All Commentary
Thursday, September 1, 1983

Book Review: Benjamin Franklin by Ronald W. Clark

Random House, 201 East 50th Street, New York, NY 10022) 1983 • 530 pages • $22.95

When war broke out between the American colonies and Great Britain in 1775, Benjamin Franklin was sixty-nine years old and famous, not only in the colonies but in England and on the continent as well. The other outstanding Founding Fathers were relatively young and unknown: Washington was 43, John Adams 40 and Jefferson a mere 32. Had not the colonies successfully gained their independence, the latter three may never have become famous.

But Franklin’s fame does not depend on the American War for Independence, and Mr. Clark does a very good job explaining why. He devotes attention not only to Franklin’s splendid efforts to bring about American independence, but to all the man accomplished in the sixty years from the time of his arrival in Philadelphia as a young man to his death in the same city at age 83.

Franklin was a remarkable combination of characteristics that might seem incompatible with each other. He was a sharp man in business, but a generous public benefactor. He was fascinated by scientific theories and sought practical uses for his discoveries. He was an avid reader and revelled in good company, especially that of attractive and intelligent women. He loved England and France but refused to compromise with either on the subject of American independence. He was ready to be the peacemaker, but when war came he never hedged at fighting it out to the bitter end. He practiced honest diplomacy for the most part, but if deception and intrigue were called for, he acted accordingly.

Franklin was an excellent printer, publisher and writer. His Poor Richard’s Almanac was, for twenty-five years, an outlet for his homely aphorisms and pungent articles. He helped found the first subscription library in this country, the first fire department, and the academy which became the University of Pennsylvania. Among other things he invented the Franklin stove, bi-focal glasses, and the lightning rod. His electrical experiments and discoveries put him in the top rank of those pursuing the subject in the mid-eighteenth century. He was the first scientist to identify the Gulf Stream. The list seems endless!

When relations between Great Britain and the American colonies deteriorated in the 1770s Franklin was not a firebrand revolutionary but hopeful that a break would not occur. He had lived in London for the better part of two decades and was deeply attached to the country. But when British policy forced a choice, Franklin took the side of his homeland.

Just what did Franklin contribute to the cause of American independence? Well, he was the superb diplomat—his reputation as a scientist, natural philosopher, writer and wit gave him a great advantage over other American representatives. We must remember that Europeans usually thought of American colonists as country bumpkins and primitives. They were astounded at Franklin who was as well-read and brilliant of mind as any in England or on the continent. He cleverly played on this prejudice by affecting the homespun manner and appearance when it suited the occasion.

Just as in some societies courtship is a complicated affair, so it was in diplomacy in eighteenth century France. One had to know who to talk to—and when and how—to get any thing done. The intricacies of a royal court were learned only by the patient man, not by those accustomed to being direct and straightforward.

John Adams, for all his brilliance and devotion to the cause of liberty, got nowhere in France. He lacked the patience to wine and dine and cultivate the right people. Franklin, on the other hand, knew how to woo and charm influential Frenchmen in order to accomplish his purpose—which was to get help from France for the American colonies in their fight for independence. Had he not been successful the revolution might have been lost, or would have dragged out even longer than it did—from 1775 to the signing of the peace treaty in 1783.

Let’s face it, the colonists may have had all the brave determination in the world. That is essential to achieving a great goal, but it also is necessary to have the means to do so. The colonists did not have the means to defeat the British or the money to obtain them. France supplied both men and equipment, and Franklin deserves the most credit for getting this aid. It required a shrewd man to play off France against England and vice versa, leaving the new nation free to pursue its own destiny without being at the mercy of either nation. George Washington may have been the indispensable man, but Ben Franklin ran a close second.