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.