Book: Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

Ben Franklin is one of my heroes, along with Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, and a few others. As I start my march through reading books about American presidents, I figured I’d start with a famous American who was never a president but was deeply involved in creating the situation where there could be American presidents.

I’m a big fan of Walter Isaacson and his biographies (I’ve read many of them.) Benjamin Franklin: An American Life didn’t disappoint. Isaacson is great at making a biography flow easily so it reads like a cross between a novel and a non-fiction book. The stories aren’t embellished, but they are well written, generally efficient, and extensive. If you are worried about biography as “facts and figures over time”, that’s not the mark of a good biography and definitely not Isaacson’s approach.

Being a fan of Ben Franklin, I’ve read plenty, especially as a teenager, about him. I had a healthy list of “Ben Franklin firsts” and things that Franklin was involved in. But as Amy and I watched the HBO Series John Adams recently, I became curious about how much, or how little, about Ben Franklin I really knew.

It turned out to be “how little”, not because I didn’t know much, but because the list of things Ben Franklin created, did first as a human, or enabled in America, is just remarkable. While everyone knows about his role in the American Revolution, American postmaster, printer, experiments with lightening, and invention of bifocals and the Franklin stove, here are a few that are not commonly known.

Ben Franklin:

  • was an amazing swimmer and created swimming fins (well – wooden ones)
  • created the first volunteer fire department
  • created the odometer
  • created the urinary catheter
  • loved to travel and was extremely nomadic between America, France, and England
  • created the first American musical instrument (the glass armonica)
  • created all the electric terminology, such as battery, charged, condense, conductor, plus / minus, positively / negatively, to go along with his experiments
  • helped create the first American hospital

and the list goes on and on and on.

The early Franklin was well-known for the virtues he stated and then worked on personally, not all at once, but systematically over time. When I reflect on them, I find them remarkably contemporary.

  • “Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.”
  • “Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.”
  • “Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.”
  • “Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.”
  • “Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.”
  • “Industry. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.”
  • “Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.”
  • “Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.”
  • “Moderation. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.”
  • “Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.”
  • “Tranquility. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.”
  • “Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.”
  • “Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

His personal life was fascinating, complex, and non-traditional. It evolved over his life time and while it doesn’t parallel mine in any way, Isaacson’s portrayal of it is robust, although there are points in time in the book where I felt Isaacson let Franklin off the hook for things that weren’t “awesome” and could have been dug into further. But, after all, we are all bags of chemicals and have lots of flaws.

His skills as a politician and negotiator were just awesome. His ability to stay calm in intense situations was awe inspiring. I knew plenty of the specific situations, but seeing Franklin’s role in them from the perspective of a biographer of Franklin was mindblowingly interesting and educational.

I’ll leave you with a few famous Franklin quotes that we repeat or hear regularly.

  • In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.
  • Early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.
  • An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.
  • Be slow in choosing a friend, slower in changing.
  • Content makes poor men rich; discontentment makes rich men poor.
  • Wine is constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy.
  • They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.
  • Larry McKeogh

    Yes, I’ve been aware of Franklin like everyone else. Reading Robert Greene’s Mastery book last year opened my eyes to how much more there was to Ben and he’s been on my list to look more into.

    Thanks for the review, I’ll move this one up to the top of the list. The winter weather will make it a treat to curl up with.

    • I really enjoyed Mastery, there are definitely some personalities in there I wasn’t familiar with, so good directions to go on follow-up reading.

  • My favorite biography and heros as well. Loved the fact how Ben Franklin used his writing to change debate, guide morality and political will or to some extent get back at those who abused their power. Really a powerful story. I agree that the biographer was forgiving of some of the actions of Ben Franklin. Writing the comment sitting in the Paris-Charles De Gaulle Airport… with 2 segies going on in the city. Strange times we live in.

  • So cool. I have put this on my list. Like Larry below, I am reading Mastery and Franklin definitely appears a bunch of times.

    What I find cool about awesome folk like Franklin and Richard Feynman (whose autobiography I loved) is that they truly mastered how to learn. Because of that, they applied their way of learning to pick up an insane number of skills and got to the cutting edge of these skills/fields so much faster than everyone else.

    • Yup – and as someone (me) who is deeply intrinsically motivated by learning, you can see quickly why I love the heroic figures.

  • RBC

    I love Ben Franklin. One of the oldest and most interesting Founding Fathers. Without his popularity in France, funding for the American Revolution would have been harder to get. That being said, I can’t help but chuckle at Mark Twain’s quotes about him…

    With a malevolence which is without parallel in history, he would work all day, and then sit up nights, and let on to be studying algebra by the light of a smoldering fire, so that all other boys might have to do that also, or else have Benjamin Franklin thrown up to them. Not satisfied with these proceedings, he had a fashion of living wholly on bread and water, and studying astronomy at meal time–a thing which has brought affliction to millions of boys since, whose fathers had read Franklin’s pernicious biography.
    – “The Late Benjamin Franklin”

    If it had not been for him, with his incendiary “Early to bed and early to rise,” and all that sort of foolishness, I wouldn’t have been so harried and worried and raked out of bed at such unseemly hours when I was young. The late Franklin was well enough in his way; but it would have looked more dignified in him to have gone on making candles and letting other people get up when they wanted to.
    – Letter from Mark Twain, San Francisco Alta California, July 25, 1869

    • Priceless. I love how the older Franklin let go of so many of his younger attributes, especially those like the ones above that are attributed to him so strongly.

