Saturday, October 16, 2010

Another Biography Review:Ben Franklin by Walter Isaacson

Since I do not have cable or satellite or much else in the way of TV, I sometimes become addicted to reading books at the neglect of all else.

In my quest for biographies about people whose stories might offer me something of substance, I ended up with Davy Crocket and then Benjamin Franklin. Crockett was an autobiography for the most part. It seemed less inclined to have subtle undercurrents revealing what he wanted you to think.

Although the Franklin biography is fairly even handed in many ways, it is clear that Isaacson comes from a viewpoint which renders him almost apologetic in acknowledging basic, useful accomplishments when not accompanied by cynical snobbery. It is subtle and I doubt the average reader would realize when the tone switches from fact and information based on letters and statements from contemporaries to the author's voice gently prodding the reader to come to certain conclusions. It is very standard in modern reporting and in historical texts of recent issue.

It is as if you are shown a photograph of a pastoral scene which includes cows, sheep, and a farmer and his daughter- who are picking tomatoes, then told, "obviously the farmer is overly fond of sheep and the girl resents having to pick tomatoes rather than tip cows". You both have the same information but he owns the photo, so he must be right.

There is a lot of good info and the book is well enough written. The between the lines, "Sorry, but this guy really was remarkable. Wish I didn't have to admit it", gets a bit in the way. It was as if he was treading a line so that academics who despise the whole liberty thing wouldn't accuse him of being Glenn Beck or God knows what.

Like I said, it is all done with enough finesse that I doubt most people would pick that out.

One thing that was inaccurate and somewhat misleading was his use of the words populist, liberal, and conservative in describing various beliefs of the time, and relating them to modern day impressions such terms give. For one thing, I do not think populist was even a term back then. In that day, conservative was Loyalist and all for mega government control, while liberal was freedom based and pretty much anti-authoritarian. Also, those terms may mean something different to me. He is subtly reinforcing what he wants the reader to think of the modern day categories. Very clever.

The terms have other meanings than they did back then. Today those who call themselves liberal tend to want a large central government which handles most aspects of life. Conservative, ideally would want less government (however most who class themselves as conservative tend to be unwilling to pull government out of some areas). Today the terms are not as meaningful as some espouse. But why split hairs. I would consider myself conservative if it was understood to mean fewer laws, legalize freedom, minimize government, and leave people alone even if you think they are wrong--ie: abortion.

Unfortunately it doesn't work that way, so I say Libertarian, or not quite anarchist.

Franklin started from almost zilch and managed to make great success in many realms. He was a successful printer/publisher/businessman, a renowned essayist/writer, extremely influential scientist and inventor, plus one of the savviest diplomats of all time.

In some ways I consider him a bit too much of a big government guy, but those people were living in a day when it was a big deal that you could even break the caste of your birth. That was a thing the colonies offered more than England and that helped lead to the nervy break and revolution.

It does help to get good information regarding that period because you otherwise have no idea how things happened, where the people deserve admiration and where they missed the mark. It certainly gives a better picture than the disparaging one which has been promoted in the last few decades. And a clearer one than the fairy tale nature which missed the point in earlier decades. Many a hardcore patriot who deems himself a constitutionalist may have no idea that the pledge of allegiance was not part of the deal until much later. I personally think it was a mistake, not a view I always held. Most everyone lost sight of the fact that many who framed the nations constitution were concerned that even under that document government could grow from useful to tyrannical. And it did.

Toward the end of the book, Isaacson quotes and offers opinions in a way that seduces you to think he's stating fact until you step back. How the hell do they know what Franklin would think of an office park or a mall? The effort was to imply that Franklin would have thought the modern version of the republic is just what the doctor ordered, and that he'd be all for this mammoth tangle of corruption lies and heavy handed control. I am unconvinced.

____==a little aside: people often blame Ben for daylight savings time. He's not guilty. He often wrote mock essays which were jokes and satire. In one of those he suggested the people of some country get up earlier to save on candles. He was actually joking. Who knew we'd be doing it seriously, and making laws about it? And have some hollywood people seriously, in public, going on and on about using less toilet paper?


  1. I'm still laughing out loud at the cow tipping remark. I'll have to come back later and finish reading this post. You do great reviews!

  2. Okay, finished it...interesting review. I find interesting the WWBD (What Would Ben Do) finish to the biography. Supposition is an "easy out", I suppose.


Can't make comments any easier, I don't think. People are having trouble--google tries to kidnap them. I'll loosen up one more thing and let's see. Please give it a try

About Me

My photo
Ballistic Mountain, CA, United States
Like spring on a summer's day


Blog Archive