On My Bookshelf: “Benjamin Franklin: An American Life”

A simple Google search will quickly bring up multiple reviews of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Franklin, and certainly in more informative and insightful prose than I could offer.  But this book touched me, and because of that, I think I’d rather speak to how it made me feel as an American. 

And yes, that sounds a bit corny, which is, if the internet is to be believed, a word with its origins in America, like me.

Benjamin Franklin has been given the title “The First American,” but in fact, he was born to an American mother and a father whose roots were in Northamptonshire, England.  This duality would follow Franklin throughout his eighty-four years, as he traveled the Atlantic between the two, asking for peace, supporting one and then the other, and finally falling on the side of the Colonies in their desire for independence.

His ability to see all sides of an argument was often called “waffling,” and was cited as a sign that he had no convictions.  In truth, Franklin knew that if you had a room full of men who were unwilling to compromise -- those men would walk out of that room with little or nothing accomplished.  And Franklin was a man who liked to get things done.

Over 230 years later, it’s no secret that Americans aren’t the most popular people on the planet.  The internet has given me a much more international life than many of the neighbors, friends and co-workers in my town of 45,000 in Northern Idaho.  Among some here, there can be an insular nature to patriotism, in the vein of “Love It, Or Leave It.”

With friends in England, France, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada – and the many other countries represented on Twitter by people that I don’t know well but read often – I get a good cross-section of the world’s view of Americans.  Some of the harsher critics see us as arrogant, fat and irresponsible at the same time we have the hubris to call ourselves the leaders of the free world.  I can’t fully disagree with them.

Seeing my own country as I do, from two perspectives -- not only from inside it, but also through the eyes of my international friends – I can also hear, and believe, that we’re an adventurous and pioneering sort of people: innovative and bright, exploring the vast, wide open spaces this country has to offer.

My great-grandmother came across the plains of America in a covered wagon, and I’ve been told all my life that the women in our family are of strong, opinionated, hardy “pioneer stock.”  I’ve been proud of that label, and the philosophy behind it has helped me to steer my own sometimes rickety wagon through the upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s in California; the early 1980s in New York City; the financial downturn that started in the late 1990s and continues still; and the monumental social sea-change that allowed us, finally, miraculously, to elect a black President.

Benjamin Franklin was a man who saw serious issues, and dealt with them with humor.  He was highly intelligent, but wanted to speak and write in a manner that allowed everyone to be able to hear him and understand.  He was very much loved as a “man of the people” of the Colonies, at the same time he was celebrated as one of the higher echelon of the New World, and was present at the signing of every critically important document that shaped the United States of America.

So the theme emerges – duality.  And as a textbook Libra, I can relate.

Like Franklin, I love the spirit of the people of this country.   But as he did, I dislike a lot of its politics.  For him, that was typified by people who so refused to move off of their positions that they essentially threatened to freeze the government.  I worry, in 2012, about the same thing.

I’ve loved the culture, literature and rich history of Britain for as long as I can remember, even back to the age of eleven, reading Jane Eyre in the attic, out loud in what I hoped was Julie Andrews’ voice.

So I suppose in addition to helping me feel an affinity with someone who lived so long ago, Isaacson’s book left me asking questions about my own duality: with my love for foreign lands, people and sensibilities; and my pride and connection to America.

Which is something Benjamin Franklin, I suspect, would appreciate.


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