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The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin

Written by H.W. BrandsAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by H.W. Brands


List Price: $13.99


On Sale: May 26, 2010
Pages: 784 | ISBN: 978-0-307-75494-3
Published by : Anchor Knopf
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National Bestseller 

He was the foremost American of his day, yet today he is little more than a mythic caricature in the public imagination. Benjamin Franklin, perhaps the pivotal figure in colonial and revolutionary America, comes vividly to life in this masterly biography.

Wit, diplomat, scientist, philosopher, businessman, inventor, and bon vivant, Benjamin Franklin was in every respect America’s first Renaissance man. From penniless runaway to highly successful printer, from ardently loyal subject of Britain to architect of an alliance with France that ensured America’s independence, Franklin went from obscurity to become one of the world’s most admired figures, whose circle included the likes of Voltaire, Hume, Burke, and Kant. Drawing on previously unpublished letters and a host of other sources, acclaimed historian H. W. Brands has written a thoroughly engaging biography of the eighteenth-century genius. A much needed reminder of Franklin’s greatness and humanity, The First American is a work of meticulous scholarship that provides a magnificent tour of a legendary historical figure, a vital era in American life, and the countless arenas in which the protean Franklin left his legacy.


A lesser man would have been humiliated.
Humiliation was the purpose of the proceeding.
It was the outcome eagerly anticipated by the lords of the Privy Council who constituted the official audience, by the members of the House of Commons and other fashionable Londoners who packed the room and hung on the rails of the balcony, by the London press that lived on scandal and milled outside to see how this scandal would unfold, by the throngs that bought the papers, savored the scandals, rioted in favor of their heroes and against their villains, and made politics in the British imperial capital often unpredictable, frequently disreputable, always entertaining. The proceeding today would probably be disreputable. It would certainly be entertaining.
The venue was fitting: the Cockpit. In the reign of Henry VIII, that most sporting of monarchs in a land that loved its bloody games, the building on this site had housed an actual cockpit, where Henry and his friends brought their prize birds and wagered which would tear the others to shreds. The present building had replaced the real cockpit, but this room retained the old name and atmosphere. The victim today was expected to depart with his reputation in tatters, his fortune possibly forfeit, his life conceivably at peril.
Nor was that the extent of the stakes. Two days earlier the December packet ship from Boston had arrived with an alarming report from the royal governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson. The governor described an organized assault on three British vessels carrying tea of the East India Company. The assailants, townsmen loosely disguised as Indians, had boarded the ships, hauled hundreds of tea casks to deck, smashed them open, and dumped their contents into the harbor forty-five tons of tea, enough to litter the beaches for miles and depress the company's profits for years. This rampage was the latest in a series of violent outbursts against the authority of Crown and Parliament; the audience in the Cockpit, and in London beyond, demanded to know what Crown and Parliament intended to do about it.
Alexander Wedderburn was going to tell them. The solicitor general possessed great rhetorical gifts and greater ambition. The former had made him the most feared advocate in the realm; the latter lifted him to his present post when he abandoned his allies in the opposition and embraced the ministry of Lord North. Wedderburn was known to consider the Boston tea riot treason, and if the law courts upheld his interpretagtion, those behind the riot would be liable to the most severe sanctions, potentially including death. Wedderburn was expected to argue that the man in the Cockpit today was the prime mover behind the outburst in Boston. The crowd quivered with anticipation.
They all knew the man in the pit; indeed, the whole world knew Benjamin Franklin. His work as political agent for several of the American colonies had earned him recognition around London, but his fame far transcended that. He was, quite simply, one of the most illustrious scientists and thinkers on earth. His experiments with electricity, culminating in his capture of lightning from the heavens, had won him universal praise as the modern Prometheus. His mapping of the Gulf Stream saved the time and lives of countless sailors. His ingenious fireplace conserved fuel and warmed homes on both sides of the Atlantic. His contributions to economics, meteorology, music, and psychology expanded the reach of human knowledge and the grip of human power. For his accomplishments the British Royal Society had awarded him its highest prize; foreign societies had done the same. Universities queued to grant him degrees. The ablest minds of the age consulted him on matters large and small. Kings and emperors summoned him to court, where they admired his brilliance and basked in its reflected glory.
Genius is prone to producing envy. Yet it was part of Franklin's genius that he had produced far less than his share, due to an unusual ability to disarm those disposed to envy. In youth he discovered that he was quicker of mind and more facile of pen than almost everyone he met; he also discovered that a boy of humble birth, no matter how gifted, would block his own way by letting on that he knew how smart he was. He learned to deflect credit for some of his most important innovations. He avoided arguments wherever possible; when important public issues hinged on others' being convinced of their errors, he often argued anonymously, adopting assumed names, or Socratically, employing the gentle questioning of the Greek master. He became almost as famous for his sense of humor as for his science; laughing, his opponents listened and were persuaded.
Franklin's self-effacing style succeeded remarkably; at sixty-eight he had almost no personal enemies and comparatively few political enemies for a man of public affairs. But those few included powerful figures. George Grenville, the prime minister responsible for the Stamp Act, the tax bill that triggered all the American troubles, never forgave him for single-handedly demolishing the rationale for the act in a memorable session before the House of Commons.
Grenville and his allies lay in wait to exact their revenge on Franklin. Yet he never made a false step. Until now. A mysterious person had delivered into his hands confidential letters from Governor Hutchinson and other royal officials in Massachusetts addressed to an undersecretary of state in London. These letters cast grave doubt on the bona fides of Hutchinson, for years the bête noire of the Massachusetts assembly. As Massachusetts's agent, Franklin had forwarded the letters to friends in Boston. Hutchinson's enemies there got hold of the letters and published them.
The publication provoked an instant uproar. In America the letters were interpreted as part of a British plot to enslave the colonies; the letters fueled the anger that inspired the violence that produced the Boston tea riot. In England the letters provoked charges and countercharges as to who could have been so dishonorable as to steal and publish private correspondence. A duel at swords left one party wounded and bothparties aching for further satisfaction; only at this point--to prevent more bloodshed--did Franklin reveal his role in
transmitting the letters.
His foes seized the chance to destroy him. Since that session in Commons eight years before, he had become the symbol and spokesman in London of American resistance to the sovereignty of Parliament; on his head would be visited all the wrath and resentment that had been building in that proud institution from the time of the Stamp Act to the tea riot. Alexander Wedderburn sharpened his tongue and moved in for the kill.
None present at the Cockpit on January 29, 1774, could afterward recall the like of the hearing that day. The solicitor general outdid himself. For an hour he hurled invective at Franklin, branding him a liar, a thief, the instigator of the insurrection in Massachusetts, an outcast from the company of all honest men, an ingrate whose attack on Hutchinson betrayed nothing less than a desire to seize the governor's office for himself. So slanderous was Wedderburn's diatribe that no London paper would print it. But the audience reveled in it, hooting and applauding each sally, each bilious bon mot. Not even the lords of the Privy Council attempted to disguise their delight at Wedderburn's astonishing attack. Almost to a man and a woman, the spectators that day concluded that Franklin's reputation would never recover. Ignominy, if not prison or worse, was his future now.
H.W. Brands

