“The greatest American in the world”

We remember Benjamin Franklin as the cleverly unassuming sage who authored all those pithy sayings in “Poor Richard’s Almanac,” and who caught lightening with a kite and key. He comes across the generations less as a Founding Father than as a charmingly homespun – and uniquely American – character who was perhaps wise, although mostly in an avuncular sort of way.

But Walter Isaacson, in “Benjamin Franklin – An American Life” (brilliantly narrated by Nelson Runger for Audible), reminds us of why Franklin was viewed as an absolute phenomenon by his contemporaries in America and Europe alike. It is worth noting, for example, that Franklin essentially founded the science of electricity in its modern form, discovering many of the concepts and coining much of the terminology still in use in the field today.

It is also worth observing in this context that Franklin was decidedly results-oriented by nature. While he supported the concept of “pure” research, his practice of it was typically motivated by a curiosity about problems that vexed our daily lives, and a drive to find practical ways to ease them. Thus, the discovery of the true nature of electricity and, especially, that lightning is a manifestation of it that is attracted in particular ways to grounded conductors, led to his invention, and the widespread adoption, of lightning rods; up to then the state of the art in Europe for protecting life and property from lightning strikes was to frighten them away by ringing church bells.

Numerous other immediately applicable consequences of his scientific activity led to the reduction of choking smoke from home stoves, improved building fire safety, and even to more accurate and efficient navigation of the Atlantic Ocean. It is important to be aware here that he didn’t just tinker, observe effects, and tinker some more; he researched, postulated, experimented, and discovered the underlying science that gave rise to his many inventions.

This same practically-grounded curiosity guided his thinking and creativity in his prolific community organizing activities and his profound contributions to national politics. He was one of the first Founding Fathers to see the need for the colonies to unify as they resisted the increasing depredations of the Parliament in Great Britain. Alone among them, he had travelled to all the colonies in his capacity as postmaster-general (surprisingly for us today, few 18th century Americans travelled at all outside their home colonies; most of the delegates at the Continental Congresses were doing so for the first time). As a result, he was uniquely acquainted with the similarities in character and politics shared among Americans from North to South that made union realistic and natural, as well as desirable.

Franklin, moreover, was the only Founding Father who played a direct, hands-on role in shaping all of the nation’s formative documents, from the Declaration of Independence and the Treaty of Alliance with France, to the Peace Treaty with Great Britain and, finally, the Constitution of the United States.

If Washington was fundamental to the shaping of American political institutions and traditions, Franklin was, as Isaacson engagingly and instructively shows us – and with remarkable contemporary relevance – the primary shaper of what has come to be viewed as the American character, itself both shaped by and shaping the new nation he helped create.

“The greatest man in the world”

We think of George Washington as possessed of iron self-control, a rather forbidding dignity, and an imposing authority which could calm the reckless passions and focus the frenetic talents of the presumably more gifted intellectuals around him.

Their vision and intelligence, it is supposed, provided the design, materials, and construction of the new nation they all fathered; his mighty character provided the foundation and glue that made the actual creation of the edifice possible. Actually, rather more prosaically, in my high school days, we were taught that he was a solid patriot, steady and courageous, if uninspired, who probably served well enough as the impressive public representative of the nation while privately allowing his more brilliant juniors and colleagues to do his deep thinking for him.

The truth turns out to be though, as is often the case in such reluctantly-crafted acknowledgments by such “intellectuals” themselves, that Washington was at least as deep, if more deliberate, a thinker than most of them, and saw much further with greater prescience. That his character was mightier and sturdier into the bargain isn’t merely something that must be found to say well of him: it was both fundamentally essential to the entire multi-faceted undertaking itself – from the beginning of hostilities through the end of his second term as president – and served to prevent his studied but clear thinking from being clouded by the arrogance and self-importance, and even the simple untethered flights of fancy, that so hobbled the vision of his putative superiors.

Moreover, his sound and sure-footed judgement displayed its superiority time and time again, in the most desperate, in the most theoretically abstract, and in the most politically uncertain circumstances. One key evidence of this is Washington’s supremely important ability to assemble and manage, much as Lincoln did, a “Team of Rivals” throughout the Revolutionary War, and particularly as president.

