Publishers, even academic presses, know that the public likes biography and cater to this taste with a stream of handsomely produced, and often quite well-written, volumes. Part of the attraction may be that biography is a leveler. Even if one’s grasp of the work of great philosophers or statesmen is shaky, one can be fairly sure that their life will bring them down to size. As they used to say: “No man is a hero to his valet.” The biographies of American statesmen and Founding Fathers have an added attraction in that they fortify national identity, supplying it with a gallery of imagined ancestors. As with children’s bedtime stories, it doesn’t matter that the plot twists are known in advance; indeed, this is part of the reassurance they provide. The lives of America’s patriot saints are pitched to illustrate civic virtue and point to a contemporary moral. In these books, even quite glaring individual failings only serve to underline the redemptive power of the national idea triumphing over human frailty. Biography can thus easily pander to anti-intellectualism and patriotic piety, failing to register that the past is truly another country. But at least this type of history has a clear narrative line, something that many other brands of history have unwisely abandoned.
Many books have been written about Benjamin Franklin, several in languages other than English. Franklin was the only Founding Father who signed all four of the documents that established the Republic: the Declaration of Independence, the peace treaty with Britain, the treaty with France and the Constitution. Though he was never President, his role in nourishing colonial self-confidence was unparalleled. Long before he advocated formal independence he was teaching both Americans and their imperial masters that the attempt to rule the colonies from Britain was a folly.
Nevertheless, Franklin’s life has posed some problems for patriotic historiography. It was not until he reached almost 70 years of age that he ceased to be a loyal supporter of the British Crown; indeed, for several of these decades he was, as deputy postmaster, a prominent royal officeholder. While his scientific experiments always captured the popular imagination, Franklin’s intimate friendships with women other than his wife grated on the eighteenth-century sensibility. The long years he spent in England and France can also make him appear to be an offshore American, even though his role in bringing France into the war made a decisive contribution to independence. Though Francophobes may not like the thought, the French alliance not only brought military supplies, trained soldiers and naval power; it made British statesmen see the war in the context of their overriding preoccupation with France, inclining them to an earlier and fairer peace than might otherwise have been obtained. Franklin understood this and used his great prestige as scientist and philosophe to promote it.
Franklin’s scientific renown and fairly liberal views have always secured for him a niche as the most progressive of the Founding Fathers, assuming, as is usually the case, that Thomas Paine is excluded from their ranks. Franklin both helped and hindered his own legend by writing one of the first secular autobiographies. It furnishes the classic story of the self-made man. In this and in his other writings, he constructed a vivid image of the striving and thriving “middling people,” seen as the true backbone of any healthy social order. Not surprisingly, Max Weber illustrated his famous essays on The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism with many quotations from Franklin’s autobiography.
The appearance of two new books on Franklin shows that the legend still has life in it. The full-dress biography by Walter Isaacson fortunately transcends the limits of conventional hagiography, even though the author makes large claims for his subject and extravagant claims for the Republic he helped to create. Isaacson, a former managing editor at Time, has written a book whose research and writing would do credit to a professional historian. It helps that he has a strong thesis, even if one takes exception to it, because it connects the life to the larger pattern of events. He portrays Franklin as the exemplar of “an American national identity based on the virtues and values of its middle class,” the implicit contrast presumably being with the American identity cultivated by the Virginia grandees.