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Review: Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson

Benjamin Franklin: An American LifeBenjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This thoroughly researched biography takes a close look at Benjamin Franklin’s life, particularly exploring his personality and beliefs. It starts with his English ancestors, follows his parents’ emigration to America, then chronicles his life until his death. I enjoyed reading the stories behind his many maxims. The book provides insight into colonial life before, during, and after the American Revolution. It highlights Franklin’s achievements and lasting influence on America.

I had considered myself a Franklin fan, and I learned more that I like about him, but I also unexpectedly learned even more that soured my view of him. I admire his work ethic, frugality, innovation, self-improvement, entrepreneurship, business sense, negotiating abilities, and rational decision-making. However, although he was personable and a great networker, his relationships were generally shallow, and he was a distant and generally unloving husband and father.

I also disagree with Franklin’s religious views. He abandoned Calvinism for Deism, then created his own brand of Deism based on good works. He believed in God, but only as a benevolent but distant deity who was best served by helping others. He believed that religion was really only useful for making people behave and improving society, and that all religions were valid. He always stressed the material over the spiritual.

Franklin’s motto could have been “Do well by doing good.” He showed that one could attract wealth by being in the business of serving others. He said that he’d rather “live usefully” than “die rich.” He warned against welfare, and supported trickle-down economics. Franklin retired from business at 42, the midpoint of his life, but he arguably accomplished more in the second half. In fact, he was 69 at the signing of the Declaration of Independence!

Franklin was a master diplomat; he knew how to negotiate for mutual benefit, which is why he quickly became involved in politics, then moved from the local to the international level. He used the Socratic method (non-confrontational questioning) to influence people. He also said that a secret to being more revered than resented is to be self-deprecating and unpretentious, which he practiced throughout his life.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Benjamin Franklin or the founding of America. I also recommend Franklin's autobiography, or the modern adaptation (my review).

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