THE AMERICANIZATION OF BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, by Gordon S. Wood, Penguin Press, 299 pages, $25.95.
The title — "The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin" — is provocative. It seems to strike at the very heart of Franklin's legendary patriotism. He was known, after all, as "the first American" in many accounts.
In this compelling book, Gordon Wood drastically revises Franklin's popular and historical image. Most notable in Wood's interpretation is that Franklin was infinitely loyal to the British Empire and had huge ambitions to be an important player in the British political-power structure.
Almost to the time the American Revolution occurred, Franklin lived in England. And he nurtured the belief, uncommon in the American colonies, that British leaders were not tyrannical.
Wood has no intention of debunking most of the well-known aspects of Franklin's fame — his inventions of the lightning rod, bifocals and the Franklin Stove; his "Poor Richard" proverbs; his artful wisdom; his innate ability to charm women; his versatility of interest and ability — in politics, diplomacy, science, art and culture; his predilection for public service; his crucial contribution of compromise during the Constitutional Convention.
But Wood does offer convincing evidence that Franklin's autobiography was chiefly responsible for identifying the business world with Franklin's practical advice on making and keeping money. That, Wood says, is his legacy — the most universal symbol of his life in today's society.
Unlike the other founders, Franklin was an artisan, "a lowly printer who became the architect of his own fortune. He is the prototype of the self-made man, and his life is the classic American success story — the story of a man rising from the most obscure of origins to wealth and international preeminence."
In other words, Franklin rose from artisan to gentleman, a difficult hurdle for most men to achieve in the 18th century. Then he retired from active work at the age of 42 and dedicated the rest of his life to public service.
His marriage at 24 to the "scarcely literate Deborah Read" shows his social ambitions were initially low. He became so ashamed of Deborah that he treated her almost as an afterthought, spending 17 years living away from her, in either England or France, and not even returning to Philadelphia when she died.
In his old age, Franklin suffered from many maladies, including gout, kidney stones, chronic skin disease and swollen joints. When he died at 84, the cause was a lung ailment. He left major bequests of money to the cities of Boston and Philadelphia, to provide for young journeyman mechanics to set themselves up in business.
Oddly, Franklin's death was greeted with much more adulation in France than it was in America. The French government decreed three days of national mourning, and Franklin was praised as "a philosopher who was able to conquer both thunderbolts and tyrants."
Wood's book not only makes for excellent reading, it is unquestionably a major contribution in the study both of Franklin and of the American Revolution. Its revisionist thesis, often at odds with that of Edmund Morgan's recent thoughtful study, is likely to be built upon as other scholars react to the new and provocative materials Wood has discovered.
Through it all, Franklin remains one of the greatest of all Americans.