About H.W. Brands

H.W. Brands - The First American

Photo © Marsha Miller

H. W. Brands is the Dickson Allen Anderson Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin. He was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in biography for The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin, and for Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Praise | Awards


“H.W Brands has given us the authoritative Franklin biography for out time.” —Joseph J. Ellis author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Founding Brothers

“Like its subject, this biography is both solid and enchanting.” —The New Yorker

“[A] biography with a rich cast of secondary characters and a large and handsome stock of historical scenery.... Brands writes clearly and confidently about the full spectrum of the polymath’s interests.... This is a Franklin to savor.” —The Wall Street Journal

“Benjamin Franklin’s life is one every American should know well, and it has not been told better than by Mr. Brands.” —The Dallas Morning News

“A vivid portrait of the 18th-century milieu and of the 18th-century man.... [Brands is] a master storyteller.” —The Christian Science Monitor

“A thorough biography of Benjamin Franklin, America’s first Renaissance man.... In graceful, even witty prose.... Brands relates the entire, dense-packed life.” —The Washington Post

“A lively re-introduction to Franklin.... Rich in the descriptions of settings, personalities, and action.... [Brands] offers ... a succession of amusing anecdotes and vivid tales.” —The New Republic

“Comprehensive, lively.... [Brands] is a skilled narrator who believes in making good history accessible to the non-specializing book lover, and the general reader can read this book with sustained enjoyment.” —The Boston Globe


FINALIST Pulitzer Prize
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of The First American, the first comprehensive biography of Benjamin Franklin in over sixty years. In it, acclaimed historian H. W. Brands vividly brings to life one of the most delightful, bawdy, original, and important figures in American history.

