Benjamin Franklin Cover

Benjamin Franklin - By Walter Isaacson

Date read: 
July 27, 2020
See My Collection of 50+ Book Notes

My Thoughts

An amazing biography on one America's most accomplished and revered founding fathers. Can be held up as an example to be curious, playful, and witty. The middle third didn't really interest me that much.

Summary Notes

He was, during his eighty-four-year-long life, America’s best scientist, inventor, diplomat, writer, and business strategist, and he was also one of its most practical, though not most profound, political thinkers.

But the most interesting thing that Franklin invented, and continually reinvented, was himself. America’s first great publicist, he was, in his life and in his writings, consciously trying to create a new American archetype. In the process, he carefully crafted his own persona, portrayed it in public, and polished it for posterity.

As a young printer in Philadelphia, he carted rolls of paper through the streets to give the appearance of being industrious. As an old diplomat in France, he wore a fur cap to portray the role of backwoods sage. In between, he created an image for himself as a simple yet striving tradesman, assiduously honing the virtues—diligence, frugality, honesty—of a good shopkeeper and beneficent member of his community.

Born and bred a member of the leather-aproned class, Franklin was, at least for most of his life, more comfortable with artisans and thinkers than with the established elite, and he was allergic to the pomp and perks of a hereditary aristocracy. Throughout his life he would refer to himself as “B. Franklin, printer.”

From these attitudes sprang what may be Franklin’s most important vision: an American national identity based on the virtues and values of its middle class.

The Lord, quite conveniently, smiled on those who were diligent in their earthly calling and, as Poor Richard’s almanac would later note, “helped those who helped themselves.”

“Industry and frugality,” he wrote in describing the theme of Poor Richard’s almanacs, are “the means of procuring wealth and thereby securing virtue.”20

In Poor Richard’s almanac, Franklin would later put it more pithily: “Fish and guests stink after three days.”

Franklin excelled in writing but failed math, a scholastic deficit he never fully remedied and that, combined with his lack of academic training in the field, would eventually condemn him to be merely the most ingenious scientist of his era rather than transcending into the pantheon of truly profound theorists such as Newton.

“From a child I was fond of reading,” he recalled, “and all the little money that came into my hands was ever laid out in books.” Indeed, books were the most important formative influence in his life, and he was lucky to grow up in Boston

Once he began working in his brother’s print shop, Franklin was able to sneak books from the apprentices who worked for booksellers, as long as he returned the volumes clean. “Often I sat up in my room reading the greatest part of the night, when the book was borrowed in the evening and to be returned early in the morning, lest it should be missed or wanted.

As part of his self-improvement course, Franklin read the essays, took brief notes, and laid them aside for a few days. Then he tried to recreate the essay in his own words, after which he compared his composition to the original. Sometimes he would jumble up the notes he took, so that he would have to figure out on his own the best order to build the essay’s argument.

As a young apprentice, Franklin had read a book extolling vegetarianism. He embraced the diet, but not just for moral and health reasons. His main motive was financial: it enabled him to take the money his brother allotted him for food and save half for books.

At 17, Franklin was physically striking: muscular, barrel-chested, open-faced, and almost six feet tall. He had the happy talent of being at ease in almost any company, from scrappy tradesmen to wealthy merchants, scholars to rogues. His most notable trait was a personal magnetism; he attracted people who wanted to help him. Never shy, and always eager to win friends and patrons, he gregariously exploited this charm.

“A man [is] sometimes more generous when he has little money than when he has plenty,” he later wrote, “perhaps through fear of being thought to have but little.”

Teaching Franklin a rule of human nature that served him well (with a few exceptions) throughout his career: people are more likely to admire your work if you’re able to keep them from feeling jealous of you.

A secret to being more revered than resented, he learned, was to display (at least when he could muster the discipline) a self-deprecating humor, unpretentious demeanor, and unaggressive style in conversation.

Franklin wrote out a “Plan for Future Conduct” during his eleven-week voyage back to Philadelphia. It would be the first of many personal credos that laid out pragmatic rules for success and made him the patron saint of self-improvement guides. He lamented that because he had never outlined a design for how he should conduct himself, his life so far had been somewhat confused. “Let me, therefore, make some resolutions, and some form of action, that, henceforth, I may live in all respects like a rational creature.” There were four rules:

  1. It is necessary for me to be extremely frugal for some time, till I have paid what I owe.
  2. To endeavor to speak truth in every instance; to give nobody expectations that are not likely to be answered, but aim at sincerity in every word and action—the most amiable excellence in a rational being.
  3. To apply myself industriously to whatever business I take in hand, and not divert my mind from my business by any foolish project of suddenly growing rich; for industry and patience are the surest means of plenty.
  4. I resolve to speak ill of no man whatever.

