Am­bi­tious, flawed Ben Franklin on a path to great­ness


In Septem­ber 1774, Ben­jamin Franklin sat down to write what is per­haps the most fa­mous let­ter of ref­er­ence in Amer­i­can his­tory. He used the phrase “an in­ge­nious, wor­thy young man” to de­scribe Thomas Paine, an out-of-work for­mer tax col­lec­tor whom he had met in London and who was plan­ning to sail for Amer­ica. Paine made good use of Franklin’s in­tro­duc­tion. Just a year af­ter ar­riv­ing in Philadel­phia, Paine wrote “Com­mon Sense,” which pas­sion­ately ar­gued for in­de­pen­dence from Eng­land, and later he would be­come fa­mous on both sides of the At­lantic for his writ­ing and po­lit­i­cal the­o­ries. Franklin prob­a­bly didn’t guess when he wrote the let­ter that Paine would be­come an es­sen­tial voice in the fight for Amer­i­can in­de­pen­dence. But he prob­a­bly saw a bit of him­self in the smart, cu­ri­ous, work­ing-class striver with strong egal­i­tar­ian po­lit­i­cal views and a streak of re­sent­ment over class, priv­i­lege and au­thor­ity. Franklin also saw in­ge­nu­ity. It was a qual­ity that he pos­sessed and that he highly prized in oth­ers.

In­ge­nu­ity is the cen­tral theme of Nick Bunker’s book about the first half of Franklin’s life. “In­ge­nu­ity” was Franklin’s fa­vorite word, and in the 18th cen­tury it meant a com­bi­na­tion of in­tel­lect, imag­i­na­tion, prac­ti­cal skills, wit and so­cia­bil­ity — all traits Franklin pos­sessed in abun­dance. In “Young Ben­jamin Franklin: The Birth of In­ge­nu­ity,” Bunker of­fers am­ple ev­i­dence to il­lus­trate how Franklin de­vel­oped in­ge­nu­ity and how it in­flu­enced the rest of his life. Franklin’s ori­gins, char­ac­ter and back­ground, Bunker writes, serve to ex­plain the man he would be­come.

It is the am­bi­tious, flawed young printer Bunker is de­scrib­ing, not the world-fa­mous sci­en­tist, suc­cess­ful busi­ness­man, prominent civic leader, diplo­mat, rev­o­lu­tion­ary and Found­ing Fa­ther who has been im­mor­tal­ized in count­less other books. Most Amer­i­cans are fa­mil­iar with the rags-to-riches life story Franklin cre­ated in his “Au­to­bi­og­ra­phy,” pub­lished af­ter his death. The truth is more com­pli­cated, ar­gues Bunker, who at­tempts to fill in the gaps.

Bunker uses ex­ten­sive orig­i­nal re­search from lesser-known sources to ex­am­ine Franklin’s for­ma­tive ex­pe­ri­ences, an­ces­tors, im­me­di­ate fam­ily, the pa­trons who helped him achieve suc­cess and the busi­ness com­peti­tors he bat­tled along the way. Franklin had many friends and was a mas­ter at cul­ti­vat­ing men­tors who could help him. But he was not al­ways the best judge of char­ac­ter in his youth, which led to nu­mer­ous per­sonal and fi­nan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties. Franklin was bril­liant, tal­ented, com­pli­cated and in­tensely am­bi­tious. But as a young man, Bunker as­serts, he was also con­stantly afraid of fail­ure.

The story be­gins with Franklin’s great­grand­fa­ther Henry, who was a black­smith in Ec­ton in the English Mid­lands, about 70 miles north­west of London. From there Bunker moves more or less chrono­log­i­cally through Franklin’s first 40 years, stop­ping right on the cusp of his sci­en­tific dis­cov­er­ies and his later great­ness as a na­tional fig­ure.

Franklin’s fa­ther, Josiah, was a Pres­by­te­rian Pu­ri­tan and Whig who left Eng­land for Bos­ton in 1683 seek­ing eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity and free­dom from re­li­gious and po­lit­i­cal per­se­cu­tion. De­scribed as “pi­ous and pru­dent” by Ben­jamin, Josiah was a can­dle- and soap­maker who sang psalms, played the vi­o­lin and had a love of books that he passed on to his youngest son. Al­though Ben­jamin was forced by his fa­ther to leave school at age 10, he be­came a vo­ra­cious reader and au­to­di­dact.

