In Other Words

Young Ben­jamin Franklin: The Birth of In­ge­nu­ity by Nick Bunker

Pasatiempo - - ON THE COVER - — Pa­tri­cia Leni­han

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.

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