Frances Wilson

An electrifying politician

George Goodwin focuses on Franklin’s London years, which saw the brilliant polymath’s career abruptly ended by the American War of Independence

Just who was Benjamin Franklin? Apart, that is, from journalist, statesman, diplomat, founding father of the United States, inventor of the lightning rod, the Franklin Stove, the milometer, swimming flippers and the flexible catheter, the man who engineered the America postal system, who established the first lending library, who wrote one of the finest autobiographies in the language, and who schooled us in soundbites such as ‘Let all men know thee, but no man know thee thoroughly.’ Amen to that. Despite being the subject of a steady flow of worthy biographies, of which this is the latest, Franklin remains as cunning in heaven as he was on Earth.

A master manipulator, people saw in Franklin what he wanted them to see. Even his autobiography, says George Goodwin, with its ‘seeming openness’, was ‘a clever piece of self-protection’. Presenting himself as a teller of tales and dispenser of sound advice, Franklin omitted in these pages any mention of his contributions to science. It was as if, as one of his critics has put it, Einstein wanted to be known for his anecdotes of childhood. To his fellow Americans, Franklin, the youngest son of a soap-maker, was the spirit of the New World; a thrifty folk hero of rustic tastes and middle-class aspirations. To his fellow Brits (Franklin always considered himself British) he was the cultivated European, a child of the Enlightenment, a club-man, wit, womaniser and wily politician. In America he was one of the people; in England he belonged to the elite, alongside his friends Sir Francis Dashwood, Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestley and Edmund Burke.

Franklin was at home in London. He went there first in 1724 as a young printing apprentice open to experience, and he spent his earnings in the theatres, inns and brothels.

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