It’s hard to imagine that homely old Ben Franklin, peering out from behind his bifocals with that eighteenth-century mullet (among the few things he didn’t invent was the comb-over), was perhaps the most glamorous person in the world. Cheering crowds would greet him when he returned to Philadelphia from trips abroad. He had Madonna’s talent for self-invention, with an arsenal of pseudonyms, and the famous fur hat he wore in Paris to reinforce his image as a provincial of uncommon ability. He had a string of mistresslike friendships (alas for him unconsummated). His reputation for technological wizardry was such that during the Revolution, rumors ran rampant that he’d developed a system of mirrors that could incinerate the British fleet from afar, a death ray of a kind Don Rumsfeld might envy. He was, by consensus, the best writer in eighteenth-century America, as well as the nation’s first media tycoon and its shrewdest diplomat. And his jokes killed.
It’s safe to say that Walter Isaacson (without involving him in a comparison in which he would inevitably suffer), whose Benjamin Franklin: An American Life is out this week, is the foremost multitasker in the media world. He wrote this book apparently in his spare time, while running Time and CNN and now heading the Aspen Institute. But the book arrives with a weighty scholarly apparatus—extensive footnotes and a full chronology—announcing that the author is no mere hobbyist, as well as a special issue of Time magazine, a multi-part civics lesson of groaning size if no doubt salutary effect.
In fact, Ben Franklin was a sidebar journalist himself, a compulsive composer of lists and instructions and codes of conduct and self-help sound bites. Part of the problem for Franklin biographers is that their subject devoted so much time to packaging his public image. The Franklin whom Isaacson installs in the center of this biography is closely related to the one Franklin wanted us to see. Isaacson is constantly underlining his Americanness and the sense in which he represents the interests of this country’s emerging middle class. But the mystery of Franklin is how someone so remarkably glib and calculating could contrive to appear so simple. He’s not a man of the people but a founding father of the cultural elite, and one who is at pains not to seem so (not unlike the head of Time or CNN).
In Franklin, principle and prudence were always mixed. He came to the revolutionary cause late, when war was almost inevitable, tacking at precisely the right instant, and quickly convincing the revolutionaries that he was one of them.
When he’s gotten past the “quintessentially American” platitudes, Isaacson is most fascinated with Franklin the social and political tactician—Machiavelli as transplanted to a young democracy or a New York cocktail party. While Franklin was clearly delighted by himself—what a piece of work is Ben—being a genius was in some ways inconvenient, especially in those days when duels were fought over insults and men were driven mad (think Benedict Arnold) over slights to their reputation. Franklin realized how corrosive was the whole palette of negative emotions familiar to any Manhattanite: envy, Schadenfreude, bitterness—and he was constantly strategizing. “I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it,” he wrote.
Isaacson likes to chide Franklin—one overachiever nudging another—about his vast ego. And he argues, as only a Harvard man could, that Franklin’s career would not have suffered had he attended Harvard, as his father had originally planned.
In a biography of Benjamin Franklin, that brilliant light is always on, but who’s home, exactly? He wanted his public to believe that his virtuous virtuosity was the whole story, but his compulsive manipulativeness sometimes can have a sociopathic tinge. In his presence, certain sensitive individuals—John Adams, for instance—couldn’t help but bark at the ghost in the machine.
In his treatment of his family, benign neglect is possibly the best that can be said. And that’s being charitable. His son William, the royalist governor of New Jersey, always sought his approval and good wishes and was rewarded with a jail cell after the war and some worthless land grants in his will. Franklin ignored his wife’s pleas to return to Philadelphia from London, where he lived without her for some ten years, even after she’d had a stroke. On the other hand, it may be a bit too much to ask of the man who first harnessed electricity that he be a good family man, too.