Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson: Summary & Notes

Front cover of Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson.

In short

An enjoyable biography of Benjamin Franklin that clearly shows his strengths (self-reliance, ethics, initiatives, diplomacy) and weaknesses (family life). At times the writing is a bit dry and simplistic, but overall it seems to do a good job of telling the story of Franklin’s life. The book also makes it clear why people still take inspiration from Benjamin Franklin: he was the prototype for the modern entrepreneur/businessman (unfortunately not of the modern politician!), and spent a lot of time building networks, looking for opportunities, satisfying his curiosity, and trying things out.

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Book Summary & Notes

All text between quotation marks is taken directly from the book.

“Benjamin Franklin is the founding father who winks at us. George Washington’s colleagues found it hard to imagine touching the austere general on the shoulder, and we would fin it even more so today. Jefferson and Adams are just as intimidating. But Ben Franklin, that ambitious urban entrepreneur, seems made of flesh rather than of marble, addressable by nickname, and he turns to us from history’s stage with eyes that twinkle from behind those newfangled spectacles. He speaks to us, through his letters and hoaxes and autobiography, not with orotund rhetoric but with a chattiness and clever irony that is very contemporary, sometimes unnervingly so. We see his reflection ins our own time.”

Franklin was not just a scientist, inventor, diplomat, writer, business strategist, and political thinker. He also continually reinvented himself through publications – he created his own persona.

“From a child I was fond of reading, an all the little money that came into my hands was ever laid out in books.” – Benjamin Franklin

The books he liked the most where the ones that included progress – meaning those books that showed and advocated how an individual, or a society, can move forward and improve “based on a steady increase of knowledge and the wisdom that comes from conquering adversity.” His favorites included Plutarch’s Lives, Daniel Dafoe’s An Essay upon Projects, Cotton Mather’s Bonifacius: Essays to Do Good, and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.

As part of what he did to improve himself, he would read an essay, take some notes, and then leave it to rest for a few days. Then he tried to remake the essay using his own words, so he could compare it the original. Sometimes he also put the notes out of order and tried to figure out what the best way was to structure the essay.

One of the laws of human nature he learned early and applied the rest of his life: “people are more likely to admire your work if you’re able to keep them from feeling jealous of you.”

“As they were making their way out, they went through a narrow passage and [Cotton] Mather suddenly warned, “Stoop! Stoop!” Franklin, not understanding the exhortation, bumped his head on a low beam. As was his wont, Mather turned it into a homily: “Let this be a caution to you not always to hold your head so high. Stoop, young man, stoop – as you go through this world – and you’ll miss many hard thumps.” As Franklin later recalled to Mather’s son, “This advice, thus beat into my head, has frequently been of use to me, and I often think of it when I see pride mortified and misfortune brought upon people carrying their heads too high.”

Franklin was not necessarily religious, but he believed that religious practical were good because they promoted good behavior and a moral society. “So he began to embrace a morally fortified brand of deism that held God was best served by doing good works and helping other people.”

Franklin wrote a “Plan for Future Conduct” during his return to Philadelphia so that he could “live in all respects like a rational creature”. This plan contained four rules:

  1. “It is necessary for me to be extremely frugal for some time, till I have paid what I owe.”
  2. “To endeavour to speak truth in every instance; to give nobody expectations that are not likely to be answered, but aim at sincerity in every word and action – the most amiable excellence in a rational being.”
  3. “To apply myself industriously to whatever business I take in hand, and not divert my mind from my business by any foolish project of suddenly growing rich; for industry and patience are the surest means of plenty.”
  4. “I resolve to speak ill of no man whatever.”

Franklin’s Junto: a small club made up of tradesmen that “debated philosophical topics, devised schemes for self-improvement, and formed a network to the furtherance of their own careers.”

“Such is the vanity of mankind that minding what others say is a much surer way of pleasing them than talking well ourselves.” – Benjamin Franklin

Franklin also made a catalog of conversational sins which causes people to dislike us. The major sin was talking too much, but others included seeming uninterested, telling long and pointless stories, contradicting or disputing something (directly), ridicule or railing against things, or spreading scandal

As a printer, Franklin sometimes had to decide whether to print something or not. If a piece was defamatory or immoral he had to make a decision – to see if he should take the customers’ money or not he did the following test:
“To determine whether I should publish or not, I went home in the evening, purchased a twopenny loaf at the baker’s, and with the water from the pump made my supper; I then wrapped myself up in my great-coat, and laid down on the floor and slept till morning, when, on another loaf and a mug of water, I made myself breakfast. From this regimen I feel no inconvenience whatever. Finding I can live in this manner, I have formed a determination never to prostitute my press to the purposes of corruption and abuse of this kind for the sake of gaining a more comfortable subsistence.

“Franklin develop a method for making difficult decisions. “My way is to divide a sheet of paper by a line into two columns, writing over the one Pro and the other Con,” he later recalled. Then he would list all the arguments on each side and weigh how important each was. “Where I find two, one on each side, that seem equal, I strike them both out; if I find a reason pro equal to some two reasons con, I strike out the three.” By this bookkeeper’s calculus it became clear to him “where the balance lies.”

