Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson

I'm both fascinated and appalled by the so-called 'Tea Party Patriots' currently dominating the spotlight of American politics.

It's not so much their platform that I'm appalled by – I'm all for reduced government spending, lower taxes, a reduction of the federal budget deficit and an originalist interpretation of the United States Constitution.

It's the fact that this 'Tea Party' claim their title in apparent ignorance of who the 'real' founding patriots were.

This is a point driven home by Walter Isaacson's Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. A biography of the original founding father, Benjamin Franklin, it demonstrates just how different this patriot's views were to those of today's populist 'patriot' movement.

This is significant because Walter Isaacson stresses in no uncertain terms how Benjamin Franklin was perhaps the archetype for American values – the same values the Tea Party claim to represent (many of their groups even use Franklin's famous snake cartoon as a banner.)

America's first political cartoon - published by Benjamin Franklin in the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1754 - was turned into the Gadsden Flag during the Revolution, and is today used by many wings of the Tea Party movement as a banner or flag.

Hard work, industry, personal responsibility and frugality were Franklin's watchwords. He rose from humble beginnings on the streets of Boston to become the closest thing America had to aristocracy – but never once abandoned his 'leather apron' identity as part of America's aspirational middle class.

So far, so good – I don't think anybody in the Tea Party would claim to be against those values.

But how about these ones:

Benjamin Franklin invented the progressive tax system – arguing vehemently that the rich should pay a higher percentage than the poor. That flies in the face of those Tea Party libertarians who support the fallacy of a 'flat tax' system.

Franklin actually took this view a step further – claiming that overabundance of wealth was a disgrace and essentially unAmerican. He thought that the very wealthy should pay more than their fair share to create some form of social equality – and Franklin strongly supported a voracious estate tax, too - one that would ensure accumulated wealth didn't create an 'American aristocracy' of idle rich living off the fruits of their deceased parent's labors.

His views on taxation, wealth and inheritance were, even by today's standards, quite shocking for a committed capitalist like Franklin. The Tea Party accuse Obama of wanting to 'redistribute wealth' - but he's got nothing on old Ben!

In the same vein, Benjamin Franklin's commitment to the community would appall the Tea Party Patriots. He advocated socialist programs before the term 'socialist' had even been invented. This was the man who organized tax-payer funded street cleaning, and schools for black children (even at a time when the majority of blacks were considered 'property' in America.)

Some of today's Tea Party call for the abolishment of the Department of Education, whereas Franklin helped found the University of Pennsylvania and the Franklin Institute; arguing that education was the foundation of America's future.

Likewise, the majority of today's Tea Party claim to be Christian, and many have issue with the notion of 'separation of Church and State' (a concept cemented by another founding father, Thomas Jefferson.)

Old Ben Franklin, however, was firmly on Jefferson's side when it came to this issue. When he was editing Thomas Jefferson's original draft of the Declaration of Independence, he crossed out where Tom had written that "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" were "sacred" rights and substituted the word "inalienable" - making it quite clear that democracy was not a right granted by religion, or faith, but by human existence itself.

Issacson's book demonstrates numerous times just how different Benjamin Franklin's views on American life were to those of the modern 'Tea Party' who claim to represent him and his compatriots. In many ways, it's quite sad – Franklin was a prophet during an age of enlightenment and reason, and his views remain startlingly progressive compared to those of today's Tea Party.

If there's one aspect of Franklin's character that Isaacson's biography frames perfectly, it's how Franklin was only ever motivated by the practical benefit of an invention or idea; not the partisan idealism or conservative dogma of today's 'patriots.'

Not that Walter Isaacson ever sinks to my level of petty politicizing. His biography is totally agnostic - offering a honest, apolitical peek into the life and beliefs of a man who helped forge the essential American identity.

It's that which is so astonishing. Benjamin Franklin represented so many of the things Americans have always strived to be – he was a self-made man, he defended equality and opportunity (encouraging schooling for women and blacks) and religious tolerance. He was frugal and hard-working, inventing what has become America's punishing work ethic. He represented forward-thinking and innovation, inventing a litany of devices we can't live without today (such as the lightening rod, the Franklin wood-burning stove, the electric battery and many others…)

But more than that – perhaps most 'American' of all of Franklin's values – was his humanity.

He was a charming, affable, lovable rogue who was painfully human; and knew it. He was prone to arrogance and pride, especially in his dealings with the British court and his political rivals in Philadelphia. He was lusty and unfaithful, shacking up with a married woman, fathering his son out of wedlock with another lady, and fostering inappropriate relationships with pretty young things in three countries. He started his life vegetarian and teetotal, and ended it fat and idle, scoffing down meat and potatoes with barrels of his favorite beer.

His vices and his virtues combine despite their contradiction – and the result is astonishing. Here is a man whose achievements would barely have fit within several people's lifetimes. His lust for life and his passion for productivity was an affirmation of existence itself. Isaacson's title for the biography – An American Life – is perfect because that's exactly what Benjamin Franklin lived; and no American since has ever quite lived up to it.

Part of the reason Benjamin Franklin: An American Life is so compelling has to be down to the subject material itself – you'd be hard-pressed to find a more fascinating biographical subject than Doctor Franklin. However, Isaacson's book is also beautiful readable, and lays Ben's life bare for us to pick through and take from it what we want (as I've done above, comparing this 'Tea Party Patriot' to those who lay claim to the title today.)

It's certainly one of the most engrossing biographies I've ever read; and one that has shaped my views and opinions on what it means to be an American (the irony is not lost on me that I finished reading this tremendous book while waiting for the Oath Ceremony that made me a citizen of the nation Ben helped found.)

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson is available from Amazon for $18.95


J.M. Waters said...

I had to laugh when I noticed your post for today. I began reading it with a copy of Benjamin Franklin - An American Life sitting beside me, waiting for me to crack the cover tonight!

Your insight has only piqued my interest in the book all the more. Franklin has always been one of those I've wanted to study more. My surface knowledge does not allow me to challenge your synopsis of the man...yet. Ha!

As far as the Tea Party Movement is concerned, must a movement embrace the ideals of a man in their totality? Surely, the Tea Party can call upon the shared values of Franklin (or others) without being chained to (what may be considered) flaws in their ideology. Right?

Regardless, I am anxious to begin turning the pages of Isaacson's book. I'll remember to return to this post for follow-up comments once I've finished it.

Roland Hulme said...

Hello there! You're absolutely right - no one man represents the 'movement' in it's entirety. But I think it is fascinating just how different Franklin's beliefs and ethos was, considering how he is perhaps the most notable individual in the story of American independence.

I'll be fascinated to read what you take away from the book! As I wrote, Isaacson is very agnostic, so to a certain extent one picks and chooses from what you learn from the biography.