📚 Benjamin Franklin - An American Life by Walter Isaacson


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After understanding the point in history in which Franklin lived his life, his role as a writer, scientist, diplomat, and representative become more and more admirable. As well as core to the sculpting of the United States. The American icons that are somewhat marbleized as god-like such as Washington, Jefferson, and Monroe are distinct from Franklin. A figure who is more relatable in regards to his qualities and character. This is not to say the man was flawless, as no man is. As he climbed the ranks of society he maintained his middle class nature, and made it critical to the foundation of our nation as a diplomat, as well as a representative.

Something that people either admire him for, or ridicule him for is his attempt at “moral perfection.” He noted twelve virtues to desire: Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity. In the book these virtues have a description after them that adds more detail, and I’m sure you can find them with a quick search. I hold the belief that moral perfection is an unattainable goal, but it is in the attempt one shows that judgement should be made. Understanding that perfection of morality cannot be achieved does not mean to dispose of morality all together. This brings us to another insightful part of his life, his religious views.

His religious views are not one of a particular religion. However, he did label himself as a daoist early in life, and became knowledgeable of the religions of the world. He understood the underlying morals of religions were pretty much the same, and that treating your fellow human being as you would want to be treated was the foundation of all. In his final summation of his religious thinking, one month before he died he said the following.

I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That he governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable service we render to him is doing good to his other children.

This attitude appeared in his role as a mediator at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 where he calmed the sides, one arguing for one nation, and one for 13 separate colonies. At the time he was by far the oldest in the room, yet the most respected, traveled, and the one who embodied the spirit of the Enlightenment; tolerance and compromise. If he had not held the attitude and character he did during the convention, the completion may have never occurred. Isaacson details this spirit of Enlightenment that helped shape the nation of the United States. It comes after the debates at the convention grew heated, and were becoming threatened to break up the convention all together.

After making his plea that members consult rather than contend, he expressed sentiment that he had preached for much of his life, starting with the rules he had written for his Junto sixty years earlier, about the dangers of being too assertive in debate. “Declarations of a fixed opinion, and of determined resolution never to change it, neither enlighten nor convince us,” he said. “Positiveness and warmth on one side, naturally beget their like on the other.”

His temperance was detailed to make it my most admirable. Throughout his life he dealt with the death of a child, a wife, the decision to imprison his son on behalf of the revolutionary effort, the role of a diplomat on behalf of the King of England, and then the colonies. There were other issues and difficulties he faced, but the temperance displayed through it all was core to the eventual success as an individual, as well as a nation. A great read, and one that restores a combination of Enlightenment spirit in the reader.

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