As Ron Chernow in his magnificent “Washington: A Life” is able to explain in detail for us, he clearly warrants his place at the forefront of America’s Founding Fathers. Chernow has provided a great and valuable accomplishment in showing us the reality behind the mythic self-control that has shielded us from meaningful knowledge of, informed regard for, and indeed, honest civic affection for this man who made himself into the very bedrock of our national experience.

Read this important book – or, as I did, listen to it – and learn about the youth, the internal conflicts and ambitions, the setbacks and successes that this man grasped, mastered, and forged in the furnace of his formidable will into the man who would not be king; who laid down his sword to return to his home after emerging as the most powerful figure on the continent after the Revolutionary War, and who did so again in the face of concerted pleas for him to remain beyond his second term as President. Learn what all of this meant for not just the foundation of the nation, but for the formation if its very character and institutions.

  • The quotation at the head of this post is from King George III, on learning that the man who defeated his armies and liberated the colonies from George’s rule, was, upon emerging martially supreme in the American continent, to simply resign his commission and return to his family and home.

Listen carefully

One of the tidbits of excellent advice in Richard Restak’s “Mozart’s Brain and the Fighter Pilot” is to periodically slow down your intake of your reading to the speed of the spoken word. In fact, he points out, until relatively recently it was the norm for people to speak the words out loud, or at least to mouth them quietly, as they read; reading silently and quickly is a recent – and initially a rather startling and even controversial – innovation.

So, in his book on how to develop and maintain optimal brain function, among the suggestions based on cutting edge science this practicing neurologist and neuropsychiatrist gives is simply to slow down now and then – don’t just read, but listen, experience. The usefulness of speed-reading in any event, he argues, is limited. Some things are best absorbed with a measured focus on the here and now addressed in the text, and the act of doing so is good for your brain, too.

Coincidentally, this is the first book I listened to from Audible. For some reason I have always avoided such systems, from the early ”books on tape” days, largely because I felt it would be cumbersome. I couldn’t glance back a word or a sentence instantly to check something. I couldn’t highlight a phrase or insert a note.

I recently succumbed to an Audible 30-day free trial offer, and found that such objections (even the quick glance-back concern), for the most part, have been resolved. Most notably, I found that Restak’s call to experience certain books with an engrossing focus on the present ideas as they are enunciated verbally, to be an invigorating, rewarding exercise

Moreover, you can “clip” – the Audible version of a highlight – segments that you find interesting. If you wish, you can give each clip a title, so that you can differentiate it in a list of clips, and even add a text note about your interest in it. These will then sync across your Audible apps on your phone, tablet, and computer (just be sure to download the book into each app via the same WiFi network, to make this work most smoothly).

Amazon (the parent company of both Kindle and Audible) also will sometimes advise you that a book you are about to purchase on Audible will “whispersync for Voice” with the Kindle version, and they will offer you the Audible version deeply discounted if you buy the Kindle version first. I ignored this for a while, since I was getting my Audible books via the monthly credit I receive as a subscriber – why spend more on a text version? But if you’ve used your monthly credit(s) and still want another Audible book before the next credit appears in your account, you can purchase it for 30% off – and, as it turns out, the additional discount on an Audible book that whispersyncs with a Kindle book results (or did in my case) in a total cost that is just under the 30% discounted price of the Audible version alone, so I gave it a try.

And it was worthwhile. When you purchase both versions this way, you can listen on one device, pick up where you left off on another as usual, but reading this time if you prefer, and so on. Additionally, you can do the normal highlighting and insertion of notes in the Kindle version – you’ll even see there your “clips” from the Audible version. Easily the best of both worlds when available.

As a result of all this (which is rather simpler than I’ve made it seem here), my “reading” time has expanded productively to include occasions when the standard approach is impractical. I can now take in the written word – but spoken in high quality, professional productions – while I exercise, walk, or even engage in light tasks.

Some books are well-suited for listening to, and some for reading. I’m finding that novels and even biographies work well for me as listening experiences, while I prefer to read histories, current events, and analyses the standard way.

Your choices likely will differ. But do consider giving it a try.

Finishing the job

The Revolutionary War established the independence of the American Colonies from Great Britain. The initial Articles of Confederation soon proved inadequate for the effective maintenance of the fledgling state, and a new constitution was drafted. To become operational, it had to be approved by at least 9 of the 13 states, and when that milestone was reached with New Hampshire’s ratification in the summer of 1788, the United States stood up among the nations of the world, representing the greatest experiment theretofore by any of them. The truth is, though, that it remained yet a working concept, and a decidedly tenuous one at that.

