Monday, January 26, 2015

Walter Isaacson - Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

I won this book as a runner-up prize from a college that polls its seniors on what teachers embodied the liberal arts ideal.  I finally got around to reading it over Christmas break.  Historiann calls it Founders Porn and now I know why. 

Isaacson thinks this is a well-researched book.  He read a bunch of biographies of Franklin so that's historiography right?  He looked at Franklin's paper in a variety of archives so that's research right?  Um, no.  History starts with a question and Isaacson started with an answer:  His Franklin is a pragmatic innovator who would be a great silicon valley based politician.   He'd make a fortune in tech and then he'd lead that magical "third way" party that's always looking to step outside politics and draft the best Presidential candidate who'd magically use the bully pulpit to solve all our problems.  It makes for OK reading if you don't know anything about Franklin or Colonial America.  I assume most of his readers don't since the book has been pretty well received (especially on Amazon).

So what's wrong with the book?  I have one test I use for books on the Revolution, if the book doesn't at least try to explain why the British are fighting the war (other than because they are evil), the book isn't worth reading.  Here the British side is never really presented.  The American problem presented a major constitutional crisis for the British.  Adding American representatives to Parliament would potentially undo the Glorious Revolution and notions of Parliamentary supremacy as would any sort of dominion plan.  It would take the Brits almost 100 years to work out alternatives, but Isaacson presents the British as at best bumbling and at worst monomaniacal oppressors.  And despite a nod towards Thomas Hutchinson, there's no discussion of Loyalists at all. 

Second, on the hard issues Isaacson ducks.  His discussion of race is naive at best.  Franklin's father apparently had pro-Indian sentiments during King Phillip's War,  (it's the one new fact I learned reading the book) which was pretty much tantamount to treason.  Franklin badly miscalculated during the Paxton boys crisis and Isaacson doesn't explain how land hunger and anti-Indian feelings served to help undo Quaker dominance in Pennsylvania politics.  Or how Franklin was quick to abandon his beloved Democracy during the crisis.  Despite Isaacson's best efforts to argue that Franklin was the most democratic of the founders, he comes off more as a Philosopher King and despite his presence at the Declaration and the Constitution, Franklin seems like a bystander at both events.  Worse still, Isaacson never mentions the main sticking point in the peace treaty that Franklin was charged with negotiating with Britain: what would happen to the escaped slaves that joined the Loyalist cause.  The British absolutely refused to turn them over or compensate their owners.  Although we are told of Franklin's growing anti-slavery views, we aren't told what Franklin did or thought in this time period. 

At least there haven't been allegations of plagiarism yet. 


I'm reading Andrew Needham's Power Lines:  Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest next.  I suspect I'll like it better. 

1 comment:

  1. Brian Michael Bendis' Powers will go nicely for dessert.