Benjamin Franklin the printer
Of the writing of books, there is no end (Ecclesiastes 12. 12b, New International Version) so the holy bible says and this is no more true than in the case of Benjamin Franklin the printer, a printer, politician, scientist and one of the founding fathers of the United states of America. As such, history writers have always depicted him – as with most other historical figures of note – as a larger than life figure.
In this account, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin by Gordon S. Wood, Benjamin is portrayed as a normal human being with flaws like all other persons, one with lots of clashing views on accepted norms of the day and who always sought to improve himself not by striving against the odds but by remodeling himself as appropriate in order to ensure balance and order in his life and this attribute may be considered one that earns him the phrase “the man with many masks. ” In this account, Gordon has tried to bring forth the true Benjamin as he is not depicted by most other writer.
Though not very conclusive on his private life and affairs, it still does shed more light on the kind of man Benjamin was especially the principles of life that he held and how if circumstances demanded he would be flexible in his ways to achieve these life goals.
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Key among them was frugality and hard work which he preached to all who cared to listen and also practiced from an early age as can be seen by his apprenticeship and eventual elopement and setting up of his own printing press.
Gordon as such then depicts Benjamin as most historians have; the virtuous man we have always been made to think Benjamin was. In the day and age when a father’s love was mostly to his first born son, Benjamin did not enjoy much attention from his father and this may have led to his character of not revealing much about who he really was and coming from a Puritanism family he also can have acquired the self enlightenment trait which caused him to have and hold his own opinion on almost every other norm of that day.
In this way, Benjamin would be portrayed as an individual who driven by prior lack tries to right things so as to satisfy an emptiness within himself which is an aspect not seen in other works about him. Reading through the book for anyone not necessarily a fan of Benjamin Franklin or colonial history, this book stirs in one a deeper desire to get to know this man how he lived his life and how this impacted on life and politics of the day and future- our present generation. Not being a critic of Benjamin, Gordon merely pierces the veil on who Benjamin really was and this account written in real life can be considered a worth having book.
Simple in plot and easy to follow plot, one is able to visualize Franklin as he was and also answer questions about him that are otherwise obscured in the mythological figure that he has been turned into. Raised in a lowly family of a soap and candle making father, Benjamin’s impoverished childhood and adolescence, stirred in him “an anger” with the wealthy for their seemingly easy life and mannerism, this in itself spurred his ambition to rise from a commoner into a gentleman so as to be able to pursue his other interests; social advocacy and science.
The book gives an explanation about how this persona grew and why it grew. Franklin is seen as the man of his age who rose from a nobody, into a self-made “gentleman”, a leading diplomat and scientist revered by all especially in Europe where he served his diplomatic duties. Through sheer hard work, frugality in spending and cultivation of important friends, he was able to amass enough wealth by age 42 (in 1748) to retire from business and begin pursuing his other desires.
It is during this period while pursuing one of his desires – serving the public good- that he was sent to England to represent the American colonies interests to the British that a transformation began to occur. Wood exposes Benjamin as an ardent supporter of the Royal British Crown, who could not envisage an independent colony free of control from the king and who thought of the king as being wisdom itself and more humane than the parliament of the day.
He cherished the thought of a unified “…glorious English empire…” but this began to change from 1765 when parliament imposed the stamp act, one which he strongly opposed, on the colonies. At home, Benjamin was seen to be part of it by recommending a friend as stamp distributor for Pennsylvania an action he quickly regretted and made him champion the repeal of the act – this act earned him repute at home but enemies in England – and opened his eyes to the colonies increasing resistance to crown control.
It also reinforced his increasing discontent with England and marked the completion of his Americanization. He henceforth became a supporter of the revolution demanding independence from England. Back home in 1775 after completing his tour in England, Franklin was appointed as ambassador of the American colony to France a country he had in his earlier years fought against during the seven year’s war. His handling of his country’s affairs in France: securing their support in the revolution war against England reveals his diplomatic and charming traits.
He was able to make many friends and his reputation as a true American was more upheld by these new friends mostly the French who helped create the mythical figure we today know of Benjamin Franklin. This made Franklin indispensable to the success of the emerging young American nation in Europe. Woods shows that Franklin as an individual who could easily take a situation and use it to achieve his goals. In France, the French believing he was a Quaker, he played the part so well to continually reaffirm this held belief and thus to them he was a symbol of republican simplicity – an ends to a good in Franklins view.
His Poor Richard’s Almanac was considered to true a moral philosophy by the French that they deemed him as a symbol of true democracy, an image they helped create and propagate and one still held by today’s America. Though wood does not elaborate on it, we may never know for sure if this was Franklin’s intention or just a happenstance that he just rode on to achieve his goals. On the issue of principle, Wood does depict Benjamin as a puritan who strongly upheld and advocated principle.
He shows Franklin as an individual who was consistent in thought but also explores instances where due to circumstances around him, Franklin had to change his view even though his fundamental principles remained unchanged. This Wood has expertly brought out in a way that apart from showing Franklin’s strong and flexible character also reveals though just a bit, his ability to switch masks quickly and play the new role with perfection and zeal unimaginable.
Finally, towards the end of his life, Franklin a former slaveholder despised and strongly fought against owning slaves preferring personal hard work as a source of satisfaction and thus helping change the view of social mobility and dignity of manual labor among the Americans later on after his death. Wood doesn’t claim to be exhaustive about Franklin in this account but does delve a lot into his professional life exposing the man we think we know in new light that most of us do not know but still seeming to revere him as a true American, indeed as “the first American”.
Benjamin Franklin still remains difficult a subject to understand but his life does serve as a valuable teaching tool as well as a reference point for most of the political and day to day life of America, the symbol of true capitalism with its goods but minus its evils. An imperialist turned patriot, scientist, inventor, businessman, politician; Franklin still had a social and private life which is not well explored and explained as much in depth as his public life in this account.
In conclusion, this account provides the reader with a true insight of who Benjamin Franklin was without all the mythical nature we have always been taught to believe of him. Room still exists for further exposition of Benjamin Franklin but this account can be considered to be among the best in demystifying Benjamin and exposing him as human and wrought with shortcomings which he did not allow to peg him down but used them to move on.
He himself acknowledged his shortcomings and did not try to prove to be above or better than others but extolled the adherence to trying to live a principled life above all else. It is an interesting and enlightening read worth anyone interested in learning more about the founding fathers and colonial America. ? References Wood G. S. , (2004). The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin. New York, NY: penguin publishers