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Franklin fascinating in author’s portrayal

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With the publication of his new book, "The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin," Gordon Wood has joined the pantheon of recent scholars whose works of history are worthy of best-seller lists. Wood's book is down-to-earth and fascinating.

A Harvard-educated Bostonian, Wood now lives in Providence, R.I., where he teaches American history at prestigious Brown University. He is prolific, but his most important academic work may be "The Radicalism of the American Revolution," which won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1991.

Now in his 70s, Wood is on the verge of becoming professor emeritus — but the books will keep coming.

Of this latest work, Wood said that he read Franklin's papers in the 1970s and was struck by them. "It was not the Franklin I knew — the American patriot," he said by phone from Providence. "He was critical of America, absorbed in England and parochial. Other scholars don't realize how close he came to remaining a Brit. If he had been offered a position in the British political hierarchy, America would have lost him."

Wood "stewed" about Franklin for several years, he said, finally incorporating some of his ideas into his book on the American Revolution. "Franklin was constantly aware of what people would think. He wanted to appear to be the right kind of man — like Dale Carnegie (author of "How to Win Friends and Influence People") in a way. He shrewdly promoted projects other people could take credit for.

"He had immense control of the world he lived in. He had hubris. As printer, editor or diplomat in France, he was very successful — but he couldn't gauge popular opinion. He misunderstood the passions of the revolutionaries. He always thought the American Revolution could have been avoided."

Wood is unforgiving of Franklin for the shabby way in which he treated his wife, Deborah. "Their early letters were affectionate, but the later ones became perfunctory. He lost feeling for her as a wife. She had become his business agent in Philadelphia, while he lived in London. She was emotionally cut off.

"When she writes and asks him to come home, he doesn't respond to the letters. Franklin and Deborah spent the last 17 years of their marriage apart. He didn't need to divorce her. When he married her, he already had an illegitimate son, William, and Deborah was probably the only girl in Philadelphia who would take him."

Wood has seen no evidence for the popular thesis that Franklin was a "womanizer," but he was a "lusty" young man. Franklin considered the house of Mrs. Stevenson, and her daughter Polly, his home in London. They became his "surrogate family," and Franklin evidently preferred their company to that of his wife and his own daughter, Sally.

"There is no evidence that he engaged prostitutes," Wood said. "He may have had a relationship with Mrs. Stevenson, but there is no evidence of that. Women loved him. When John Adams came to Paris, Abigail Adams was appalled at Franklin's flirtations with women."

Franklin is known to have been as distant from family as he was close to people in power. Wood believes the American Revolution, once he embraced it, was very personal to him. "When his son, William, became a loyalist and favored England, Franklin never forgave him. Friends were surprised at how hostile he was to his son. Franklin was gregarious, genial, affable and great at a dinner party — but maybe not someone who gets along so well one-on-one. He sacrificed his family. All his energy went to larger groups."

Wood believes Franklin was "a major scientific figure of the 18th century" — but he also believes his diplomatic relations with France, to get French leaders to support the American Revolution, was the high point of his career — and John Adams almost "ruined that alliance. Adams really disliked Franklin. He thought Franklin was shortchanging America and putting French loyalties first, and that wasn't true.

"Adams was a bull in a china shop. The French connection was so important to the success of the revolution. Franklin extracted loan after loan from Count Vergennes, the French foreign minister, making a contribution second only to that of Washington."

In Wood's opinion, Franklin has come to symbolize the American dream and has special appeal to immigrants. "This is the Franklin most people know. He came out of nowhere and made it. Businessmen needed someone to justify their own rise." So the making of money, said Wood, and the importance of commerce and business in our culture, owes a debt to Franklin. It was Franklin's autobiography that identified him with the making of money. He was a printer, without status, who turned himself into a gentleman.

Franklin was 70 when he first applied his special charm to his French diplomacy — an old man in that day — since the average man lived only to age 55. According to Wood, that figure is "misleading — if you lived to be 21 in colonial times, you had the chance of a decent life.

"The Founding Fathers lived to be old — but no one did what Franklin did at his age. In fact, nobody in American history quite equates with Franklin. He was expert in so many fields."

E-mail: dennis@desnews.com