Franklin’s early strug­gles with or­ga­nized re­li­gion and faith, and his flir­ta­tion with athe­ism, are ex­plored, along with his not-al­ways-suc­cess­ful quest to be good. We know so much about Franklin’s in­ter­nal strug­gles be­cause of the ex­ten­sive letters and writ­ings he left be­hind, in­clud­ing the “Au­to­bi­og­ra­phy.” Even though he wanted to project a pos­i­tive image, his faults and mis­takes are of­ten on dis­play there, in­clud­ing his tem­per and fre­quent lack of self-con­trol. Th­ese are qual­i­ties Franklin strove might­ily to reg­u­late later in his life. “We re­mem­ber Franklin as the apos­tle of hard work, tem­per­ance, and self-con­trol,” Bunker writes. “This is the way he hoped to be remembered. But when a hu­man be­ing writes so much about pru­dence, virtue, and so­bri­ety, it may be be­cause he or she would pre­fer to be wild, in­tem­per­ate, and rash. This seems to have been true of Franklin as a young man.”

De­spite a heavy em­pha­sis on Franklin’s fam­ily, friends and ac­quain­tances, Bunker cov­ers all the im­por­tant events of his early life, in­clud­ing his ap­pren­tice­ship at his brother’s news­pa­per; au­thor­ship of the Si­lence Do­good letters; run­ning away to Philadel­phia: his first trip to Eng­land and his time spent work­ing in print shops there; the found­ing of the Junto, a net­work­ing and im­prove­ment so­ci­ety for Philadel­phia crafts­men mod­eled on the English clubs he had ob­served in London; launch­ing the Li­brary Com­pany of Philadel­phia and the Amer­i­can Philo­soph­i­cal So­ci­ety; writ­ing “Poor Richard’s Al­manack” and tak­ing over the Penn­syl­va­nia Gazette; the birth of his il­le­git­i­mate son Wil­liam; his com­mon-law mar­riage to Deb­o­rah; the birth and death of his tod­dler son Franky from small­pox; and the birth of daugh­ter Sally.

This is Bunker’s third book. “An Em­pire on the Edge: How Bri­tain Came to Fight Amer­ica” was a Pulitzer Prize fi­nal­ist in 2015. In “Young Ben­jamin Franklin,” Bunker of­fers newly dis­cov­ered in­for­ma­tion about Franklin’s friends and fam­ily and vivid de­scrip­tions of the po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural at­mos­phere Franklin knew in London and Philadel­phia. At times the re­search can be over­whelm­ing, and Franklin’s story gets a bit lost in the de­tails about what can seem like ev­ery per­son he knew in his first 40 years. But th­ese lit­tle-known peo­ple do of­fer an in­ter­est­ing cast of char­ac­ters, and many are the kind of ec­centrics Franklin hugely en­joyed. They were peo­ple like Paine, whom many found an­noy­ing or a bit strange but whom Franklin ap­pre­ci­ated.

Any­one in­ter­ested in Franklin and early Amer­ica should find this book fas­ci­nat­ing. It of­fers im­por­tant in­sight into the in­ter­nal strug­gles Franklin wres­tled with as a youth and the ques­tions he strove to an­swer. Ul­ti­mately, though, it is as much about the emer­gence of the con­cept of in­ge­nu­ity in the pre-rev­o­lu­tion­ary age and among Franklin’s in­tel­lec­tual and sci­en­tific men­tors and friends as it is about Franklin’s own path to in­ge­nu­ity. Linda Killian is a Wash­ing­ton jour­nal­ist and au­thor whose lat­est book is “The Swing Vote: The Un­tapped Power of In­de­pen­dents.” She is study­ing the early repub­lic and the roots of Amer­i­can democ­racy in the doc­toral pro­gram of Amer­i­can Univer­sity’s his­tory depart­ment.

YOUNG BEN­JAMIN FRANKLIN The Birth of In­ge­nu­ity By Nick Bunker Knopf. 445 pp. $30

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