The First American: The Life and Times
of Benjamin Franklin
by H. W. Brands
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
How does this one compare to Isaacson’s? Thanks.
I haven’t read Isaacson’s bio of Ben Franklin yet but understand from some who have that it is a bit “breezier,” somewhat less detailed and perhaps even more forgiving of his imperfections.
I’ve not read Brands, but thought Issacson’s masterful. I know Richard Brookhiser STILL regard Van Doren as the best Franklin bio though. I think he said it was so good it’s why he’s not written one of his own.
Teacher in Tejas said:
I just finished Isaacson’s and found it good, but not engrossing or enthralling. He missed some stuff that I really wanted to know about (bifocals) and went into detail on some areas that I thought had already been covered, or I just found not that interesting.
Al C said:
I think the key to understanding Brands’ biographies is knowing that once upon a time he proposed writing a history of the U.S. Publisher(s) rejected the idea. In its place Brand has written (mostly presidential) biographies spanning the country’s history. They focus on one person, of course, but it’s not surprising they’re filled with contextual information.
I didn’t realize that about Brands – fascinating. It certainly helps explain why his bio of Ben Franklin occasionally seems more like an exploration of Pennsylvania state politics during the 1750s, or an analysis of the French and Indian War, etc.
Christopher Saunders said:
I believe his book American Colossus was intended for the Oxford History of the United States but the publishers disliked the end product and turned them down. I haven’t read that one but I’d probably enjoy it more than Richard White’s The Republic for Which It Stands, which ultimately took its place.
Michael Mcgee said:
Richard White’s book was the only volume of the Oxford series that I didn’t buy. A quick look through revealed it to have quite a strident, ideological bent. I purchased American Colossus instead and am happy that I did.
Christopher Saunders said:
It is both very ideological (which I wouldn’t necessarily mind if it were done better) and curiously dated (his portrayal of Grant’s administration of a sinkhole of corruption and incompetence). Some interesting nuggets but you’re not missing anything crucial.
Max Placke said:
I read American Colossus years ago and enjoyed it very much. I’ve always liked learning about the Gilded Age, and this book didn’t fail to disappoint. If you like Brands, which I do, and you like the Gilded Age as well, try The Reckless Decade. It’s a good read.
Dennis Branson said:
I got to see H. W. Brands speak last year, and he was a wonderful speaker. I just finished his book about Clay, Wester and Calhoun. I really enjoyed it and thought that it was the best book I have read about the period of American history between the War of 1812 and the CIvil War.
I recently read Robert Remini’s take on Henry Clay which was good but not as great as I had hoped. I’ve got a bio of Clay, Calhoun and Webster by Merrill Peterson on my “to read” list but I may have to check out Brands’s…
michael mcgee said:
I’ve seen Esmond Wright’s “Franklin of Philadelphia” frequently described as the standard scholarly bio of Franklin. Any thoughts?
I have four Franklin bios on my “master” list to read (well, one down…three to go) and two more on my “shadow” list, including Wright’s book which you refer to. The primary reason I didn’t include it in the more actionable list is that I’ve haven’t been able to get any real insight into what might make it “special.” And if anyone has suggested it replaced Van Doren’s as the “go to” biography of Franklin I simply missed it.
Hi Steve – thanks for all you’ve done with this and the Best Presidential Bios site. I notice there haven’t been many updates recently. I hope all is ok and just wanted to offer a note of appreciation for the work that’s gone into this effort.
Thanks – have been overseas on an assignment and am just recently back. I’m currently updating the new releases page on my presidential-focused site and then will do the same here. Then I need to restart (but probably from the beginning) the Thomas Jefferson biography I had almost completed when I “skipped town”…!
Glad to hear it! And obviously no expectations from your devoted readership – I can’t tell you how helpful it is as a guide (I’m currently making my way through the Jackson bios).
Thanks so much- Your reading list has been very helpful. I started on my path over 10 years ago and began reading biographies of all presidents but also some contemporaries like Franklin and also have read several of the books in the Oxford History of the United States series- each about 700- 900 pages and very well written. I am currently holding at McKinley as I wait for Stiles Book on TR that I am hoping will come out in the next 1-2 years.
In any case I am writing this message for 2 reasons. First to thank you for helping in picking biographies to read. I generally read one but occasionally 2 and your direction has been very helpful in many of these. Second I saw you are reading a biography of Meriwether Lewis and I wanted to highly recommend the book Undaunted Courage which is primarily a biography of Lewis but also a story of the expedition and has lots of information about the relationships between Lewis and Jefferson as well as between Lewis and Clark. A very good read.
Thanks for your note, and rest assured I not only have “Undaunted Courage” on my list – and in my library – but it is sitting on a bookshelf staring at me so it is ever-present…though I haven’t yet read it.
I will be very interested to see how the Stiles bio of TR turns out. He’s a phenomenally interesting character and it would be hard to write a dull book on him, but to perfectly capture the essence of his personality and adequately but not excessively document his life story is probably a challenge. My fingers are crossed this turns out to be great! In the meantime, if you just can’t resist tackling Teddy Roosevelt and don’t mind reading a second book on him later, you have plenty to choose from-
Jacob M said:
I’m curious how you would rank the Benjamin Franklin Biographies you have read thus far? I’ve been reading through your Presidential rankings and I was curious what you thought on this particular matter.
Also thanks for putting in all the work, I’ve already bought a ton (thank goodness for used Amazon copies) of biographies off your suggestion after having the idea of wanting to read about every president myself.
I’ve only read one Ben Franklin bio – one by HW Brands – but am planning to (eventually) read at least two more: Van Doren’s and Walter Isaacson’s. I’m also tempted to do a summary post on “The Best Bios of Ben Franklin” once I get through four or five…
Jacob M said:
Thanks for the reply. Do you have any inclination as to what 5 you think you’d end up wanting to read? I’ll do my own research on your suggestions to try and make a choice. Trying to decide if I want to plough through reading all the presidents first or if I want to read for example Washington through Jefferson/Monroe then branch off on interesting subjects/people around their time period like the Revolutionary War in general or Franklin/Hamilton/Knox etc.
Thanks for putting all this information Together. Just reading all of your reviews has been entertaining.
In addition to Van Doren & Isaacson I would probably feel compelled to read Lemay’s 3-volume series, a biography written by James Srodes I’m told is pretty good and Gordon Wood’s book on Franklin.
The primary limitation of Dr. Lemay’s series is that it only reaches 1757. You may want to consider adding Edmund Morgan’s “Benjamin Franklin” and/or Stacy Schiff’s “A Great Improvisation.”
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