About the Guide

Benjamin Franklin was perhaps the most beloved and celebrated American of his age, or indeed of any age. His circle of friends and acquaintances ranged geographically from America to Europe, and in personality from Cotton Mather to Voltaire, from Edmund Burke to King George III, from Sir Isaac Newton to Immanuel Kant. Among his many inventions were the lightning rod, the Franklin stove, and the armonica, a musical instrument that became the rage of Europe. From his humble beginnings in Boston as a printer's apprentice, he became, within two decades, the leading printer and one of the most important businessmen in the colonies. A longtime civic leader in Philadelphia, he created the city's first fire department, wrote the bestseller Poor Richard's Almanac, served as Postmaster General for the Colonies, and in the process, completely modernized the mail service. A bon vivant and ladies' man throughout his life, he matched wits with Parliament and the Crown during the decade leading up to the Stamp Act, and as an official agent to Parliament he helped push the Colonies into open rebellion.

Tracing Franklin's gradual transformation from reluctant revolutionary to charismatic leader in the fight for independence, Brands posits that on the issue of revolution, as Franklin went, so went America. During the Revolutionary War, Congress charged Franklin with wooing the King of France to the American cause, and it was the diplomatic alliances he forged and funds he raised in France that allowed the Continental Army to continue to fight on the battlefield. In his final years, as president of the Constitutional Convention, it was Franklin who held together the antagonistic factions and persuaded their members to sign the Constitution.

Drawing on previously unpublished letters to and from Franklin, as well as the recollections and anecdotes of Franklin's contemporaries, H. W. Brands has created a rich and compelling portrait of the eighteenth-century genius who was in every respect American's first Renaissance man, and arguably the pivotal figure in colonial and Revolutionary America.

About the Author

H. W. Brands is a professor of history at Texas A&M University in Bryan, Texas. He is the author of T.R., the critically acclaimed biography of Theodore Roosevelt, and The Reckless Decade: America in the 1890s. He lives in Austin.

Discussion Guides

1. As a young man, Franklin arrived at a position of what Brands called "pragmatic moralism" [p. 95] and made a list of four resolutions and thirteen virtues he wished to cultivate in himself [pp. 96-8]. What are the strengths of this plan for self-improvement and contentment? What aspects of his program would still be useful today?

2. During the nineteenth century, Poor Richard's Almanac, with its emphasis on duty, thrift, and hard work, was required reading for young people. Mark Twain imagined that Franklin "had a habit of living wholly on bread and water, and studying astronomy at mealtimes--a thing which has brought affliction to millions of boys since, whose fathers had read Franklin's pernicious [auto]biography." Brands notes that the writer D. H. Lawrence was also plagued in his youth by the model of Benjamin Franklin [p. 278]. How does Brands' biography revise the image of Franklin as a prime exemplar of materialism and middle-class values?

3. Brands describes Franklin's personality as self-effacing, non-confrontational, affable, and generous. What were the particular advantages of his temperament? At what moments in his life did his personality fail him? Why did John Adams distrust and dislike Franklin?

4. What were the strengths and limitations of Franklin's relationship with his wife Deborah? Did Deborah accept the idea of their marriage as secondary to the demands of Franklin's duties in London and Paris? Does it seem unnatural that Franklin had not seen her for years when she died? Do John Adams's assumptions about Franklin's libertinism make sense, given his attempted seduction of Madame Brillon and Madame Helvétius related in Chapter 24? How clear a portrayal does Brands give his readers of what Franklin's romantic involvements were before and after Deborah's death?

5. If, as Brands suggests, the tide of colonial feeling turned against England over the Stamp Act, how did Franklin's distance from Boston affect his understanding of the mood in the colonies? How did Franklin's response to the Stamp Act compare, for example, to Patrick Henry's [see pp. 364]? In advising loyalty to Britain, did Franklin misunderstand or underestimate the "insurrectionary spirit" that took hold in the colonies at this point? How great a role did Franklin's testimony play in the repeal of the Stamp Act [see pp. 374-6]?

6. Brands argues that Franklin's interrogation by British solicitor general Alexander Wedderburn turned him irrevocably into an American patriot [see Prologue and Chapter 21]. What were the wider implications of Franklin's having turned over the Hutchinson letters to Massachusetts House speaker Thomas Cushing? Why does Brands call this action "the most fateful misstep of his career" [p. 452]? Why was Franklin so determined, earlier on, to call himself a Briton?

7. A clear statement of Franklin's approach to life and its difficulties appears on page 379, in a letter he wrote to his sister: "Take one thing with another, and the world is a pretty good sort of world; and 'tis our duty to make the best of it and be thankful. One's true happiness depends more upon one's own judgment of one's self, on a consciousness of rectitude in action and intention, and in the approbation of those few who judge impartially, than upon the applause of the unthinking undiscerning multitude, who are apt to cry Hosanna today, and tomorrow, Crucify him." Would this still be considered useful advice today? Were Franklin's pragmatism and optimism the result of temperament, philosophy, or both?

