Saturday, January 18, 2014

America History F.

I am a Franklin buff. It's something that's relatively easy to be since so much of Franklin's writings survived, he met so many people in his life who wrote about him, and he invented approximately 30% of everything we associate with America. Franklin is the person that people who are lazy about history study - and I am lazy as hell about history.

I had two fantastic Early American Lit classes when I was at Cal Poly, one was a 200 level and one was a 400 level. Both classes required that I read at least part of Franklin's Autobiography, as well as the writings of Cabeza de Vaca, Anne Bradstreet, Roger Williams and a whole host of people who were responsible for exploring, settling, and building America. Franklin was the first part of American history that really stuck with me, and it stuck with me by way of American Lit.

I bought this book as something to cite in a paper I was writing for my 400 level American Lit class about Franklin's Autobiography. At the time I just used the skills our professor had taught us (thanks, Dr. Corley!) and scanned the index and table of contents for material that might confirm or contradict my thesis; once that was done I used a few paragraphs and read one or two chapters pretty well and then proceeded to forget that I owned it for the next four years.

Autobiography is charming and interesting, and like all autobiographies, highly unreliable. Franklin was writing for an audience - he was writing to his newly-estranged son as well as to posterity, and he was well aware that history would be interested in his story, especially in his words.

Brands treats his subject gently (probably more gently than most critics of Franklin can stand to see) but he doesn't tip-toe around the fact that Franklin was a man - even though he was also a savant and a statesman - first and everything else later. Explorations of the founder's sex life are made, questions about his loyalties are raised (and thoroughly examined), flaws are admitted to and explored. Franklin comes out looking good, but human - touchingly so.

What is really fascinating about the book is the perspective that it gives on the conflict between the Colonies and Great Britain and the role that Franklin played in moderating that conflict - Brands seems to have done a uniquely good job of of looking at the motivations of all the players involved and looking at what, from our perspective of 200 years later, appears to have been an inevitable dispute that happened to be marshaled into a revolution by some of the most (and in Franklin maybe the single most) competent humans who ever lived.

The downside of all of this is that it tends to make us look at the "characters" as just that and forget that, while we're getting perspective on Franklin's flaws, Washington, Jefferson and the other super-human-seeming founders were also prone to walking on earth, not above it. One founder does draw significant (and distracting) ire from Brands - Adams' treatment is sometimes funny, but serves to show the statesman as a kind of comic-relief antagonist instead of the very important contributor to history that he was.

In spite of these slight problems, which are maybe more accurately seen as limitations of scope, I enjoyed The First American a great deal. It's a rich and heady read, a deeply immersive and compelling book that is not only a great portrait of a great man, but a delightfully complete landscape of the world he lived in. And it certainly did a better job of explaining the history of the Revolutionary War to me than 20 years of schooling ever did.

Brands, H.W., The First American. Anchor Books. New York: New York. 2002.


  1. Founding Fathers only touched ground when they had to come down and kick some British Ass. Otherwise, they walked in the clouds.

    1. Or when fathering bastards who became royal governors. Fair's fair.