Surely this experiment was historic, invested with world-changing promise and hope, a triumph of incredible vision, genius and sacrifice. But the great and immensely difficult art of politics, exercised by monumental masters in its practice over those months hammering out the new constitution and guiding it to ratification, succeeded both by enshrining in the fabric of the nation unprecedented institutions ensuring new liberties and freedoms, and by turning a willfully blind eye to the continuance of another.

Several other genuinely vital issues divided equally dedicated patriots in those early years. But none was so searingly fissionable, so fundamental to the core identity of the nation and to the viability of the state as this one. And so tests of how we would define ourselves came frequently over the following decades, only to be put off with further dissimulation and incriminating compromise.

The final test – the grim understanding that the time was come to confront and remove this seething division – finally appeared, fully nine decades later, with the awful, wondrous American Civil War. The country was on the cusp of maturity, and could go no further without first closing this wound.

The nation understood the gargantuan stakes. Lincoln, on his way to take office even as the country was coming apart, knew he was about to undertake “a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington.” It was the entry – eyes wide open, now, and determinedly entering, still – into the agony of this war that finally and firmly established the United states as an enduring fact. Paul Johnson, in his magnificent “A History of the American People,” noted

The civil war . . . constitutes the central event in American history. It is also America’s most characteristic event which brings out all that the United States is, and is not. It made America a nation, which it was not before.

Why is that? Why was the formation and secure institutionalization of this country so fraught with risk, danger, so much anger, so much blood?

Why, despite all of that, was it ventured – and gained – nonetheless?

We will look at that next, with reviews that hopefully will help us see who we were over this formative period, what were our internal strengths, weaknesses, our conflicts over these, and what these made, and continue to make, of us.

But first, we’ll review a device I’ve come to only lately, but happily, and without which covering much of this ground would have been distinctly less gripping and edifying – and maybe even unlikely.

Breathing it all in

It can be startling, when you come to discover that you make decisions or evaluate events based on your sense of your nationality, to find that those (nominally, you feel) fellow nationals whose examples you abhor and whose decisions you condemn claim to be applying the same criteria. What are we to make of that?

Well, the truth is that this argument as it occurs between Americans, for all its energy and even vehemence, is perfectly natural – even quintessentially American. And it isn’t new – not in any respect – not in the hostility it generates, not in the partisanship it foments, not even in the seething fissures across society it leaves in its wake. One reason it is so natural to us, actually, is in the fact that our sense of nationality is the very consequence of such endless self-questioning – self-discovery – about who we are. In an especially American way, our debates, collaborations, and disagreements themselves both define our disparate views of what America is or ought to be – and unite us as Americans. We, as has often been noted, are unique among the great nations in that we quite literally created our own nationhood, a dynamic and continuous phenomenon – not an isolated, static  event. We are, and continue to be, that creative debate – and all the greater, it can be argued, for the intensity we so intimately and vigorously invest in it.

The questioning I often find myself dealing with as an expat, though, has tended to have another effect on my own acutely felt sense of nationality. The sometimes genuinely puzzled, sometimes insidiously curious scrutiny comes from foreigners whose experiences with nationality are decidedly different from my own. And when they question me about events in the States, or query me about my reactions or accommodations to local cultural/societal/political events, I find that the surprisingly difficult endeavor to find enlightening answers leads me to see a broader sense of the Americanness that characterizes us all, that binds us together as citizens of a wonderfully united nation – as immediately identifiable individual evidences of a distinct nationality – that we (it is worth noting here again) began consciously forging centuries ago, and that we continue to create – not merely to refine or distill, but to renew – today. We are a river, always changing, but ever more deeply distinct and recognizable for precisely that.

The expat experience can also heighten (or awaken) one’s patriotism. It certainly heightens my awareness of how I evaluate myself, and my passage through life’s major milestones, on the basis of the Americanness that so profoundly, so fundamentally, defines me and shapes my world view. I must say as well that the expat experience, rather than mediating that, strikingly informs and thus deepens it. Neither rooted nor rootless, then – neither Chesterton’s peasant nor his cosmopolite – I nevertheless breath the winds of the world, wherever I am, as who I am –  as an American. Finding myself in the midst of that experience in these circumstances is refreshingly edifying.

And much of what we talk about here will itself be shaped by that. So, let’s get to it . . .