8. Brands relates an incident in which Franklin made an illegal move in a chess match, ignoring the fact that his king had been placed in check [p. 606]. How does this incident reflect his sense of humor, and the spirit in which he took his responsibilities as an agent of the American Revolution?

9. Disputing the idea of the Society of the Cincinnati as too akin to inherited aristocracy, Franklin wrote, "Honour, worthily obtained . . . is in its nature a personal thing, and incommunicable to any but those who had some share in obtaining it" [p. 668]. Similarly, he felt, "Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom" [p. 667]. What do these statements reveal about Franklin's deeply democratic instincts and about his emphasis on the role of personal morality in a democratic society?

10. Franklin owned two slaves who were his personal servants, and he didn't convert to the cause of true abolitionism until 1787, when he became the president of a Quaker abolitionist group. Brands relates a visit Franklin made in 1763 to a school for black children, where he realized, "Their apprehension seems as quick, their memory as strong, and their docility in every respect equal to that of white children" [p. 355]. How does this early realization, upon which Franklin did not act, compare with his impassioned efforts years later to halt the slave trade [see pp. 701-4]? What accounts for his change in conscience?

11. One of the most painful episodes in Franklin's life was his alienation from his son William, over William's loyalty to the British crown. Should Franklin have forgiven William this breach of filial loyalty? Or is this a situation in which Franklin's patriotism overruled his love for his son? Does his refusal to forgive William reveal a lack of tolerance? Should Franklin have handled the situation differently?

12. Brands comments on the difference between Franklin and Washington, both of whom were loved by the public: "A warrior like Washington might find charm in the sound of bullets whistling overhead; Franklin was more beguiled by the sense of embodying the virtuous desires of ordinary people" [p. 271]. Did the American people think of Franklin as a sort of benevolent father, who embodied the best in themselves and could therefore be trusted as a role model?

13. Franklin was extraordinarily active in the life of his community; in addition to his political service he created a library, a college, a fire department, and a postal service, as well as having engaged in diplomacy with the Indians and looked after the needs of family members and friends. He also believed that public servants should not be paid for their work. Would this ensure that politicians be motivated solely by altruism? Or is such a plan entirely impractical?

14. If it could be argued that Franklin, in his loyalty to his British roots, was a relatively late convert to the revolutionary cause, in what sense is the book's title meant? Did Franklin define for his time what it meant to be an American?

15. Regarding the framing of the Constitution, he said, "I must own I have so much faith in the general government of the world by Providence that I can hardly conceive a transaction of such momentous importance to the welfare of millions now existing, and to exist in the posterity of a great nation, should be suffered to pass without being in some degree influenced, guided, and governed by that omnipotent, omnipresent, and beneficent Ruler" [p. 696]. Did Franklin's approach to religion and his idea of God change as he got older? What are the most important elements in his religious manifesto [p. 707]?

16. Towards the end of his life, Franklin wrote that since reason and progress were so clearly advancing with time, "I have sometimes almost wished it had been my destiny to be born two or three centuries hence" [p. 705]. What might Franklin be doing if he were alive today? Might he be a statesman, a scientist, an industrialist, or a millionaire? Is it likely that he could exercise his various talents as freely and effectively now as he did in the eighteenth century?

17. What is notable about Brands' approach to his subject? His narrative style? Judging from his final thoughts on Franklin [p. 715], how would you characterize H. W. Brands' perspective on this central figure of American history? What issues does he emphasize, what elements of Franklin's personality does he gloss over? Is Brands benevolent, detached, or critical in his role as biographer?

Suggested Readings

Fred Anderson, Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America; Alan Bennett, The Madness of George III; Patricia Cleary, Elizabeth Murray: A Woman's Pursuit of Independence in Eighteenth-Century America; Don Cook, The Long Fuse: How England Lost the American Colonies 1760-1785; James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans; John Demos, The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America; Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation; Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin; Antonia Fraser, Marie Antoinette: The Journey; David Hackett Fischer, Paul Revere's Ride; J. A. Leo Lemay (ed.), Benjamin Franklin: Writings; A. J. Langguth, Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution; Peter Martin, A Life of James Boswell; David McCullough, John Adams; Toni Morrison, Beloved; Francis Parkman, Montcalm and Wolfe; Simon Schama, Citizens; Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America; Voltaire, Candide.

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