Published December 18, 2005
By J. A. Leo Lemay
University of Pennsylvania, $39.95, 568 pages, illlus.
THE LIFE OF BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, VOLUME 2: PRINTER AND PUBLISHER, 1730-1747
By J. A. Leo Lemay
University of Pennsylvania, $39.95, 664 pages, illus.
REVIEWED BY JAMES SRODES
Now we embark on a prolonged celebration of the 300th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Franklin. In mid-December the official Tercentenary Commission's traveling interactive museum show opens in Philadelphia and then moves on for an international tour that will last through 2008. A cavalry charge of biographies (mine included) floods the bookstores and one presumes public television will drown us in Ben -- 24-seven.
Yet, the most important event in this overdue examination of the man who made our American Revolution possible is that the first two volumes of a projected seven-volume biography, "The Life of Benjamin Franklin," have been released by the University of Pennsylvania Press and a third volume is slated to go to the editors in January. If you have enjoyed the popular Founding Father and Mother biographies of David McCullough, Joseph Ellis, Edward Morgan and others, this is where you can start feeding your interest in earnest.
The series author is J. A. Leo Lemay, a University of Delaware professor and the doyen of Franklin scholars. It is not too much to say that this literary journey through the bewildering hall of mirrors of Franklin's personality will solidify his sometimes underrated reputation as the first among equals among our national legends. As a series, Mr. Lemay's final output will do for the popular interest in our revolution and early founding what Douglas Southall Freeman's magisterial "Lee's Lieutenants" did for our fixation on the Civil War.
There is a difference between the two series and it is to Mr. Lemay's, and your, advantage. Freeman's multi-volume history, first published in 1942, told the stories of the main generals of the Confederacy by laying out elegantly written after-action reports of the important battles of that struggle. Even to sustain one's way through the subsequently shortened three-volume version published in the 1990s, you have to be a real groupie of the Lost Cause.
A more apt comparison might be to the previous gold standard of Franklin biographies, Carl Van Doren's 1938 biography which won the Pulitzer Prize and remained until now the first book a student of Franklin was advised to read. The difference is hardly discreditable to Van Doren whose research predated by 20 years the start of a systematic effort to collect and study the huge mass of documents Franklin generated during his life.
Yet as good as he was, Van Doren's nearly 800-page doorstopper is often thrown off stride by the sheer breadth of Franklin's personality, of his activities, of the contradictions in what the author called "this harmonious human multitude" of a man.
Just to get his arms around Franklin he would have to interrupt the flow of chapters to drag the reader back to some important insight or event that could not be included in previous pages. And that was just to deal with Franklin himself.
This is a good place to address the question that any reader of this review must be asking about now. Why on earth would anyone commit to buying (let alone reading) seven volumes at 40 bucks a pop about anyone?
As one of my early editors used to ask me, "The story of the Creation takes only 800 words, does your story deserve more?" The answer, happily, is yes. Mr. Lemay, who writes every bit as well as Freeman and better than Van Doren, tells more than the story of an important historical figure. In a seamless narrative Franklin is portrayed against the background of the life and times of other American colonials.
For those who view America's move toward nationhood as inevitability, Mr. Lemay has an important story to tell. With authority he charts how rapidly these at first exclusively English colonies underwent changes that transformed them into a new being and how violent and problematic that change was. Mirroring that upheaval, Franklin evolved too with the same bewildering rapidity and visible conflicts.
The story begins with Boston as it was just before Franklin's birth in 1706. A village of around 8,000 encircling an accessible deep-water port, Boston was the most important town in British North America and was destined to become the second most important city of the Empire next to London itself. It was to this shining city that Josiah Franklin and his young family came in 1693, to seek his fortune as a silk dyer and to follow his religious beliefs among the like minded Puritans who had run the Massachusetts Bay Colony for 70 years.
That Boston did not become our eventual capital is part of the story Mr. Lemay tells. Even at that early date the political, economic and cultural unity of these early colonies was fracturing along familiar lines of wealth, class, faith, new citizens versus old and, not least, a growing estrangement from the ties that bound them to Mother England.
Franklin was in the thick of things from his early teens until his death in 1790 at the age of 84. First be warned. This is not the Benjamin Franklin you are used to. Mr. Lemay's Franklin is not the twinkly, portly old gent in the bifocals who appears in television commercials hawking banks and brake linings. The Franklin who emerges in these opening chapters is remarkably strong and robust. He has a high opinion of himself and as a youth was a happy warrior in the fist-fights and rowdy behavior that apprentices of the times engaged in.
Young Ben was something of a brat and you feel some sympathy for his half-brother printer James Franklin, who often was driven to beat his bumptious sibling. Yet this is a Franklin who is on fire to succeed, to advance himself from his modest (but hardly poor) beginnings. Thus he early on begins to work on one of his great inventions, himself.
Volume One takes Franklin from his birth on January 17, 1706 to his marriage at common law to his much loved (but unfortunately still legally married) Deborah in Philadelphia in 1730. The evolution of young Ben from the spoiled, querulous renegade he admits (in his "Autobiography") to being into the knowledge-famished young printer on the make is an adventure story in itself. Put simply, Ben's noisy regard of himself and his skepticism of religion and authority had made him unwelcome in Boston. Yet the brat had become something of a prodigy, in large part by a prodigious campaign of self-education.
By the time Ben runs away from James Franklin's print shop and newspaper when he is 17, he is, by Mr. Lemay's account, already the best writer in the American colonies and a skilled printer to boot. Once in Philadelphia, the credulous lad is gulled into a trip to London that allows him to perfect his printing skills and mature a bit.
Franklin's return to Philadelphia, his purchase of his own newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, and his marriage set the young man on the path he will follow into Volume Two and his evolution as the rising craftsman and promoter of civic improvements upon which his reputation is founded. Here Mr. Lemay sets out Franklin's life long struggle to curb his various passions -- his temper, frivolity and, of course, his sensuality -- and channel his inexhaustible energy into a life of public involvement and personal advancement. The second installment runs through 1747 to his retirement from printing so he can devote his life to his electricity and other scientific inquiries.
This is the period of Franklin's meteoric rise from lowly leather-apron-wearing craftsman to established tradesman and political figure. With some effort, Franklin learns to restrain his pushiness and watches with satisfaction as his various schemes for a library, fire protection, an insurance company, a college and a hospital are rewarded with political advancement and personal regard. Through it all, Franklin, the writer of political argument and advocacy, attracts a growing attention throughout colonial America.
Yet, Franklin's ingrained anti-authority attitude plunges him into the conflicts that beset a Pennsylvania being changed by floods of strange new immigrants and the constant threat of war on its frontier. At first Franklin focuses his struggle on winning a measure of economic justice from the colony's grasping proprietors. Ultimately he is led into his quest for nationhood for those fractious American colonies 60 years later. Even though I already know how the story turns out, I can't wait for Mr. Lemay's next volumes.
James Srodes is a Washington author whose latest book is "Franklin: The Essential Founding Father," published by Regnery.