Benjamin Franklin has been described as the “quintessential American,” a man whose wit, wisdom, and tenacity helped to encourage and solidify a nation during her birth pains. Was that really the case or merely the image of Franklin that has been most strongly promoted across the centuries? Without first reading Gordon Wood’s excellent accounting of Franklin’s life, readers may never know that Benjamin Franklin was a staunch imperialist before he was a patriot. Although long held out as the home-spun philosopher, folk hero, scientist/inventor, writer, and publisher, Ben was also a controversial political figure and public servant who managed to acquire many enemies during his more than eight decades of life. And in his youth, he had sown his share of wild oats – the effects of the latter, most particularly, coming back to haunt him in his later years.
His peers had a different perspective, and perhaps a more realistic one than modern-day school children are taught. Wood points out that Franklin’s patriotism was born out of deep personal pain, that he came late to the view that England’s government was not interested in protecting the growing interests of the colonies with respect to their management and profitability, and it took a personal attack upon his character to strip off his rose-colored spectacles so that he might see the quickly changing attitudes and circumstances in which the American colonists found themselves. Children are educated about Franklin’s discoveries and given general instruction about his ultimate role in the Revolution, but The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin tells another story, the back-story that molded Benjamin Franklin the man.
What Gordon Wood achieves in The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin is a stripping away the fiction of Franklin and drags into the light his uniquely human side, with all of his quirks and foibles. Gordon Wood has done a truly remarkable job of extracting the humanity of Franklin. He has dissected Franklin’s character with exquisite care and skill; a surgeon could not have made a finer job of it.
“Franklin is not an easy man to get to know,” but through extensive research and by drawing upon and comparing Franklin’s private correspondence and his public writings, Wood helps readers gain some ground on him here. Wood is clear to point out that Franklin was a “man of many masks,” one who seemed always to “hold something back,” and that he kept his own counsel best of all. The amount of detail that Wood provides in this modestly sized book is astounding, and thankfully he has left his soapbox at home. Wood checked the human inclination toward condemnation and preachiness at the door in lieu of a more analytical and reasoned approach.
Readers should not be concerned, however, that the text is dry or lacking in creative intrigue - quite the contrary. In the beginning chapters, readers may find themselves not quite so fond of Ben, may feel even a bit uneasy about the glaring inconsistencies between what Ben preached to the masses concerning morality, ethics, and loyalty, and what he practiced in his own life, particularly in his personal relationships. By the final chapter, readers are forced to decide whether to hold on to the schoolbook version of Ben or to adapt themselves to the reality of Ben, asking themselves, “Who is Ben Franklin to me now?” I have to admit there were sporadic moments when the amount of detail being proffered felt a bit overwhelming and began to yield the sensation of cramming for a mid-semester exam, but Wood’s writing style and organizational skills kicks in particularly well at those points and compels one to press forward to see what new adventure Ben might be embarking upon and how it might play out.
Gordon Wood is a talented writer, and The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin is physical proof that a story doesn’t have to be fiction to be interesting and entertaining. This book would make a good addition to a class on early American history. It would certainly foster interesting debates. I give The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, and its author Gordon Wood, four and a half stars for a fascinating, educational, and enlightening bit of work.