Best Books on Benjamin Franklin: Lorraine Pangle



Self-made and self-taught, eminently practical yet endlessly curious, a philanthropist who took a personal interest in every project he supported, a prolific inventor and discoverer, the original community organizer and a democratic statesman without parallel in the history of American diplomacy, he is also the Founder who perhaps has the most to teach us today, both about the art of living and about restoring civility to our public sphere and a principled prudence to our foreign policy.

Of fine books and essays on Franklin there has been no shortage, but far and away the best remains Franklin’s own. His Autobiography is a classic of the genre and of American letters. It traces his life’s story from its humble beginnings in Puritan New England, through his youthful escapades and adventures, his struggles to establish an independent printing business, and his early scientific investigations, up through the launching of his diplomatic career. In the process we learn of his projects for self-improvement and the way they were continually bubbling over to create voluntary associations for self-help on a personal, civic, and even continental scale. In making us laugh at him and with him, Franklin teaches us to see the world with his rare combination of unvarnished realism and friendly, engaged acceptance. An excellent edition of the Autobiography with a collection of relevant Franklin letters and critical appraisals is the Norton Critical edition, edited by J. A. Leo Lemay(New York: Norton, 1986).

Although the Autobiography is Franklin’s only book, he was a prolific writer of essays, letters, pamphlets, and almanacs, all full of fascinating reflections on human nature and on perennial moral and political problems. Beginning with his first anonymous essays written for his brother’s newspaper at age 16 under the ironic pseudonym “Silence Dogood” and ending only with a proposal for the abolition of slavery a few weeks before his death in 1790, Franklin used his matchless English prose style, his cool logic, and his genial wit to inform and influence his countrymen on matters political, moral, religious, economic, and scientific, often turning a tidy profit for himself in the process. The complete collection, The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, edited by Leonard W. Labaree et al, is now available online at www.franklinpapers.org. It is searchable by name, date, word, and phrase. An excellent two-volume edition of all the principal writings is Benjamin Franklin: Silence Dogood, the Busy-Body, and Early Writings, andBenjamin Franklin: Autobiography, Poor Richard, and Later Writings, both edited by J. A. Leo Lemay(New York: Library of America, 2005). 

Of the many biographies written on Franklin over the years, probably the best is Edmund S. Morgan’sBenjamin Franklin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002). Economical and highly readable, Morgan’s biography focuses on Franklin’s life as a statesman, making a strong case for the centrality of public service in Franklin’s wide-ranging interests and concerns. Morgan observes well the interplay of Franklin’s character, circumstances, and evolving political opinions. He elucidates Franklin’s early pride in being part of a great British empire, his struggles to reconcile his own flexible understanding of the importance of public opinion as a foundation of government with the colonists’ absolutist insistence on rights, his initially reluctant decision to support American independence, and finally his masterful conduct of American foreign policy as minister to France during the war. Throughout, Morgan makes the case for Franklin with unusual sympathy and insight into the nerve of Franklin’s thought. 

Readers who are interested in a more comprehensive biography covering all aspects of Franklin’s life may wish to consult Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (New York: Simon and Shuster, 2004).

A more specialized but equally insightful work on Franklin’s political career is Gerald Stourzh, Benjamin Franklin and American Foreign Policy, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969). Stourzh brings out the realist and imperial tendency in Franklin’s thinking on international relations from his early years. He gives a fascinating account of the consummate political skill with which Franklin won the trust and friendship of the French court and managed to extract the maximum possible financial support for the colonists, contrasting his approach with that of the purportedly less gullible but far less effective John Adams.

Perhaps the most insightful reader of Franklin in recent years has been Ralph Lerner, who has written two fine essays on Franklin, “Franklin, Spectator” in The Thinking Revolutionary: Principle and Practice in the New Republic (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988) and “Dr. Janus” in J. A. Leo Lemay, ed.,Reappraising Benjamin Franklin (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1993). In these essays Lerner illuminates what is unique in Franklin’s vision of the world, particularly his sensitivity to the “mixed motives” of human beings and the way what is best in us is typically intertwined with much that we are inclined to reject with moral indignation, as well as Franklin’s new and quintessentially American emphasis on experimentation and method, his understanding of the power and uses of human vanity, and his sly, “artlessly artful” project for reorienting the way his readers see themselves and the world.

Finally, to balance these appreciative works, the reader may wish to consult the great classic critique of Franklin and his educative project, D. H. Lawrence’s essay “Benjamin Franklin,” first printed in the English Review 27 (1918): 397-408, and reprinted in several collections since then, including the Norton Critical Edition of the Autobiography cited above. Lawrence excoriates Franklin for what he judges a shallow, colorless, bloodless advocacy of cautiously pragmatic bourgeois morality, calling instead for an uncalculating embrace of what is divine, mysterious, and dangerous in the human spirit. An insightful assessment of what is at stake in the opposition between Franklin and Lawrence is Ormond Seavey’sessay “Benjamin Franklin and D. H. Lawrence as Conflicting Modes of Consciousness,” in Melvin H. Buxbaum, ed., Critical Essays on Benjamin Franklin (Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1987).

I myself take the side of Franklin: I believe he remains one of our best educators on human nature and the qualities and habits that individuals need in order to become happy and that peoples need in order to become and to remain free.

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Lorraine Pangle is a political science professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and a member of the Jack Miller Center Academic Council. In addition to a book on Benjamin Franklin, she has also written on Friendship in Aristotle and the Educational Ideas of the American Founders.