"Benjamin Franklin is the Founding Father who winks at us. An ambitious urban entrepreneur who rose up the social ladder, from leather-aproned shopkeeper to dining with kings, he seems made of flesh rather than of marble."
So begins the dust-cover blurb on Walter Isaacson's biography of Franklin, who, during his long life (1706-1790), was America's best scientist, inventor, diplomat, writer and business strategist, as well as one of its most practical political thinkers.
Franklin, writes Isaacson, "was the only man who shaped all the founding documents of America: the Albany Plan of Union, the Declaration of Independence, the treaty of alliance with France, the peace treaty with England and the Constitution. And he helped invent America's unique style of homespun humor, democratic values and philosophical pragmatism."
Not bad for a man who simply (and proudly) referred to himself as "Benjamin Franklin, Printer."
From his early days as a runaway apprentice seeking his fortune in the rapidly growing city of Philadelphia on through his later triumphs as a statesman, scientist and Founding Father, Franklin saw middle-class values as a source of social strength and health, and harbored a lifelong distaste for inherited wealth and privilege, which he felt debased the spirit of the common people.
Though he never attended college, he began reading at an early age and continued doing so for the rest of his life, eventually amassing a private library of some 4,276 books.
His first success as a writer came as a teenager when, having disguised his handwriting, he managed to get several anonymous essays published in the Courant, a newspaper owned by his brother, James.
Writing as Silence Dogood, a slightly prudish widowed woman from a rural area, his essays poked fun at political hypocrisy and dishonesty. A decade later, having worked his way up through the ranks as an apprentice and later a journeyman printer, Franklin opened his own print shop.
As readers familiar with his autobiography might remember, he quickly gained fame through his publication of "Poor Richard's Almanack" in 1733, in which he advanced his conviction that "industry and frugality are the means of procuring wealth and thereby securing virtue," and first published several of his famous aphorisms, such as "A stitch in time saves nine" and "Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise," the latter of which in later years he quietly ceased to observe, preferring instead to stay up late and sleep until mid-morning.
Like many of the Founding Fathers, Franklin was essentially a Deist. Since he had no factual evidence about what might be divinely inspired, he settled instead for the simple creed that the best way to serve God was doing good to others.
He had a gift for coaxing people to get along and work together, and his accomplishments in forming things like volunteer fire departments, public universities, insurance companies, lotteries and lending libraries proved just as important as his inventions such as bifocal eyeglasses, lightning rods, Franklin stoves and democratic constitutions.
Though sometimes criticized for being overly worldly and focused on purely practical concerns, Franklin insisted that the real strength of the newly formed nation known as the United States of America would come as much from our idealism as our realism. He believed in having the humility to be open to different opinions - a belief founded on the tenet that every individual deserves respect.
And as a scientist who in his experiments with electricity had learned the importance of accurate observation, he insisted on respecting the truth.