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Books: The First American
When strangers on the street approach and demand that I list my heroes, I can usually only cough up Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and The Guy Who Got Into The Guinness Book Of World Records By Eating a Bicycle before I start to founder and resort to fictitious characters like The Powerpuff Girls and God. But thanks to The First Amercian, I can now tack one more name onto the litany: Good Ol' Benjamin Franklin.
The First American is a book about Franklin, but it's also a book about the creation of the United States -- indeed, it would be impossible to write one story without telling the other. Franklin was born in 1706, at the moment in history when the first fissures of discontent were beginning to appear between Britain and her New World colony; he died in 1790, shortly after the Constitution of the United States had been ratified. Franklin almost seems like the physical embodiment of the revolutionary spirit, the very incarnation of America's evolution. Had Franklin not existed, historians would have had to invent him as a literary device.
But Benjamin Franklin was very much a flesh-and-blood human being, and his world apart from politics was as fascinating as his role as statesman. Author H. W. Brands covers all aspects of Franklin's life: his siring of an illegitimate son (who later went on to give Franklin an illegitimate grandson), his rise prominence through his work with electricity, his assorted occupations (printer, postmaster, diplomats) and inventions (the lightening rod, bifocals, daylight savings time), all the way up to the various medical afflictions that plagued him over the last years of his life. All this serves to portray Franklin as a human rather than simply a mythical figure. The Queen recently started reading the acclaimed biography John Adams, but soon gave up, complaining that author spent so much time lauding the man that she never felt like she got to know him. This is not a flaw that The First Amercian shares.
In the epilogue, Brands points out the the title of the book has a double meaning. Franklin was the "First American" chronologically, because he was perhaps the first person in a position of power to recognize that the United States would eventually have to break it's bonds with the Old World. But he was also the "first" in the sense of being "the first among equals," a man committed to egalitarianism despite his extraordinary gifts. Franklin was the prototypical Amercian writ large: intelligent (though sometimes too clever for his own good), proud (sometimes to the point of arrogance), steadfast (sometimes to the point of stubbornness), convivial (sometimes to the point of carnality), and, above all, protean enough to take everything fate handed him and maintain a sense of humor.
I've always had an affinity for Bennie F., because, of all the forefathers, he always struck me as the most accessible to an everyday shmoe like me: Washington seems too militant and noble, Jefferson seems entirely too smart, John Adams seems a bit too politician-ie, etc. But in Benjamin Franklin we have a man who not only served as midwife to the nation, but also wrote folksy almanacs, coined (and often stole) clever sayings, and was always willing to admit his character flaws even while urging others to overcome their own. Franklin may have been a great thinker and unparalleled diplomat, but he was also America's first "guy". That's someone I'm happy to cite as a hero.Posted on April 02, 2003 to Books