prosperous middle class whose members lived simple lives of democratic equality,” writes James Campbell. “Those who met with greater economic success in life were responsible to help those in genuine need; but those who from lack of virtue failed to pull their own weight could expect no help from society.”

On frugality and hard work:

Frugality became for him not only a virtue but also a pleasure. “Industry and frugality,” he wrote in describing the theme of Poor Richard’s almanacs, are “the means of procuring wealth and thereby securing virtue.”

It is necessary for me to be extremely frugal for some time, till I have paid what I owe. To endeavor to speak truth in every instance; to give nobody expectations that are not likely to be answered, but aim at sincerity in every word and action—the most amiable excellence in a rational being. To apply myself industriously to whatever business I take in hand, and not divert my mind from my business by any foolish project of suddenly growing rich; for industry and patience are the surest means of plenty. I resolve to speak ill of no man whatever.

America was creating a society, Franklin proclaimed, where a “mere man of Quality” who does not want to work would be “despised and disregarded,” while anyone who has a useful skill would be honored. All of this made for a better moral clime. “The almost general mediocrity of fortune that prevails in America, obliging its people to follow some business for subsistence, those vices that arise usually from idleness are in a great measure prevented,” he concluded. “Industry and constant employment are great preservatives of morals and virtue.” He purported to be describing the way America was, but he was also subtly prescribing what he wanted it to become. All in all, it was his best paean to the middle-class values he represented and helped to make integral to the new nation’s character.

On avoiding disputes:

Being “disputatious,” he concluded, was “a very bad habit” because contradicting people produced “disgusts and perhaps enmities.” Later in his life he would wryly say of disputing: “Persons of good sense, I have since observed, seldom fall into it, except lawyers, university men, and men of all sorts that have been bred at Edinburgh.”

A secret to being more revered than resented, he learned, was to display (at least when he could muster the discipline) a self-deprecating humor, unpretentious demeanor, and unaggressive style in conversation.

His maxims and mantras:

people are more likely to admire your work if you’re able to keep them from feeling jealous of you.

“Let this be a caution to you not always to hold your head so high. Stoop, young man, stoop—as you go through this world—and you’ll miss many hard thumps.” As Franklin later recalled to Mather’s son, “This advice, thus beat into my head, has frequently been of use to me, and I often think of it when I see pride mortified and misfortunes brought upon people by carrying their heads too high.”

While gambling at checkers with some shipmates, he formulated an “infallible rule,” which was that “if two persons equal in judgment play for a considerable sum, he that loves money most shall lose; his anxiety for the success of the game confounds him.” The rule, he decided, applied to other battles; a person who is too fearful will end up performing defensively and thus fail to seize offensive advantages.

“Would you win the hearts of others, you must not seem to vie with them, but to admire them. Give them every opportunity of displaying their own qualifications, and when you have indulged their vanity, they will praise you in turn and prefer you above others…Such is the vanity of mankind that minding what others say is a much surer way of pleasing them than talking well ourselves.”

The other sins on his list were, in order: seeming uninterested, speaking too much about your own life, prying for personal secrets (“an unpardonable rudeness”), telling long and pointless stories (“old folks are most subject to this error, which is one chief reason their company is so often shunned”), contradicting or disputing someone directly, ridiculing or railing against things except in small witty doses (“it’s like salt, a little of which in some cases gives relish, but if thrown on by handfuls spoils all”), and spreading scandal (though he would later write lighthearted defenses of gossip).

slow and steady diligence is the true way to wealth. He ended by quoting what his imaginary friend Agricola said on giving his son a parcel of land: “I assure thee I have found a considerable quantity of gold by digging there; thee mayst do the same. But thee must carefully observe this, Never to dig more than plow deep.”

He took the old saying “Many strokes fell great oaks” and gave it a sharper moral edge: “Little strokes fell great oaks.”

He’s a fool that makes his doctor his heir…Eat to live, and not live to eat…He that lies down with dogs shall rise up with fleas…Where there’s marriage without love, there will be love without marriage…Necessity never made a good bargain…There’s more old drunkards than old doctors…A good example is the best sermon…None preaches better than the ant, and she says nothing…A Penny saved is Twopence clear…When the well’s dry we know the worth of water…The sleeping fox catches no poultry…The used key is always bright…He that lives on hope dies farting [he later wrote it as “dies fasting,” and the early version may have been a misprint]…Diligence is the mother of good luck…He that pursues two hares at once does not catch one and lets the other go…Search others for their virtues, thy self for thy vices…Kings and bears often worry their keepers…Haste makes waste…Make haste slowly…He who multiplies riches multiplies cares…He’s a fool that cannot conceal his wisdom…No gains without pains…Vice knows she’s ugly, so puts on her mask…The most exquisite folly is made of wisdom spun too fine…Love your enemies, for they will tell you your faults…The sting of a reproach is the truth of it…There’s a time to wink as well as to see…Genius without education is like silver in the mine…There was never a good knife made of bad steel…Half the truth is often a great lie…God helps them that help themselves.

This is another instance of the truth of an old maxim I had learned, which says, “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.”

he added what would become a revolutionary cry: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

I have long observed one rule which prevents any inconveniences from such practices. It is simply this: to be concerned in no affairs I should blush to have made public, and to do nothing but what spies may see and welcome. When a man’s actions are just and honorable, the more they are known, the more his reputation is increased and established. If I was sure, therefore, that my valet de place was a spy, as he probably is, I think I should probably not discharge him for that, if in other respects I liked him.

“There never was a good war or a bad peace.”

People who live long, who will drink the cup of life to the very bottom, must expect to meet with some of the usual dregs.”

The use of the Junto:

There they discussed issues of the day, debated philosophical topics, devised schemes for self-improvement, and formed a network for the furtherance of their own careers.

One method, which he had developed during his mock debates with John Collins in Boston and then when discoursing with Keimer, was to pursue topics through soft, Socratic queries. That became the preferred style for Junto meetings. Discussions were to be conducted “without fondness for dispute or desire of victory.” Franklin taught his friends to push their ideas through suggestions and questions, and to use (or at least feign) naïve curiosity to avoid contradicting people in a manner that could give offense. “All expressions of positiveness in opinion or of direct contradiction,” he recalled, “were prohibited under small pecuniary penalties.” It was a style he would urge on the Constitutional Convention sixty years later.

14. Have you lately observed any defect in the laws of your country of which it would be proper to move the legislature for an amendment? 15. Have you lately observed any encroachments on the just liberties of the people? 16. Has anybody attacked your reputation lately, and what can the Junto do toward securing it? 17. Is there any man whose friendship you want and which the Junto or any of them can procure for you?… 20. In what manner can the Junto or any of them assist you in any of your honorable designs?

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