Cover image for The first American : the life and times of Benjamin Franklin
The first American : the life and times of Benjamin Franklin
Brands, H. W.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Doubleday, [2000]

Physical Description:
vi, 759 pages ; 25 cm
Format :


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E302.6.F8 B83 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Biography
E302.6.F8 B83 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
E302.6.F8 B83 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Biography
E302.6.F8 B83 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
E302.6.F8 B83 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
E302.6.F8 B83 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
E302.6.F8 B83 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
E302.6.F8 B83 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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In the first comprehensive biography of Benjamin Franklin in over sixty years, acclaimed historian H. W. Brands brings vividly to life one of the most delightful, bawdy, brilliant, original, and important figures in American history. A groundbreaking scientist, leading businessman, philosopher, bestselling author, inventor, diplomat, politician, and wit, Benjamin Franklin was perhaps the most beloved and celebrated American of his age, or indeed of any age. Now, in a beautifully written and meticulously researched account of Franklin's life and times, his clever repartee, generous spirit, and earthy wisdom are brought compellingly to the page. His circle of friends and acquaintances extended around the globe, from Cotton Mather to Voltaire, from Edmund Burke to King George III, from Sir Isaac Newton to Immanuel Kant. Franklin was gifted with a restless curiosity, and his scientific experiments with electric currents and the weather made him the leading pioneer in the new field of electricity on both sides of the Atlantic; among his many inventions were the lightning rod, the Franklin stove, and the harmonica, a musical instrument that became the rage of Europe. From his humble beginnings in Boston as a printer's apprentice, he became, within two decades, the leading printer and one of the most important businessmen in the Colonies. A longtime Philadelphia civic leader, he created Philadelphia's first fire department, wrote the bestsellerPoor Richard's Almanac, served as Postmaster General for the Colonies, and in the process, completely modernized the mail service. A bon vivant and ladies' man throughout his life, he matched wits with Parliament and the Crown during the decade leading up to the Stamp Act; and as the official agent to Parliament, representing several of the Colonies, he helped push the Colonies into open rebellion. Tracing Franklin's gradual transformation from reluctant revolutionary to charismatic leader in the fight for independence, Brands convincingly argues that on the issue of revolution, as Franklin went, so went America. During the Revolutionary War, Franklin was charged by Congress with wooing the King of France to the American cause, and it was the diplomatic alliances he forged and funds he raised in France that allowed the Continental Army to continue to fight on the battlefield. In his final years, as president of the Constitutional Convention, it was Franklin who held together the antagonistic factions and persuaded its members to sign the Constitution. Drawing on previously unpublished letters to and from Franklin, as well as the recollections and anecdotes of Franklin's contemporaries, H. W. Brands has created a rich and compelling portrait of the eighteenth-century genius who was in every respect America's first Renaissance man, and arguably the pivotal figure in colonial and revolutionary America. A fascinating and richly textured biography of the man who was perhaps the greatest of our Founding Fathers, The First American is history on a grand scale, as well as a major contribution to understanding Franklin and the world he helped to shape.

Author Notes

H.W. Brands was born Henry William Brands in Oregon. He graduated from Stanford University in 1975 with a B.A. in history, and from Jesuit High School in Portland, Oregon. He went on to earn his graduate degree in mathematics and history in Oregon and Texas. He taught at Vanderbilt University and Texas A&M University before he joined the faculty at the University of Texas at Austin. He acquired the title of Dickson Allen Anderson Centennial Professor of History at the U of Texas. He specializes in American History and politics, with books including Traitor to His Class, Andrew Jackson, The Age of Gold, the First American, and TR. Several of his books have been best sellers, including one recently published, The General vs. the President. Two of them - Traitor to His Class and The First American were finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He lectures often on historical and current events and he can be seen and heard on national television and radio programs.

(Bowker Author Biography) H. W. Brands lives in Austin, Texas.

(Publisher Provided) H. W. Brands is Distinguished Professor of History and Ralph R. Thomas '21 Professor in Liberal Arts, Texas A&M University.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

"Franklin's story is the story of a manDan exceedingly gifted man and a most engaging one. It is also the story of the birth of AmericaDan America this man discovered in himself, then helped create in the world at large," says Texas A&M historian Brands (T.R.: The Last Romantic, etc.) in the prologue to his stunning new work. Franklin's father took him out of school at age 11, but the boy assiduously sacrificed sleep (while working as an apprentice printer) to read and learn, giving himself rigorous exercises to develop his ease with language and discourse, among other disciplines. In essence, as Brands vividly demonstrates, Franklin defined the Renaissance man. He made multiple contributions to science (electricity, meteorology), invention (bifocal lenses, the Franklin furnace) and civic institutions (the American Philosophical Society, the University of Pennsylvania, the U.S. Post Office). But Brands is primarily concerned with Franklin's development as a thinker, politician and statesman and places his greatest emphasis there. In particular, Brands does an excellent job of capturing Franklin's exuberant versatility as a writer who adopted countless personaeDevidence of his gift for seeing the world through a variety of different lensesDthat not only predestined his prominence as a man of letters but also as an agile man of politics. From Franklin's progress as a self-declared "Briton"Dserving as London agent for Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and other coloniesDto his evolution as an American (wartime minister to France, senior peace negotiator with Britain and, finally, senior participant at the Constitutional Convention), Brands, with admirable insight and arresting narrative, constructs a portrait of a complex and influential man ("only Washington mattered as much") in a highly charged world. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

