Magazine article The Spectator

'Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of America's Founding Father', by George Goodwin - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of America's Founding Father', by George Goodwin - Review

Article excerpt

Just who was Benjamin Franklin? Apart, that is, from journalist, statesman, diplomat, founding father of the United States, inventor of the lightning rod, the Franklin Stove, the milometer, swimming flippers and the flexible catheter, the man who engineered the America postal system, who established the first lending library, who wrote one of the finest autobiographies in the language, and who schooled us in soundbites such as 'Let all men know thee, but no man know thee thoroughly.' Amen to that. Despite being the subject of a steady flow of worthy biographies, of which this is the latest, Franklin remains as cunning in heaven as he was on Earth.

A master manipulator, people saw in Franklin what he wanted them to see. Even his autobiography, says George Goodwin, with its 'seeming openness', was 'a clever piece of self-protection'. Presenting himself as a teller of tales and dispenser of sound advice, Franklin omitted in these pages any mention of his contributions to science. It was as if, as one of his critics has put it, Einstein wanted to be known for his anecdotes of childhood. To his fellow Americans, Franklin, the youngest son of a soap-maker, was the spirit of the New World; a thrifty folk hero of rustic tastes and middle-class aspirations. To his fellow Brits (Franklin always considered himself British) he was the cultivated European, a child of the Enlightenment, a club-man, wit, womaniser and wily politician. In America he was one of the people; in England he belonged to the elite, alongside his friends Sir Francis Dashwood, Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestley and Edmund Burke.

Franklin was at home in London. He went there first in 1724 as a young printing apprentice open to experience, and he spent his earnings in the theatres, inns and brothels. The city was then, says Goodwin, in a state 'of newness'. When he returned in 1757, as a diplomat for the Pennsylvania Assembly, Franklin was famous, and on his guard. Accompanied by his illegitimate son William (whose mother's identity remains a secret), Franklin left his other children behind together with his wife, Deborah, who was frightened of the sea (a phobia Goodwin compares with that of 'air travel today', although it might just as well be compared with that of sea travel today). Franklin was not overly concerned with the welfare of his family. 'It is now nine long months since I received a line from you dear Debby,' he wrote in 1774, five years after she suffered an incapacitating stroke. …

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