Review of “The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin” by H. W. Brands

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The First American: The Life and Times
of Benjamin Franklin

by H. W. Brands
716 pages
Anchor Books (Random House)
Published: September 2000

H. W. Brands’ “The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin” was published in 2000 and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Brands is a professor of history and government at the University of Texas and a prolific author. He has written nearly three-dozen books including biographies of Andrew Jackson, Ulysses Grant, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR and Ronald Reagan (each of which I have read and reviewed).

Given its encyclopedic breadth and scholarly bent, “The First American” has largely supplanted Carl Van Doren’s 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning classic as the standard biography of Franklin.  With 716 pages of text and studious attention to every major facet of Franklin’s unusually varied and interesting life, Brands’ biography is comprehensive, detailed and incredibly thoughtful.

It is quickly obvious that this distinguished Founding Father is a somewhat elusive biographical subject – a man of many talents who remains enigmatic due to his apparent affinity for contradictions and failure to chronicle his own innermost thoughts during a life situated on the front row of so much early American history.

Nevertheless, Brands is able to craft a rich narrative which explores the familiar features of Franklin’s life and captures many of the nuances which will have eluded readers who have never undertaken a serious study of the man. Among the many excellent aspects of this biography are stories of young Franklin’s journey to Philadelphia from Boston, his earliest weeks as an up-and-coming printer and his introduction to a notoriously unreliable governor of Pennsylvania.

A later chapter devoted largely to chronicling his playful pursuit of a number of (much younger) French ladies and the ongoing exploration of Franklin’s relationship with his oldest son are incredibly revealing.  But the most thought-provoking observations are those related to Franklin’s lifelong efforts to maintain allegiance to the American colonies while preserving his friendly status – and strong personal relationships – in Britain.

But as interesting as this book can be, it is neither an effortless nor a particularly carefree read. The author’s writing style is penetrating and thoughtful but not consistently captivating or colorful. And because it possesses a distinct scholarly quality some readers will find it a bit too erudite (if not abstruse).

In addition, Brands helpfully supplies background and context which can be useful for anyone unfamiliar with 18th century history. But occasional context quickly morphs into relentless tangents which distract from the narrative and cause the reader to lose sight of the bigger picture. Finally, despite the author’s efforts to paint a robust and vibrant portrait of his subject, Benjamin Franklin remains stubbornly perplexing and mysterious after more than seven-hundred pages.

Overall, H. W. Brands’ “The First American” is a solid biography of one of America’s most fascinating Founding Fathers. Benjamin Franklin’s eccentricities and contradictions seem to confound even the most determined of biographers. Nevertheless, readers with an interest in early American life – or with one of America’s most intriguing personalities – will find this biography compelling and enlightening.

Overall rating: 3¾ stars