In this new biography, Brands (history, Texas A&M Univ.; T.R.: The Last Romantic) sees Franklin's January 29, 1774 confrontation in Parliament with Alexander Wedderburn, first Earl of Rosslyn (1733-1805), as the formative moment in Benjamin Franklin's life. During those two hours in the "Cockpit," it was not just Wedderburn insulting Franklin, "it was also Britain mocking America." Franklin's story, as Brands sees and tells it, "is also the story of the birth of AmericaDan America this man discovered in himself, then helped create in the world at large." Brands, a master storyteller himself, draws on letters to and by Franklin, as well as recollections of Franklin's contemporaries, to create an absorbing portrait of the 18th-century world that was the backdropDand the stageDfor America's multidimensional journalist, inventor, diplomat, propagandist, moralist, humorist, and revolutionary. Brands's eminently readable narrative is a worthy successor to Carl Van Doren's classic Pulitzer Prize-winning Benjamin Franklin. Recommended for public and academic libraries.DRobert C. Jones, Central Missouri State Univ., Warrensburg (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

This is a comprehensive biography of Franklin--it includes topics as diverse as Franklin's family life, vocations as printer and author, scientific interests and discoveries, political careers in Pennsylvania and the US, and his diplomatic career in the Revolution. The biography will certainly lead the reader to appreciate that Franklin was a polymath and Renaissance man. On the other hand, the author omits topics that would have interested Franklin scholars. Missing are almost all historiographical controversies over Franklin: Franklin the model bourgeois man, the detractor of German Pennsylvanians and Quakers, the danger to Native Americans, or the compromising, self-serving politician. The book contains little scholarly apparatus and a minimum of citations, mostly of Franklin's published papers. Brands provides no overarching thesis about Franklin and strikes out in no new direction. Given the book's air of triumphal progress, Franklin would enjoy this biography. The readers for whom this work appears intended are, therefore, people coming to learn about Franklin for the first time. It is not appropriate for students beyond the undergraduate level, and since it is over 700 pages long, it is not likely that undergraduates will easily take to reading it. J. D. Marietta; University of Arizona



