“Engaging… A skilled writer with both Pulitzer and Bancroft prizes to his credit, [Wood] possesses as profound a grasp of the early days of the Republic as anyone currently working… This is the most dramatic of the recent Franklin books.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Dazzling… An elegant tour de force, beautifully written and tightly crafted. It is the work of a historian at the height of his powers. Bearing its exceptional erudition lightly, it conveys complex ideas in beguilingly simple prose, and deftly weaves the connections between the different Franklins.” —The New York Review of Books
“The most respected among all scholars of the colonial and Revolutionary periods, Gordon S. Wood… [gives] an exceptionally rich perspective on one of the most accomplished, complex, and unpredictable Americans of his own time or any other.” —The Washington Post Book World
“Renowned historian Gordon S. Wood… succeeds in closing the wide gap between the Franklin of popular imagination and the real Franklin… An illuminating, accessible and entertaining contribution to the growing literature about Benjamin Franklin.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Wood’s skillful blend of history and biography convincingly reveals how Benjamin Franklin—Gentleman, Imperialist, Europhile—came to personify the American Dream.” —Newsday
“A carefully thought-out, well-written look at how Franklin became Americanized in ways that have mattered… A perceptive study with some deft authorial touches…A very worthwhile book.” —The Boston Globe
“I cannot remember ever reading a work of history and biography that is quite so fluent, so perfectly composed and balanced.” —The New York Sun
Franklin was born in Boston on January 17, 1706 (January 6, 1705, in the old-style calendar), of very humble origins, origins that always struck Franklin himself as unusually poor. Franklin’s father, Josiah, was a non conformist from Northamptonshire who as a young man had immigrated to the New World and had become a candle and soap maker, one of the lowliest of the artisan crafts. Josiah fathered a total of seventeen children, ten, including Benjamin, by his second wife, Abiah Folger, from Nantucket. Franklin was number fifteen of these seventeen and the youngest son.
In a hierarchical age that favored the firstborn son, Franklin was, as he ruefully recounted in his Autobiography, “the youngest Son of the youngest Son for Generations back.” In the last year of his life the bitterness was still there, undisguised by Franklin’s usual irony. In a codicil to his will written in 1789 he observed that most people, having received an estate from their ancestors, felt obliged to pass on something to their posterity. “This obligation,” he wrote with some emotion, “does not lie on me, who never inherited a shilling from any ancestor or relation.”
Because the young Franklin was unusually precocious (“I do not remember when I could not read,” he recalled), his father initially sent the eight-year-old boy to grammar school in preparation for the ministry. But his father soon had second thoughts about the expenses involved in a college education, and after a year he pulled the boy out of grammar school and sent him for another year to an ordinary school that simply taught reading, writing, and arithmetic. These two years of formal education were all that Franklin was ever to receive. Not that this was unusual: most boys had little more than this, and almost all girls had no formal schooling at all. Although most of the Revolutionary leaders were college graduates—usually being the first in their families to attend college—some, including Washington, Robert Morris, Patrick Henry, Nathanael Greene, and Thomas Paine, had not much more formal schooling than Franklin. Apprenticeship in a trade or skill was still the principal means by which most young men prepared for the world.
Franklin’s father chose that route of apprenticeship for his son and began training Franklin to be a candle and soap maker. But since cutting wicks and smelling tallow made Franklin very unhappy, his father finally agreed that the printing trade might better suit the boy’s “Bookish Inclination.” Printing, after all, was the most cerebral of the crafts, requiring the ability to read, spell, and write. Nevertheless, it still involved heavy manual labor and was a grubby, messy, and physically demanding job, without much prestige.
In fact, printing had little more respectability than soap and candle making. It was in such “wretched Disrepute” that, as one eighteenth-century New York printer remarked, no family “of Substance would ever put their Sons to such an Art,” and, as a consequence, masters were “obliged to take of the lowest People” for apprentices. But Franklin fit the trade. Not only was young Franklin bookish, but he was also nearly six feet tall and strong with broad shoulders—ideally suited for the difficult tasks of printing. His father thus placed him under the care of an older son, James, who in 1717 had returned from England to set himself up as a printer in Boston. When James saw what his erudite youngest brother could do with words and type, he signed up the twelve-year-old boy to an unusually long apprenticeship of nine years.
That boy, as Franklin later recalled in his Autobiography, was “extremely ambitious” to become a “tolerable English Writer.” Although literacy was relatively high in New England at this time—perhaps 75 percent of males in Boston could read and write and the percentage was rapidly growing—books were scarce and valuable, and few people read books the way Franklin did.’ He read everything he could get his hands on, including John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Plutarch’s Lives, Daniel Defoe’s Essay on Projects, the “do good” essays of the prominent Boston Puritan divine Cotton Mather, and more books of “polemic Divinity” than Franklin wanted to remember. He even befriended the apprentices of booksellers in order to gain access to more books. One of these apprentices allowed him secretly to borrow his master’s books to read after work. “Often,” Franklin recalled, “I sat up in my Room reading the greatest Part of the Night, when the Book was borrow’d in the Evening & to be return’d early in the Morning lest it should be miss’d or wanted.” He tried his hand at writing poetry and other things but was discouraged with the poor quality of his attempts. He discovered a volume of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele’s Spectator papers and saw in it a tool for self-improvement. He read the papers over and over again and copied and recopied them and tried to recapitulate them from memory. He turned them into poetry and then back again into prose. He took notes on the Spectator essays, jumbled the notes, and then attempted to reconstruct the essays in order to understand the way Addison and Steele had organized them. All this painstaking effort was designed to improve and polish his writing and it succeeded; “prose Writing” became, as Franklin recalled in his Autobiography, “of great Use to me in the Course of my Life, and was a principal Means of my Advancement.” In fact, writing competently was such a rare skill that any one who could do it well immediately acquired importance. All the Founders, including Washington, first gained their reputations by some thing they wrote.