“I think opinions should be judged by their influences and effects; and if a man holds none that tend to make him less virtuous or more vicious, it may be concluded that he holds none that are dangerous, which I hope is the case with me.” – Benjamin Franklin

Franklin’s moral perfection project: a list of thirteen virtues he wanted to improve. He decided this was too much to do at once, so to focus on a single virtue at the same time. He made a grid with the thirteen virtues and days of the week, and every infraction was marked with a black for that day. The goal was to keep a clear line (at least of the virtue that was the focus at that time). The full list of virtues he practiced:

  • “Temperance: Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
  • Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversations.
  • Order: Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
  • Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
  • Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; (i.e. waste nothing).
  • Industry: Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut out all unnecessary actions.
  • Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  • Justice: Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
  • Moderation: Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  • Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.
  • Tranquility: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
  • Chastity: Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
  • Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.”

Doing-well-by-doing-good was Franklin’s philosophy, and the best example of that is Poor Richard’s Almanack, which had the goal of making money and promoting virtue.

A lesson on modesty and jealousy: “he found that people were reluctant to support a “proposer of any useful project that might be supposed to raise one’s reputation.” So instead he gave the credit to his friends, and noted that people will eventually give you the credit if you don’t claim it in the beginning. “The present little sacrifice of your vanity will afterwards be amply repaid.”

Franklin’s tip for seducing opponents: “After one rich and well-bred member spoke against him, Franklin decided to win him over: “I did not, however, aim at gaining his favor by paying any servile respect to him, but, after some time, took this other method. Having heard that he had in his library a certain very scarce and curious book, I wrote a note to him, expressing my desire of perusing that book, and requesting he would do me the favor of lending it to me for a few days. He sent it immediately, and I returned it in about a week with another note, expressing strongly my sense of the favor. When we next met in the House, he spoke to me (which he had never done before), and with great civility; and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death. This is another instance of the truth of an old maxim I had learned, which says, “He that has done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.

Franklin was generally positive about the Indians, he also viewed that the simple wilderness life had a romantic appeal. “When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our customs, yet if if h goes to see his relations and make one Indian ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return.” The same is also true of settler children captured and raised by Indians. If they returned to society “in a short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good opportunity of escaping again into the woods.”

“He [Franklin] also told the story of some Massachusetts commissioners who invited the Indians to send a dozen of their youth to study free at Harvard. The Indians replied that they had sent some of their young braves to study there years earlier, but on their return “they were absolutely good for nothing, being neither acquainted wit the true methods for killing deer, catching beaver, or surprising an enemy.” They offered instead to educate a dozen or so white children in the ways of the Indians “and to make men of them.”

“Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” – Benjamin Franklin

Franklin was well aware of his image and of the importance of presentation. “Indeed, his new rustic look was partly a pose, the clever creation of America’s first great image-maker and public relations master. He wore his soft marten fur-cap the one he had picked up on his trip to Canada, during most of his social outings […] and it became a feature in the portraits and medallions of him. The cap […] served as his badge of homespun purity and New World virtue, just as his ever-present spectacles became an emblem for wisdom. It helped him play the part that Paris imagined for him: that of the noble frontier philosopher and simple backwoods sage.”

Franklin had a major influence on all three important documents of the war: the declaration of independence, the alliance with France, and the peace treaty with England.

“There never was a good war or a bad peace.” – Benjamin Franklin

America’s values and the national bird: “I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country; he is a bird of bad moral character, he does not get his living honestly; you may have seen him perched on some dead tree, near the river where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labors of the fishing-hawk… The turkey is, in comparison, a much more respectable bird, and a true original native of America… He is (though a little vain and silly, it is true, but no the worse emblem for that) a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British guards.”

On the constitution:
“I confess that I do not entirely approve this Constitution at present; but sir, I am not sure I shall never approve it: For, having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that, the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment and pay more respect to the judgment of others.”

On religion, in a letter to Thomas Paine:
“You yourself may find it easy to live a virtuous life without the assistance afforded by religion, but think how great a proportion of mankind consists of weak and ignorant men and women, and of inexperienced and inconsiderate youth of both sexes, who have a need of the motives of religion to restrain them from vice.”

Critics of Franklin’s ethics say that he was only concerned with earning more money, but “Franklin did not view penny saving as an end in itself but as a path that permitted young tradesmen to be able to display higher virtues, community spirit, and citizenship. “It is hard for an empty sack to stand upright,” both he and Poor Richard’s proclaimed.”

In terms of civic virtues he was mostly concerned with improving his community and the public. Some critics have called these efforts mundane, but Franklin provided a comment on that in his autobiography (on his effort to pave the streets of Philadelphia):
“Some may think these trifling matters not worth minding or relating; but when they consider that though dust blown into the eyes of a single person, or into a single shop on a windy day, is but a small importance, yet the great number of instances in a populous city, and its frequent repetitions give it weight and consequence, perhaps they will not censure very severely those who bestow some attention to affairs of this seemingly low nature. Human felicity is produced not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen, as by little advantages that occur every day.”

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