When the name Benjamin Franklin is mentioned, one’s mind almost instantly goes to images of kites, lighting, the printing press, and the timeworn parchment of the Declaration of Independence. We hear the revolutionary band playing and picture a balding, portly colonial gentleman penning little bits of wisdom, but we certainly do not think of him swimming in the ocean or questioning religious absolutes. In Benjamin Franklin, Edmund S. Morgan presents readers with a mystery of a man and attempts to piece together the mosaic of endeavors and passions that make him such a wonder.
Edmund Sears Morgan was born in 1916 in Minneapolis, MN. In addition to graduating from Harvard University in 1937 and receiving his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1942, Morgan underwent graduate studies at the University of London’s London School of Economics. Like Franklin’s, Morgan’s career endeavors have varied widely, from manufacturing instruments in The Massachusetts Institute of Technology to professorships of social sciences, history, and research at such accredited universities as Brown and Yale. Most recently, Morgan has been awarded the Organization of American Historians Distinguished Services Award in 1998 and the National Humanities Medal in 2000. Morgan also holds honorary degrees from Rutgers University, Brown University, Colgate University, Washington College, William and Mary, The University of New Haven, Williams College, and Smith College. From the introduction to Benjamin Franklin, Morgan makes clear his passion for delving deeply into the colonial heritage of the United States, and it would appear from his extensive education and accolades that he is well equipped to do so.
Morgan’s biography of Franklin presents a portrait of the famed man with the kite that one might not expect in a scholarly biography. It is evident from the beginning that Morgan wants the reader to see beyond the characterizations of Franklin that we are often provided with. Benjamin Franklin is commonly known for three things: his experiments with electricity, his writings, and his involvement in the American Revolution. Underlying these, however, are the traits that Morgan really wishes for the reader to recognize in Franklin: curiosity and fascination with the world around him, a peaceful passion for the intellectual strength of individuals, and a charitable social servitude.
Morgan addresses Franklin’s experiments with electricity straightaway, crediting Franklin with the first successful (though small-scale) use of a lightning rod. An English friend’s sending him a glass bottle coated with aluminum prompted his interest in electricity. Scientists at the University of Leyden had been experimenting with storing static electricity by rotating such a bottle against a piece of felt. What might have been a novel gift to someone else became a fascination to Franklin. Contrary to what one might think, though, it did not become Franklin’s life’s work. In fact, electricity was only one of innumerable complexities of nature that captured Franklin’s attention and occupied his laboratory. As Morgan states, “for Franklin the world was so full of strange things that it is hard to keep up with his efforts to understand them.” Franklin also conducted studies on ocean currents and their effects on travel, pre-germ disease theory causes for the common cold, and chemistry. For a while, Franklin carried a vial of oil in the hollows of his bamboo cane in order to observe the effects of oil on the different bodies of water he passed.
In addition to an ongoing inquisitiveness about the world he lived in, Franklin also undertook a quest to share the workings of his more philosophical intellect. Though he fled his apprenticeship as a printer early in his career, Franklin never abandoned the craft. He was constantly printing philosophical tracts anonymously, along with the well-known Poor Richard’s Almanack. Franklin even succeeded in publishing countless satirical hoax speeches, among them one by a woman having her fifth illegitimate child who claims to be obeying the command of God “to increase and multiply.” Another of Franklin’s most famed pieces of writing is his list of the virtues that will lead one to moral perfection. Among these are Temperance, Chastity, Cleanliness, and Humility. These came, not from Puritan religious doctrine and preaching, but from Franklin’s own struggle with the complexities of good works versus faith. The crux of this, and Franklin’s other publications on religion, seems to be that an individual can be moral and god-fearing without the dogmatic presence of the church. Interestingly, though, Franklin never identified himself with writers or philosophers; he was a printer. This, coupled with the fact that he usually wrote anonymously, establishes Franklin as someone who did not desire renown as an originator of great thoughts. When other thinkers challenged Franklin’s publications or ideas, he rarely responded. He simply wanted people to use what he shared with them.
Benjamin Franklin’s publications are only part of what establishes him as the ultimate social servant. As the American Revolution approached, Franklin expressed to friends that he was more than willing to lay down his philosophical and scientific pursuits in order to serve a people in need. It can be argued that the transition of America into an independent nation might not have been as smooth were it not for Franklin’s service. His diplomacy toward the British and the French before, during, and after the war proved invaluable to America in establishing, then re-establishing, alliances. Franklin was also instrumental in defending a pre-Revolution Philadelphia from French privateers, both enabling the British to maintain their influence in America and the colonies to withstand division. Franklin believed that the British government was solid, but in need of some correction. It was only after being sent to England in 1764 as a colonial agent that he realized how difficult it was for someone from America to address these corrections, particularly with regard to the colonists’ desire to have elected officials and other rights. Though Franklin did not honestly believe that Americans had any desire for independence when he first embarked on this trip to England, the colonial reaction to the Stamp Act in 1765 showed him otherwise. Franklin’s appeals to Britain to do what was right in America on this and other issues, regardless of his allegiance, proved him to be a dedicated servant of the people.
Having established what Morgan reveals about the essence of Benjamin Franklin, it is also important to look at how he does this. Morgan’s biography of Franklin is somewhat narrative. The opening chapters establish a general view of Franklin, while later chapters follow a more chronological sequence that begins with his voyage to London in 1757 at age 51. Morgan interjects some allusions to future events to round out the reader’s perspective on more historically important events. On the whole, the book reads like the ideal lecture: a broad introduction, followed by a detailed chronology that is interspersed with lighthearted anecdotes and interesting facts. Morgan’s writing style flows very easily, yet intelligently. At times, he personally addresses the reader and alludes to what “we” are trying to understand about Franklin. This can make an uninterested reader feel more engaged by the content, but could also cause the more discerning historical fact-checker to question his credibility. After all, does a reader want to feel like an author knows as little about the subject as he or she does? Morgan’s credentials indicate that he is well qualified to write on the subject at hand, but he does not seem to write with as much authority as he could.
