Of the founders of the American republic, Benjamin Franklin has consistently enjoyed the most exalted reputation. Revisionists may view Jefferson as a hypocrite on slavery, Adams as an enemy of individual rights, Hamilton as an unprincipled schemer and Washington as a dignified dimwit. But Franklin generally has managed to avoid sharp criticism. He has become a part of American folklore, a jolly, bespectacled old fat man, strangely reminiscent of Santa Claus but without the beard.
H.W. Brands’ thorough but unadventurous biography The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin does nothing to undermine Franklin’s image. Nor should it. If he was not necessarily the first American, Franklin certainly was the first famous American. And his rags-to-renown story, engagingly recounted in his autobiography, has served as a model for American aspirations for more than 200 years.
At 42, Franklin retired from active management of his printing business and devoted himself to scientific studies, especially his pioneering work on the nature of electricity, still regarded as fundamental to the subject. By the early 1770s, he was famous throughout Europe as the recipient of numerous honorary degrees and the highest award from the British Royal Society. Universally known as “Dr.” Franklin, he was widely esteemed as the Enlightenment ideal of a self-educated polymath. Franklin’s genius lay in his remarkable ability to look afresh at the world around him and make original, though not always accurate, observations about its meaning. In this spirit, he achieved productive insights into a variety of fields, including oceanography, meteorology, geology and demography.
As a statesman, Franklin served as the chief representative to Britain for several of the American colonies. Initially a loyal subject of the crown, he eventually and reluctantly concluded that only independence would serve the future of America. Having chosen that course, he never deviated from it and became the firmest of American patriots.
His greatest service to the United States was in securing the alliance of France in support of the Revolutionary War. With subtlety and tact, wit and imagination, Franklin shrewdly exploited his fame to win the hearts of the French elite. He persuaded Louis XVI’s government to support America with money and troops. As Brands observes: “Of those patriots who made independence possible, none mattered more than Franklin, and only Washington mattered as much.”
Of the many engaging stories Brands tells of Franklin’s time in Paris, one of the best is of his chess match with the Duchess of Bourbon, when Franklin deliberately (and, of course, illegally) captured her king. “In Europe,” she remarked, “we don’t take kings.” “In America,” Franklin replied, “we do.”
If Franklin’s reputation has remained high in recent times, it is in large part because of his radicalism, the dominant element in his political character and one insufficiently stressed by Brands. Of all the founders, Franklin was the most democratic, having observed over a long life no connection whatsoever between wealth and virtue. And, although he came late in his life to the abolitionist cause, Franklin became its leader and most eloquent spokesman.
When Thomas Jefferson arrived as the new American ambassador to France, he was asked if he was Franklin’s replacement. “I only succeed Dr. Franklin,” Jefferson replied. “No one can replace him.” And irreplaceable among American heroes Franklin remains.