- Starting with his own autobiography, there have been many treatments of Benjamin Franklin’s life. How did you approach the project when you were aware of this vast literature, and how did you attempt to carve out your own space?
Yes, library shelves are crammed with books about Franklin, but the literature is biased towards the second half of his life, and his achievements as politician, diplomat, and man of letters. The period up to age 40 has come to be neglected, and the same is true of his scientific career. This is because – for the most part – in chronicling Franklin’s early life biographers have preferred to rely entirely on his autobiography. But written though they are with panache, Franklin’s memoirs are really a sketch or an essay, not a rounded narrative. He mentions his scientific work only in passing and he skips through his youth in an episodic, impressionistic way. So I began by working my way through the autobiography, and Franklin’s early writings, compiling lists of questions left unanswered, references unexplained, and incidents where other sources might be available. Then I went in search of material to fill in the gaps. The central question I was asking was this: just why was Benjamin Franklin so ambitious, and so energetic? In the 1740s an opponent called Franklin “an uneasy spirit” – which he was! – and I wanted to find out why this was so.
- You spend a considerable amount of time on the Franklins that preceded Benjamin. Why did you find the story of his family history so fascinating and relevant?
Actually, only about ten percent of Young Benjamin Franklin deals with his family origins, but this part of the book is indispensable. We can be sure that Franklin would have agreed, because he collected evidence about his forebears, and he went on a pilgrimage to the family home in Northamptonshire, England. The English Franklins matter deeply to the story because they were talented people, eager to rise in the world and surprisingly successful. Not only were the Franklins highly skilled craftsmen; they were also highly literate, very religious, and politically aware. In their adventures in the England of Charles II, and then as refugee Whigs in Massachusetts, we can find some answers to the question I posed earlier: why was Benjamin Franklin such a striving, ambitious young man?
- As you make clear, Franklin was very selective in his autobiography when it came detailed revelations about concerning his early life. Why was that the case, and why is it important for scholars to take his pre-celebrity years more seriously?
When he began to compose his memoirs, Franklin was 65. He’d worked hard to be great and famous and so, although he wanted to tell the truth about himself, it had to be an edited version that wouldn’t give his enemies ammunition with which to attack him. I think Franklin also understood that the world his readers inhabited bore little resemblance to the poorer, less sophisticated America 40 or 50 years earlier in which he’d come to maturity; he didn’t expect them to understand it; and so for the sake of readability he gave them an incomplete account of his formative period. Only when we replace the missing elements of Franklin’s story can we understand how he became a scientist and a statesman. For example: his friendships with powerful Pennsylvanians, such as the lawyers James Logan and Andrew Hamilton.
- The many places Franklin lived—the physical spaces he inhabited—play a big role in your tale. What were the challenges to reconstructing so many lost worlds?
The English locations aren’t difficult to research. Some of the buildings still exist and in the UK we have excellent records relating to real estate, rural or urban. Philadelphia likewise: the archival sources are rich, and so are the material survivals, such as Stenton, the country home of Franklin’s friend James Logan. Boston is the problem. It sometimes seems to me that in the 19th and 20th centuries the Bostonians almost deliberately conspired to wreck their colonial heritage by knocking down buildings or losing documents. The houses where Franklin was born and grew up are a wretched example. Both were obliterated long ago.
- Franklin’s obsession of “ingenuity” seems to have really struck you—enough so that it made your subtitle. Why do you feel that was an apt prism through which to understand his early life?
Delve into Franklin’s papers, and you will find the words “ingenuity” or “ingenious” on page after page. The Oxford English Dictionary shows you how these words came into fashion in England in the era of Sir Isaac Newton and the Royal Society, to refer to scientific knowledge and its practical application. To understand why this was so, you need to look to economic historians such as Professor Joel Mokyr of Northwestern University or Paul Slack at Oxford in the UK, who have shown how the cult of “ingenuity” played an essential part in the origins of the Industrial Revolution. That’s the context in which we have to view Benjamin Franklin.
- As you surveyed the vast literature about Franklin, I am sure that noticed that there are, at times, deep divides between the approaches adopted by “academic” or by “popular” authors (to use two very crude and problematic categories). What do you think each group tends to overlook in each other’s work?
When they write about Franklin, popular historians see too little by way of context, background, or the influence of his kinfolk or friends. They like to portray him as an entirely original, self-made genius – “the first American,” it’s been said – and in doing so they produce a Franklin who is funny and fascinating, but also too good to be true, and far too detached from the 18th century environment, both British and American, in which he truly belongs. Academic historians go to a different extreme. They’re often addicted to abstractions. They take a generalized concept such as “the Enlightenment,” and they try to make it explain what Franklin was up to, without paying attention to his individual circumstances as an emotional human being living in a specific time and place: namely, the Philadelphia which I describe in Young Benjamin Franklin.