A lesser man would have been humiliated. Humiliation was the purpose of the proceeding. It was the outcome eagerly anticipated by the lords of the Privy Council who constituted the official audience, by the members of the House of Commons and other fashionable Londoners who packed the room and hung on the rails of the balcony, by the London press that lived on scandal and milled outside to see how this scandal would unfold, by the throngs that bought the papers, savored the scandals, rioted in favor of their heroes and against their villains, and made politics in the British imperial capital often unpredictable, frequently disreputable, always entertaining. The proceeding today would probably be disreputable. It would certainly be entertaining. The venue was fitting: the Cockpit. In the reign of Henry VIII, that most sporting of monarchs in a land that loved its bloody games, the building on this site had housed an actual cockpit, where Henry and his friends brought their prize birds and wagered which would tear the others to shreds. The present building had replaced the real cockpit, but this room retained the old name and atmosphere. The victim today was expected to depart with his reputation in tatters, his fortune possibly forfeit, his life conceivably at peril. Nor was that the extent of the stakes. Two days earlier the December packet ship from Boston had arrived with an alarming report from the royal governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson. The governor described an organized assault on three British vessels carrying tea of the East India Company. The assailants, townsmen loosely disguised as Indians, had boarded the ships, hauled hundreds of tea casks to deck, smashed them open, and dumped their contents into the harbor forty-five tons of tea, enough to litter the beaches for miles and depress the company's profits for years. This rampage was the latest in a series of violent outbursts against the authority of Crown and Parliament; the audience in the Cockpit, and in London beyond, demanded to know what Crown and Parliament intended to do about it. Alexander Wedderburn was going to tell them. The solicitor general possessed great rhetorical gifts and greater ambition. The former had made him the most feared advocate in the realm; the latter lifted him to his present post when he abandoned his allies in the opposition and embraced the ministry of Lord North. Wedderburn was known to consider the Boston tea riot treason, and if the law courts upheld his interpretagtion, those behind the riot would be liable to the most severe sanctions, potentially including death. Wedderburn was expected to argue that the man in the Cockpit today was the prime mover behind the outburst in Boston. The crowd quivered with anticipation. They all knew the man in the pit; indeed, the whole world knew Benjamin Franklin. His work as political agent for several of the American colonies had earned him recognition around London, but his fame far transcended that. He was, quite simply, one of the most illustrious scientists and thinkers on earth. His experiments with electricity, culminating in his capture of lightning from the heavens, had won him universal praise as the modern Prometheus. His mapping of the Gulf Stream saved the time and lives of countless sailors. His ingenious fireplace conserved fuel and warmed homes on both sides of the Atlantic. His contributions to economics, meteorology, music, and psychology expanded the reach of human knowledge and the grip of human power. For his accomplishments the British Royal Society had awarded him its highest prize; foreign societies had done the same. Universities queued to grant him degrees. The ablest minds of the age consulted him on matters large and small. Kings and emperors summoned him to court, where they admired his brilliance and basked in its reflected glory. Genius is prone to producing envy. Yet it was part of Franklin's genius that he had produced far less than his share, due to an unusual ability to disarm those disposed to envy. In youth he discovered that he was quicker of mind and more facile of pen than almost everyone he met; he also discovered that a boy of humble birth, no matter how gifted, would block his own way by letting on that he knew how smart he was. He learned to deflect credit for some of his most important innovations. He avoided arguments wherever possible; when important public issues hinged on others' being convinced of their errors, he often argued anonymously, adopting assumed names, or Socratically, employing the gentle questioning of the Greek master. He became almost as famous for his sense of humor as for his science; laughing, his opponents listened and were persuaded. Franklin's self-effacing style succeeded remarkably; at sixty-eight he had almost no personal enemies and comparatively few political enemies for a man of public affairs. But those few included powerful figures. George Grenville, the prime minister responsible for the Stamp Act, the tax bill that triggered all the American troubles, never forgave him for single-handedly demolishing the rationale for the act in a memorable session before the House of Commons. Grenville and his allies lay in wait to exact their revenge on Franklin. Yet he never made a false step. Until now. A mysterious person had delivered into his hands confidential letters from Governor Hutchinson and other royal officials in Massachusetts addressed to an undersecretary of state in London. These letters cast grave doubt on the bona fides of Hutchinson, for years the bête noire of the Massachusetts assembly. As Massachusetts's agent, Franklin had forwarded the letters to friends in Boston. Hutchinson's enemies there got hold  of the letters and published them. The publication provoked an instant uproar. In America the letters were interpreted as part of a British plot to enslave the colonies; the letters fueled the anger that inspired the violence that produced the Boston tea riot. In England the letters provoked charges and countercharges as to who could have been so dishonorable as to steal and publish private correspondence. A duel at swords left one party wounded and bothparties aching for further satisfaction; only at this point--to prevent more bloodshed--did Franklin reveal his role in transmitting the letters. His foes seized the chance to destroy him. Since that session in Commons eight years before, he had become the symbol and spokesman in London of American resistance to the sovereignty of Parliament; on his head would be visited all the wrath and resentment that had been building in that proud institution from the time of the Stamp Act to the tea riot. Alexander Wedderburn sharpened his tongue and moved in for the kill. None present at the Cockpit on January 29, 1774, could afterward recall the like of the hearing that day. The solicitor general outdid himself. For an hour he hurled invective at Franklin, branding him a liar, a thief, the instigator of the insurrection in Massachusetts, an outcast from the company of all honest men, an ingrate whose attack on Hutchinson betrayed nothing less than a desire to seize the governor's office for himself. So slanderous was Wedderburn's diatribe that no London paper would print it. But the audience reveled in it, hooting and applauding each sally, each bilious bon mot. Not even the lords of the Privy Council attempted to disguise their delight at Wedderburn's astonishing attack. Almost to a man and a woman, the spectators that day concluded that Franklin's reputation would never recover. Ignominy, if not prison or worse, was his future now. Excerpted from The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin by H. W. Brands All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Prologue: January 29, 1774p. 1
1. Boston Beginnings: 1706-23p. 9
2. Friends and Other Strangers: 1723-24p. 35
3. London Once: 1724-26p. 60
4. An Imprint of His Own: 1726-30p. 82
5. Poor Richard: 1730-35p. 106
6. Citizen: 1735-40p. 132
7. Arc of Empire: 1741-48p. 157
8. Electricity and Fame: 1748-51p. 187
9. A Taste of Politics: 1751-54p. 207
10. Join or Die: 1754-55p. 228
11. The People's Colonel: 1755-57p. 252
12. A Larger Stage: 1757-58p. 272
13. Imperialist: 1759-60p. 290
14. Briton: 1760-62p. 308
15. Rising in the West: 1762-64p. 331
16. Stamps and Statesmanship: 1764-66p. 359
17. Duties and Pleasures: 1766-67p. 378
18. Reason and Riot: 1768-69p. 398
19. The Rift Widens: 1770-71p. 422
20. To Kick a Little: 1772-73p. 444
21. The Cockpit: 1774-75p. 464
22. Rebel: 1775-76p. 491
23. Salvation in Paris: 1776-78p. 520
24. Bonhomme Richard: 1778-79p. 545
25. Minister Plenipotentiary: 1779-81p. 571
26. Blessed Work: 1781-82p. 597
27. Savant: 1783-85p. 621
28. Home: 1785-86p. 643
29. Sunrise at Dusk: 1786-87p. 666
30. To Sleep: 1787-90p. 692
Epilogue: April 17, 1990p. 712
Source Notesp. 717
Acknowledgmentsp. 743
Indexp. 745