“The industry of that Franklin is superior to anything I ever saw of the kind; I see him still at work when I go home from club, and he is at work again before his neighbors are out of bed.”

Franklin became an apostle of being—and, just as important, of appearing to be—industrious. Even after he became successful, he made a show of personally carting the rolls of paper he bought in a wheelbarrow down the street to his shop, rather than having a hired hand do it.

Franklin went on to catalog the most common conversational sins “which cause dislike,” the greatest being “talking overmuch…which never fails to excite resentment.” The only thing amusing about such people, he joked, was watching two of them meet.

The other sins on his list were, in order: seeming uninterested, speaking too much about your own life, prying for personal secrets (“an unpardonable rudeness”), telling long and pointless stories (“old folks are most subject to this error, which is one chief reason their company is so often shunned”), contradicting or disputing someone directly, ridiculing or railing against things except in small witty doses (“it’s like salt, a little of which in some cases gives relish, but if thrown on by handfuls spoils all”), and spreading scandal (though he would later write lighthearted defenses of gossip).

Franklin laid out a guide for the type of conversational contributions each member could usefully make. There were twenty-four in all, and because their practicality is so revealing of Franklin’s purposeful approach, they are worth excerpting at length:

1. Have you met with anything in the author you last read remarkable or suited to be communicated to the Junto?…

2. What new story have you lately heard agreeable for telling in conversation?

3. Hath any citizen in your knowledge failed in his business lately, and what have you heard of the cause?

4. Have you lately heard of any citizen’s thriving well, and by what means?

5. Have you lately heard how any present rich man, here or elsewhere, got his estate?

6. Do you know of any fellow citizen who has lately done a worthy action deserving praise and imitation? Or who has committed an error proper for us to be warned against and avoid?

7. What unhappy effects of intemperance have you lately observed or heard? Of imprudence? Of passion? Or of any other vice or folly?…

12. Hath any deserving stranger arrived in town since last meeting that you heard of? And what have you heard of his character or merits? And whether you think it lies in the power of the Junto to oblige him or encourage him as he deserves?…

14. Have you lately observed any defect in the laws of your country of which it would be proper to move the legislature for an amendment?

15. Have you lately observed any encroachments on the just liberties of the people?

16. Has anybody attacked your reputation lately, and what can the Junto do toward securing it?

17. Is there any man whose friendship you want and which the Junto or any of them can procure for you?…

20. In what manner can the Junto or any of them assist you in any of your honorable designs?

Franklin’s favorite theme: slow and steady diligence is the true way to wealth. He ended by quoting what his imaginary friend Agricola said on giving his son a parcel of land: “I assure thee I have found a considerable quantity of gold by digging there; thee mayst do the same. But thee must carefully observe this, Never to dig more than plow deep.”

Gossip can also, he noted, promote virtue, as some people are motivated more by fear of public humiliation than they are by inner moral principles. “‘What will the world say of me if I act thus?’ is often a reflection strong enough to enable us to resist the most powerful temptation to vice or folly. ”

Franklin developed a method for making difficult decisions. “My way is to divide a sheet of paper by a line into two columns, writing over the one Pro and the other Con,” he later recalled. Then he would list all the arguments on each side and weigh how important each was. “Where I find two, one on each side, that seem equal, I strike them both out; if I find a reason pro equal to some two reasons con, I strike out the three.” By this bookkeeper’s calculus, it became clear to him “where the balance lies.”

As Franklin would soon have Poor Richard pronounce in his almanac: “Keep your eyes wide open before marriage, half shut afterwards.”

First he made a list of twelve virtues he thought desirable, and to each he appended a short definition:

  1. Temperance: Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
  2. Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
  3. Order: Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
  4. Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
  5. Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; (i.e., waste nothing).
  6. Industry: Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
  7. Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  8. Justice: Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
  9. Moderation: Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  10. Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.
  11. Tranquility: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
  12. Chastity: Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
  13. Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

“Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”

“Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead.”

“Neither a fortress nor a maidenhead will hold out long after they begin to parley.”

He’s a fool that makes his doctor his heir

He that lies down with dogs shall rise up with fleas

Necessity never made a good bargain.

There's more old drunkards than old doctors.

A good example is the best sermon.

Diligence is the mother of good luck.

He that pursues two hares at once does not catch one and lets the other go.

Search other for their virtues, thy self for thy vices.

No gains without pains.

Love your enemies, for they will tell you your faults.

The sting of a reproach is the truth of it.

God helps them that help themselves.

