In Other Words
Young Benjamin Franklin: The Birth of Ingenuity by Nick Bunker
There are a plethora of books about the life of polymath and public health care advocate Benjamin Franklin, but one of the best may be Franklin’s own. His Autobiography, a genre classic originally published in 1793, touches on his simple start in New England, the difficulties of setting up a printing business, and some of his daring scientific investigations, among other topics. If you’ve read any of his essays or almanacs, you’re aware of the folksy tone in much of Franklin’s work. The founder’s formal education ended when he was age ten, but he was intellectually curious and an avid reader and writer.
Nick Bunker, author of the recently published Young Benjamin Franklin: The Birth of Ingenuity, delves into more early history than does Franklin’s own autobiography, and explores the life of a younger man than the one usually celebrated. By excavating letters, essays, and notes, Bunker offers an account that portrays a complicated, ambitious fellow who had the makings of an inventor, city developer, philosopher, and scientist — or, in the author’s telling, a personification of American ingenuity. Bunker provides lots of Franklin-family examination before reaching this main subject, and although serious history buffs and Franklin scholars will appreciate depth about the man’s formative years, others may not find an extensive narrative about his ancestral line of talented English craftsmen all that riveting.
It’s when Bunker focuses on Benjamin’s inner life that things get interesting. For example, the author offers little-discussed details about Franklin’s admiration of the British poet and playwright James Thomson (1700-1748) and how that affected him. Bunker describes an early epiphany about John Bunyan’s work of religious literature, The
Pilgrim’s Progress (first published in 1678) as crucial to Franklin’s development.
Franklin’s family was affiliated with the Whigs, and their politics certainly influenced young Benjamin’s grasp of ideas like freedom of worship and taxation with representation. His family also supported slavery. As one of the oldest founders, Franklin was less directly connected to thinkers of the Enlightenment than Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, and the like. (On July 4, 1776, Franklin was seventy, whereas Jefferson, for instance, was just thirty-three; Alexander Hamilton was twentyone; and George Washington, forty-four.) But even though every one of the well-read, forward-thinking individuals who founded America grappled with the immense moral issue of slavery, it was Franklin who dramatically changed his view later in life. In 1790, the year of his death, Franklin signed a petition to Congress, as president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, urging emancipation and an end to the slave trade. Statesmanship is key to Franklin’s legacy: He was the only founder who signed all four documents establishing the United States of America — the Declaration of Independence (1776), the Treaty of Alliance with France (1778), the Treaty of Paris (1783), and the Constitution (1787). But Bunker’s portrayal is primarily focused upon Franklin’s curiosity, daring, and individuality.
There are points where the author makes Franklin’s personal journey especially engrossing; for example, Bunker recognizes the importance of Philadelphia to Franklin’s successes. “With its lack of definition, its open borders, and its ambiguities, Pennsylvania would prove to be ideal for a young man eager to make his own way. Not that Franklin could have expected that on his arrival to this confusing town.” Philadelphia’s unusual vibrancy, diversity (thanks to a steady flow of immigrants), and robust economy in the 1700s made it a perfect place for a person of Franklin’s ambition and imagination to develop. Bunker is at his best when describing elements of Franklin’s formative experience. The author is convincing as he lends import to Franklin’s promotion of an American culture of inquiry and expansion (through the American Philosophical Society, the postal system, a lending library, and the academy that would become the University of Pennsylvania, among other feats).
The author ends by opening the door to a deeper understanding of Franklin’s vocation as a scientist. Perhaps one of the most fitting quotes from Franklin himself is the edit he made to the Declaration of Independence, in which he changed “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable” — Jefferson’s original wording — to “We hold these truths to be
self-evident.” It seems that reason and rationality were the touchstones this founder acknowledged as indisputable, and the author provides a convincing foundation for his contention that, more than anything, Franklin represented the emergence of down-to-earth ingenuity.