Benjamin Franklin: An American Life
Author: Walter Isaacson
Popular images of Benjamin Franklin often center on three items: the bifocals, the kite, the key. Curious, I read the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin a few years back. Franklin’s honesty sparked my real interest in the U.S. founding father. Did you know he began his professional life by running away as a teenager to Philadelphia?
But I always need more data. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life provides a much more thorough and (naturally) objective look at Franklin. Written by Walter Isaacson, onetime president of CNN and author of books on Leonardo DaVinci and Steve Jobs, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life renewed my appreciation for Franklin’s journey from humble tradesman to American Founding Father.
Beyond the trivia and anecdotes, one would expect reading of a life as full as Franklin’s, a number of themes stuck with me well after I’d turned the last page on Isaacson’s biography.
- Accomplishment. Franklin is a shining example of just how much one can accomplish in a single lifetime. Starting as a teenage runaway, he progressed his career from apprentice to printer to publisher to franchisor. This is all before he turned to politics! During this pre-political life, Franklin was especially frugal, focused and diligent in his work. I like to think of his journey as a roadmap.
- Decision-making. To make difficult decisions, Franklin wrote pros and cons for each choice on a sheet of paper. He’d then cross equivalent items from each column until it was clear which was the winner. This approach sounds quaint today, but perhaps only because such pro/con lists have become ubiquitous. I wonder if Franklin’s lists were novel in the 18th Century? In any case, Franklin’s lists align with what I believe about human psychology and cognitive bias: as a tool, formal processes improve our decision-making quality.
- Virtues and habits. In his autobiography, Franklin describes his youthful quest to live a more virtuous life. At age 20, he chose 13 virtues that “at that time occurr’d to me as necessary or desirable.” He chose to rigorously practice each in sequence, rather than all at once. By dedicating a week to each virtue, Franklin practiced each of the 13 virtues four times in a year. Did he ever achieve them all? Not permanently. I imagine his “virtue practice” helping, though, informing the difficult situations life would later throw in his path. (For thoroughness, Benjamin Franklin’s 13 necessary virtues were: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity and humility.)
- Optics. Franklin recognized the value of appearance when dealing with others. Not just physical appearance, but “inward appearance” as well—the appearance of having virtues. Isaacson’s text illustrates: “Even after [Benjamin Franklin] became successful, he made a show of personally carting…rolls of paper…down the street to his shop, rather than having a hired hand do it.” In Franklin’s own words: “I took care not only to be in reality industrious and frugal, but to avoid all appearances of the contrary.” Today, we refer to this as “optics.” Though I once detested the idea of acting for the sake of appearances, I’ve since learned, like Mr. Franklin, the importance of considering how our actions appear to others.
- Socialization. While establishing himself in Philadelphia as a young tradesman, Franklin founded a club called the Junto (also known as the Leather Apron Club, for he and his fellow tradesmen wore leather aprons for work). He wanted Junto members to help one another—mutual improvement. He recruited diverse members and created fairly comprehensive rules governing their meetings and debates. “The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss’d by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased.”
- Profitability. I’d heard of Poor Richard’s Almanack, and even own Poor Charlie’s Almanac (an homage centered around the life and wisdom of Berkshire Hathaway’s Charlie Munger). I learned part of Franklin’s motivation in publishing Poor Richard’s (and perhaps his primary motivation) was to create regular income for his print shop, much like the “recurring subscription revenue” that today’s Netflix’s and Pandoras and Blue Aprons chomp at the bit for. Somehow I had completely missed the profit motive at first look.
- Mixed motives. Speaking of profits, Isaacson describes one of Franklin’s guiding beliefs: that he could do well while doing good. Mixing personal profit and public benefit completely aligned with Franklin’s values. As an example, Franklin thought issuing paper currency would both help the local economy and also provide work for his print shop. He saw such situations as win-win, rather than as conflicts of interest. Franklin isn’t necessarily wrong here, but mixing private profit and public good can be a slippery slope. It’s advisable to have sober outsiders help judge specific situations.
- Imperfections. Speaking of motives, Franklin didn’t always pristinely rise above reproach. He lobbied for the job of Colonial Postmaster General, coveting the income the job provided. While in England he petitioned for assignments and grants to raise his personal wealth. Popular history likes to scrub the dirt from men like Franklin; I see Franklin as a reminder that humans are inherently imperfect and self-interested and to keep our nature in mind when evaluating myself and others.
- Avoiding jealousy. Franklin invested much of his time building organizations around causes (library, fire brigade, militia, college, etc.). His energies benefited Philadelphia and its people, while also providing Franklin endless opportunity to build relationships and grow his social circle. He quickly learned he had more success soliciting others when acting as a representative of a group, rather than acting as an individual. “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.”
- Pseudonymity. Possibly related, Franklin preferred writing under a pseudonym. He didn’t merely append fake names, though. He invented whole characters and assumed wildly differing voices. For example, Franklin often wrote as Mrs. Silence Dogood, an acidly funny middle-aged widow. Franklin shared gossip as Busy Body and Alice Addertongue. And of course, he created Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanack fame.
- Generalism. The book Range extols the value of multidisciplinary knowledge for invention. Franklin provides a wonderful example of this Range. Printing work in the 1700s was demanding and technical. Franklin not only learned but excelled at printing. Simultaneously, he learned the craft of writing and became one of the Colonies’ best writers. He was also an inventor, having created lightning rods—savior of many properties—bifocal lenses, and a novel musical instrument called the glass armonica. I like to believe that each new dimension reinforced the others.
- Budget vs costly meals. Young Franklin was vegetarian out of frugality, learning to stretch his budget by avoiding meat. He abstained from drinking, mostly for the same reason. As he aged and earned, though, Franklin ate enough meat and drank enough wine to earn himself gout.
- The wrong side. Benjamin Franklin was decidedly human and imperfect. One could rightfully take issue with his treatment of his immediate family, including his estranged son and wife, as well as his grandchildren. In his later years, he was inconsistent to the point of hypocrisy about frugality, depending on who he spoke with. He long stood, as did many Founding Fathers, on the wrong side of slavery. Only over many years did he slowly turn to abolition. He also practiced nepotism, benefiting both his illegitimate son and his son-in-law.
- Struggle and setbacks. Franklin achieved much during his life, often through perseverance and struggle. In his five years as an agent for the Pennsylvania Assembly in London, he failed to achieve most—if not all—of his aims. Similarly, as an agent for a handful of Colonies abroad, he struggled for 11 years to keep the Colonies and the Crown in good standing. He was tolerated yet thoroughly snubbed thanks to his status as a colonist. He did not realize and come to terms with this reality quickly.
- Francophile & Franklinphiles. The French favored Franklin. He parlayed his status into a treaty with the French king. He strategically developed strong relationships with the French government and leveraged his status to the States’ advantage when needed. It was Franklin who first earned financial support and military resources for the Colonial forces. Franklin built such a strong rapport with the French that the relationship survived even when the US negotiated a settlement with the British behind France’s back, despite agreements to the contrary.
- Globetrotting. Franklin only spent 9 of the last 33 years of his life in the Colonies he helped solidify: the last five of his life, and two short stints previous. He carved out a comfortable life for himself living in both England and France.
Writing down this list, as incomplete as it is, sheds even more light on Franklin’s rich life. We have so much to learn from his experience. Benjamin Franklin exemplified the growth mindset and continually worked at bettering himself and his abilities.