After reading Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklink: An American Life, I was amazed at how little I knew about this man.
He was a printer, writer, scientist, diplomat, father, and he played a huge roll in the American revolution and the writing of its constitution.
What struck my most about the book has also appreciating the founding principles America has based on and how that compares to where the country is today.
A strong middle class.
A rejection of traditional hereditary nobility (kings and queens).
A society based on meritocracy.
The book is a big one. It’s incredible much we know about this man based on letters, transcripts, and his autobiography. But I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, as it has given me insight into today’s most powerful nation in the world, it’s founding principles, and some of the challenges it faces today.
I read this on my kindle, and highlighted sections and chapters I thought interesting. Here are some of my notes for future reference:
In addition to discovering the one-fluid theory of electricity, he also came up with the distinction between insulators, conductors, the theory of grounding, and the concepts of batteries and capacitors.
Pennsylvania was a Proprietary colony, which meant that it was governed by a private family that owned most of the unsettled land. In 1681, Charles II granted such a charter to William Penn in repayment of a debt. A majority of the colonies started out as Proprietary ones, but by the 1720s, most had become Royal colonies directly ruled by the king and his ministers.
“Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty or safety.”
As Franklin repeatedly stressed in his letters to his son, America should not replicate the rigid ruling hierarchies of the Old World, the aristocratic structures and feudal social orders based on birth rather than merit.
On the American Revolution – Tyranny is so generally established in the rest of the world that the prospect of an asylum n America for those who love liberty gives general joy, and our cause is esteemed the cause of all mankind.
On playing chess – There were times when it was prudent to let an opponent retract a bad move: “You may indeed happen to lose the game to your opponent, but you will win what is better, his esteem.”
There was never a good war or a bad peace.
The Chinese were right, he said, to honor the parents of people who earned distinction, for they had some role in it. But honoring a worthy person’s descendants, who had nothing to do with achieving the merit, “is not only groundless and absurd but often hurtful to that posterity.” Any form of hereditary aristocracy or nobility was he declared, “in direct opposition to the solemnly declared sense of their country.”
There were few people in America either as poor or as rich as those in Europe, he said, “It is rather a general happy mediocrity.”
Instead of rich proprietors and struggling tenants, “most people cultivate their own lands” or follow some craft or trade. Franklin was particularly harsh on those who sought hereditary privilege or who had “no other quality to recommend him but his birth”
Unlike many subsequent revolutions, the American was not a radical rebellion by an oppressed proletariat. Instead, it was led largely by propertied and shopkeeping citizens whose rather bourgeois rallying cry was “No taxation without representation.”
Franklin’s blend of beliefs would become part of the outlook of much of American’s middle class: its faith in the virtues of hard work and frugality, its benevolent belief in voluntary associations to help others, its conservative opposition to handouts that led to laziness and dependency, and its slightly ambivalent resentment of unnecessary luxury, hereditary privileges, and an idle landowning leisure class.
In his spare time, Franklin perfected one of his most famous and useful inventions: bifocals.
On playing cards with friends when he got older – You know the soul is immortal; why then should you be such a niggard of a little time, when you have a whole eternity before you.
On the writing of the constitution…
So they gathered in the abnormally hot and humid summer of 1787 to draft, in the deepest secrecy, a new American constitution that would turn out to be the most successful ever written by human hand.
On negotiations – Declarations of a fixed opinion, and of determined resolution never to change it, neither enlighten nor convince us.
Roger Sherman of Connecticut rose to suggest another possible approach: the House of Representatives would be apportioned by population and the Senate would have equal votes for each state.
The new county was, in some ways, one political soceity but in other ways it was a federation or separate states, yet these two concepts need not conflict, for they could be combined as “halves of a unique whole”
Finally he incorporated a workable compromise into a specific motion. Representatives to the lower house would be popularly elected and apportioned by population, but in the Senate, the Legislatures or the several States shall choose and send an equal number of delegates. The House would have primary authority over taxes and spending, the Senate over the confirmation of executive officers and matters of state sovereignty.
On returning to public life after serving office – The argument that ‘returning to the mass of the people was degrading’ he said, ‘was contrary to republican principles. In free Governments the rulers are the servants, and the people their superiors and sovereigns. For the former therefore to return among the latter was not to degrade but to promote them.
From such an assembly can a perfect production by expected? It therefore astonished me, sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish your enemies, who are waiting with confidence to hear that our councils are confounded like those of the buildes of Babel, and that our States are on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one another’s throats. Thus I consent, sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better.
His support for religion tended to be based on his belief that it was useful and practical in making people better, rather than because it was divinely inspired.