STARRED REVIEW
October 2000

Review

By H.W. Brands
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It is astonishing that the inventor who brought us the lightning rod, bifocals, and the odometer; the writer who brought us Poor Richard's Almanack; and the negotiator behind the 1784 Treaty of Peace with Great Britain, were in fact just one man. The Benjamin Franklin National Memorial in Philadelphia showcases Franklin's many inventions and ideas from fire insurance to a urinary catheter. These inventions and the stories behind them reveal Franklin's practical nature. The First American reveals Franklin's passions, as well.

Imagine Franklin, in waning health, undertaking a month's journey to France, where he was to win French support of the colonies' quest for independence. When he sailed to France as the American commissioner in 1776, he asked a monarch for no less than total support for a cause that was to destroy the underlying principles of a monarchy. H.W. Brands tells us that instead of rejecting Franklin, the French very nearly adopted him. Some pointed out that "Franquelin" was a common French name; many affectionately referred to him as "Doctor Franklin." He eloquently courted and politely strong-armed King Louis and his foreign minister, de Vergennes, by memo, and ultimately, he accomplished his mission using persistent, practical prose as his primary tool.

With similar vigor, he pursued several French women again, with his pen. Some of the best passages in this book are Franklin's appealing appeals to these women, excerpted in the aptly titled chapter "Salvation in Paris." In his romantic pursuits, Franklin skillfully and sometimes lightly employed theology, natural law, and the rules of war in a single love-letter. Franklin's favored females, and the recipients of these letters, typically were not single. "If you would not be forgotten, as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing." Franklin did both during his 84 years; this book provides some worthwhile reading on an American worth remembering.

Diane Stresing is a writer in Kent, Ohio.

 

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The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin

The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin

By H.W. Brands
Doubleday
ISBN 9780385493284

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