In keeping with this, Morgan mentions that it is difficult to get a grasp on Benjamin Franklin personally. As such, the book covers mostly Franklin’s professional life, so to speak. However, since many of Franklin’s philosophical ventures and scientific experiments were conducted as personal endeavors and fueled by his concern for all people, the book can also be considered a look into Franklin’s private life. Morgan does not clearly state his intent one way or the other, but this does not limit what the reader comes to understand about Franklin.
Morgan utilizes several direct quotes from Franklin’s writings to help in telling his story. These aid the reader in understanding events and ideas from Franklin’s point of view. The book’s bibliography credits most of the material used to Franklin’s own autobiography and to a collection of Franklin’s papers edited by Leonard Labaree. Morgan notes in the book’s preface that this collection is currently available on disk at the Packard Humanities Institute, and claims that it is what drove him to write the book. Other credits include the autobiography of John Adams and reprints of federal and state constitutions. The extent to which the collection of Franklin’s papers is cited indicates that Morgan’s might be a successful attempt at condensing the material into an accurate depiction of Franklin’s life and character. In a more extensive study of Franklin, Morgan’s book could be a useful guidebook to the collection. Also used as supplements to the text are varied photos and drawings of tools Franklin used, such as the Leyden jars used for storing static electricity and the printing press. Morgan also includes a sketch of a ship rigging that Franklin drew and sketches of the Philadelphia area during colonial times. These all aid the reader in visualizing the era and enhance the reader’s wonder at how forward thinking Franklin must have been in a time long before technology was even a concept. Other drawings and paintings of Franklin and his contemporaries are used toward the end of the book. Since the bulk of what Franklin is known for occurred during his later life, it is unlikely that there are any portraits of him as a younger man available, so Morgan cannot be blamed for the lack of visual aids in his portrayal of Franklin as a curious young man. It was during this later period that Franklin became associated with other “founding fathers,” and the list of important people in Franklin’s life is an excellent addition for helping readers to connect other figures to Franklin. Another appendix is Franklin’s chronology, which is also very useful given that Morgan’s text is not terribly date-driven. On the whole, these tools certainly do not detract from Morgan’s survey of Franklin’s life and work. It might be argued that Morgan includes these because they also provide him with groundwork for his story, and that he is writing just as much to help himself understand Franklin as for the reader.
Naturally, professional reviewers have taken a much more critical approach to Morgan’s biography of Franklin. Critics acknowledge that Morgan is well qualified to undertake this work, calling him “a most senior of our senior historians.” Reviews also reveal some important information not included in Morgan’s Contemporary Authors profile. For example, Morgan died sometime between the book’s publication and February 2004, and he had chaired the advisory board for Yale’s collection of Franklin’s papers. In general, reviews seem to be tinged with the opinion that Morgan, with all of his qualifications, could have done Franklin better.
George Washington University’s Ormond Seavey praises Morgan for paralleling Franklin’s plain style in his writing, and commends Morgan’s emphasis on Franklin’s desire for a powerful British-American empire. Hanover College’s George M. Curtis III concurs, claiming that Morgan establishes Franklin “at center stage for the coming of the American Revolution.” However, Morgan actually deals with this very little in the book. He emphasizes more that Franklin was almost unaware of a desire for independence among Americans until the adverse reaction to the Stamp Act in Virginia. Another interesting point that Seavey makes is that “Morgan is inclined to transfer the credit for the Peace of Paris in 1782 and 1783 to Franklin’s associates, John Jay and John Adams, but their diplomatic shortcomings without Franklin to correct them would reveal themselves in the 1790s.” Once recognized, this seems a bit ironic considering how much Morgan touts Franklin’s diplomacy and popularity among both the British and the French. With this, Seavey adds that Morgan’s list of some of the people in Franklin’s life could have been expanded to show Franklin’s capacity as a “supporting actor” as well as a star. While the list as it is remains helpful, Seavey’s suggestion would definitely have aided Morgan even more in rounding out his perspective on Franklin.
Curtis’ review is centered on two major voids that he finds in Morgan’s book. He claims that Morgan misgauges Franklin’s perspective on fame and on rights. While Morgan contends that Franklin’s not addressing his critics in printed rebuttals points to a lack of concern for renown, Curtis alleges that Franklin possessed a great deal of concern for his own public character. Why else, Curtis asks, would he have left “a paper trail on the subject…that fascinated the Founders in serious and constructive ways that Morgan does not consider with any concentrated scrutiny.”? Another of Curtis’ most concise arguments is that Morgan tends to overstress Franklin’s social servitude, forgetting that Franklin’s wealth enabled him to pursue public interests. In fact, as a property owner and entrepreneur, Franklin had a particularly vested interest in property rights. This assertion lies in stark contrast to Morgan’s contention that Franklin was more concerned with what was right than with rights.
Though professional reviewers do cut into Morgan’s book on some of the finer points, none of these arguments devalues the work as a whole. After all, Morgan’s book is peppered with hints that no one can truly know Franklin’s motivations for all that he did. What Morgan is successful in revealing is that what Franklin did, regardless of why, was valuable. Though Curtis may not agree , Morgan is in keeping with his asserted intent “to say enough about the man to show that he is worth the trouble.”