  • RBC

    ps sorry to add to your reading list…. Can’t remember if I found out about this blog from you but Kin has been on fire lately…

    • Rick Mason

      I agree Kin Lane is terrific. If you follow a single person on API’s he’s the one.

      • Thx – great suggestion to pay attention to.

  • I read this a couple of months ago and have since turned into an Isaacson fan. I definitely recommend Benjamin Franklin: An American Life as well as The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.

    • Innovators was solid. I read it in Bora Bora. I liked his Einstein bio better though.

  • Kelly Quann Bianucci

    After reading this post, I think you’ll really enjoy Poor Charlie’s Almanack (3rd ed.) – a biography and compilation of Charlie Munger’s most insightful talks. Charlie was a big fan of Benjamin Franklin and his influence is strongly apparent in Charlie’s perspectives. I don’t believe there’s a digital version yet – this one’s more of a coffee table style book:

    • It is a great book. I’ve got it and read it cover to cover.

    • Harsha G

      It’s a really good book, a must have for any investor. But, the size of the book makes it harder to read, expect maybe sitting in your bed: )

  • I see that wine quote frequently misquoted as beer. In college, it was typically attributed to “Ben Franklin, Founder, University of Pennsylvania”

  • I was with him up the chastity. Apparently I’m overly fond of venality.

    • campbellmacdonald

      Agreed. This seems unreasonable.

    • I would say he did not practice what he preached:

      Ben Franklin’s promiscuity and success with women saved the American Revolution.

      “Ben Franklin was a well-known ladies’ man in the Colonial era,” Professor Eisenbach says. (He was such a ladies’ man that he wrote a treatise on sleeping with older women.) “In 1776, when the Continental Congress was looking for someone to send over to France to get the French government’s support for the American Revolution, they choose a man who had the capacities to win over the ladies, and wasn’t so squeamish about the French sexual mores.”

      During his trip, Franklin slept with the right French women, who then introduced him to the influential elites who decided to support the American Revolution.

      • LOL
        Good to see that hypocrisy in sexual mores by our leaders is nothing new.
        Great info – many thanks.

      • Maybe Obama should sleep with lots of the right Afghani women?

  • Isaacson is an awesome writer. I hope he writes an autobiography because his biographies are incredible and I’d like to read about his personal life and writing process. I haven’t got to this one yet but read his books on Einstein and Jobs. Just got Innovators for xmas too so pumped for that.

    I need to get hip to Franklin though.

  • Every founder played a role. Franklin was a facilitator, and perhaps the heart and soul of the movement. Without him, we never get the French to back us. A book based on the founding of America that you might like is America 3.0. It’s an interesting way forward, but doesn’t abandon our history.

  • Candice H. Brown Elliott

    Oops… “urinary catheter” No… this was a well known device since ancient times, required by millions of people who had had “radical castration” (orchidectomy + penectomy). They were typically made of silver since that metal is easy to clean and had anti-bacterial properties, leading to fewer infections.

  • Candice H. Brown Elliott

    Double Oops… the “first” American instrument was the Appalachian Mountain Dulcimer, and instrument still in wide use today (including myself).

  • Another takeaway from Ben Franklin for me was the importance of developing your voice and putting your opinions out in the public sphere. He did this from an early age, honing his writing skills writing under pseudonyms for the paper, then taking more of an active role as he started his own publication, then with Poor Richards’ Almanac, and so on. This ability and the platform he’d developed slowly led to him becoming a thought-leader and having the social support to effect change & get elected to various bodies. He also went back to his satirical writing and humour throughout his life to shed light on issues and bring them into the public consciousness. I think the fact that he started out in publishing played a really important part in him becoming who he did later in his life.

    In current days, this would translate to writing/speaking/sharing online and building a presence. There are a lot of people who do this effectively (you, Fred Wilson, Marc Andreessen on Twitter, Tim Ferriss, etc.), and I’m sure that if Franklin lived today he’d be one of these people.

  • I never knew he did so much with his life… we all, as entrepreneurs aspire to live life non-traditionally and he achieved a lot of success by doing so. But I think he didn’t do it for success, as we usually don’t, he did it for the inner satisfaction, the learning process as someone mentioned before me. That part is priceless.

    Btw, I hold people who read a lot in highest regard. You and Ryan Holiday both. 😀