Father Abraham’s speech compiling Poor Richard’s sayings was published as The Way to Wealth and became, for a time, the most famous book to come out of colonial America. Within forty years, it was reprinted in 145 editions and seven languages; the French one was entitled La Science du Bonhomme Richard. Through the present, it has gone through more than thirteen hundred editions.

A fundamental aspect of Franklin’s life, and of the American society he helped to create, was that individualism and communitarianism, so seemingly contradictory, were interwoven. The frontier attracted barn-raising pioneers who were ruggedly individualistic as well as fiercely supportive of their community.

He found that people were reluctant to support a “proposer of any useful project that might be supposed to raise one’s reputation.” So he put himself “as much as I could out of sight” and gave credit for the idea to his friends. This method worked so well that “I ever after practiced it on such occasions.” People will eventually give you the credit, he noted, if you don’t try to claim it at the time.

Franklin spent an hour or two each day reading the books in the library, “and thus repaired in some degree the loss of the learned education my father once intended for me.”

Having heard that he had in his library a certain very scarce and curious book, I wrote a note to him, expressing my desire of perusing that book, and requesting he would do me the favor of lending it to me for a few days. He sent it immediately, and I returned it in about a week with another note, expressing strongly my sense of the favor. When we next met in the House, he spoke to me (which he had never done before), and with great civility; and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death. This is another instance of the truth of an old maxim I had learned, which says, “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.

Franklin’s scientific inquiries were driven, primarily, by pure curiosity and the thrill of discovery. Indeed, there was joy in his antic curiosity, whether it was using electricity jolts to cook turkeys or whiling away his time as Assembly clerk by constructing complex “magic squares” of numbers where the rows, columns, and diagonals all added up to the same sum.

his opinion that learning how nature acted was more important than knowing the theoretical reasons why: “Nor is it much importance to us to know the manner in which nature executes her laws; it is enough if we know the laws themselves. It is of real use to know that china left in the air unsupported will fall and break; but how it comes to fall and why it breaks are matters of speculation. It is a pleasure indeed to know them, but we can preserve our china without it."

He observed that the colonists were only half as likely as the English to remain unmarried, that they married younger (around age 20), and that they averaged twice as many children (approximately eight). Thus, he concluded, America’s population would double every twenty years and surpass that of England in one hundred years.

He turned out to be right. America’s population surpassed that of England by 1851, and kept doubling every two decades until the frontier ran out at the end of that century. Adam Smith cited Franklin’s tract in his 1776 classic, The Wealth of Nations, and Thomas Malthus, famous for his gloomy views on overpopulation and inevitable poverty, also used Franklin’s calculations.

In fact, he predicted (also correctly) that what would restrain America’s population growth in the future was likely to be wealth rather than poverty, because richer people tended to be more “cautious” about getting married and having children.

“Some may think these trifling matters not worth minding,” Franklin said, but they should remember that “human felicity is produced…by little advantages that occur every day.”

With Canada now part of the British Empire, they set up a system for extending mail delivery to Montreal. They also arranged for packet ships to the West Indies and for postal riders to travel at night. A letter sent from Philadelphia to Boston could receive a reply within six days, and a round-trip to New York could be done within twenty-four hours, a service that seems remarkable even now.

The strength of America, he wrote, was its proud freeholders and tradesmen, who had the right to vote on public affairs and ample opportunity to feed and clothe their families.

Themistocles had once boasted that he knew how to turn a little city into a great one, the essay listed twenty ways to do the reverse to an empire. Among them:

  • In the first place, gentlemen, you are to consider that a great empire, like a great cake, is most easily diminished at the edges.
  • However peaceably your colonies have submitted to your government, shown their affection to your interest, and patiently borne their grievances, you are to suppose them always inclined to revolt, and treat them accordingly.
  • Whenever the injured come to the capital with complaints…punish such suitors with long delay, enormous expense, and a final judgment in favor of the oppressor.
  • Resolve to harass them with novel taxes.

But among his attributes was a willingness, indeed an eagerness, to be involved in practical details rather than detached theorizing. He was also, both as a teen and as a septuagenarian, revitalized by travel.

“Britain, at the expense of three millions, has killed 150 Yankees this campaign, which is £20,000 a head…During the same time, 60,000 children have been born in America. From these data his mathematical head will easily calculate the time and expense necessary to kill us all.”

The body of

B. Franklin, Printer;

(Like the cover of an old book,

Its contents worn out,

and stripped of its lettering and gilding)

Lies here, food for worms.

But the work shall not be lost:

For it will, (as he believed) appear once more,

In a new and more elegant edition,

Revised and corrected

By the Author.

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