Boris Smus

interaction engineering

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

I read Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs biography, which I recalled enjoying thoroughly. Having always been an uncritical fan of Benjamin Franklin (BF), I decided to remedy that. I found the book engaging at first, as his origin story was revealed. BF's middle age spanned several hundred pages, and really dragged on. The sheer number of names dropped by Isaacson made this especially challenging. I abandoned the book for several months, only to come back to it in August. The last third of the book picked up again, as we returned to actually interesting historical events (US independence, the war, the American Constitution, etc). The conclusion, a whirlwind account of how public opinion on BF shifted over history, was masterfully written, but overall the book is too long and detailed for my taste.

Franklin's pragmatism is super appealing to me: "God is very good to us. Let us show our sense if His goodness by continuing to do good to our fellow creatures". A few interesting factoids from his early life:

  • BF believed in Deism: a compelling alternative to atheism (agnosticism is too weak a statement to be in the running).
  • His activism around constructing libraries was super compelling.
  • His Junta developed in parallel to the Freemasonry movement.
  • BF eventually joined the masons and became head of their chapter in Philadelphia.

For me personally, BF's least appealing trait was his consistent inability to maintain long lasting personal relationships. Franklin's biggest strength is being a well rounded humanist, but also a prolific inventor. Here is a random sample of his inventions:

  • A table that could be raised and lowered
  • Using oil to calm turbulent water
  • An improved convection oven
  • How to ride the Gulf Stream, and what causes it
  • Methods for removing smoke from a fireplace (while cooking)
  • A mechanical arm to retrieve books from upper shelves in a tall bookcase
  • Lightning rods

I also found Isaacson's coverage around pre-constitutional debates very interesting. Here's a sampling of the issues, and where Franklin landed:

  • Should there be one chamber or two (two, BF wanted one)
  • Should there be a president or an executive council (president, BF wanted council)
  • Should the president be paid (yes, BF wanted no)
  • Should judges be elected or appointed (appointed, BF wanted elected)
  • Should there be term limits on the president? (yes, like BF wanted)
  • Should the president be impeachable (yes, like BF wanted)
  • Should representatives be elected based on popular vote or state appointment? (it's complicated...)

At least in word, Franklin was humble and pragmatic:

... 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 judgement and pay more respect to the judgement of others.

And created environments for others to do the same:

“Franklin’s shaded garden was a place where controversies could be cooled.”

His epitaph, attributed to a French minister, says it all: eripuit coelo fulmen sceptrumque tyrannis ("He seized lightning from the heavens and the scepter from tyrants").