Walter Isaacson’s “Benjamin Franklin: An American Life”: Book Review, Notes + Analysis

Poor Ash’s Almanack > Book Reviews > Category

Overall Rating: ★★★ (3/7) (mediocre for its category)

Per-Hour Learning Potential / Utility: ★★★ (3/7)

Readability: ★★★★ (4/7)

Challenge Level: 3/5 (Intermediate) | ~586 pages official

Blurb/Description: A tediously detailed biography of Benjamin Franklin that is occasionally interesting in spite of itself.

Summary: I’m (naturally) a big Benjamin Franklin Fan; I enjoyed “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin” (ABF review + notes) and was hoping that a full-length biography would yield greater insights.

I was sorely disappointed.  I wasn’t a big fan of Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography, but I don’t remember that one being this bad.  

In “The Landscape of History” (LandH review + notes), John Lewis Gaddis discusses a historian’s ability – and imperative – to zoom in and out, building an understanding by juxtaposing details in a manner that gives them meaning.

Isaacson, unfortunately, seems incapable of doing that.

Highlights: Isaacson isn’t a terrible writer: this isn’t as dull or dry as some biographies; it’s just overly detailed.  Thanks to the interesting subject, some of this book ends up being interesting in spite of the tedious writing.

Lowlights: Most of the interesting bits can be found in Franklin’s much shorter, much more entertaining “Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin” (ABF review + notes).  

Isaacson peppers the book with overly lengthy explanations of irrelevant details: who Franklin visited, what gifts he gave them, his love letters… by spilling unnecessary ink on Franklin’s pedantic, everyman activities, Isaacson squanders an opportunity to focus more on very important parts of Franklin’s life – like how he built his press business – that are addressed in insufficient detail.

Mental Model / ART Thinking Points: empathy, incentives, ideology, utility, trait adaptivity, schema, habit, humor, sleep, cognition vs. emotion, opportunity costs, local vs. global optimization

Instead, you should read: “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin” (ABF review + notes).

Reading Tips: skim heavily

Pairs Well With: [link to other book reviews]


Reread Value: 1/5 (None)

More Detailed Notes + Analysis (SPOILERS BELOW):

Please remember: these notes were created primarily for my own personal reference and are not intended to be an abstract or summary of the book; in other words, they don’t substitute for reading the book, and most of their content will not make sense without the broader context of the book.  These simply represent some of the points that I found interesting / thought-provoking / related to other material that I’ve learned from.

I share them for a few reasons: first, and primarily for those who’ve read the book, hopefully these will serve as some thought-provoking marginalia as well as a “refresher course” on some of the concepts if it’s been a while since you’ve read the book.  Second, in more limited circumstances, if you haven’t read the book but have seen it referenced in one of the mental models or other pages in Poor Ash’s Almanack, you may find the notes to be a useful “information bridge” (albeit a very temporary/rickety one) until you’re able to read the book yourself.


Isaacson starts the biography rather provocatively, claiming that Franklin’s most interesting invention was “himself” – Isaacson notes that he:

was, in his life and in his writings, consciously trying to create a new American archetype.  In the process, he carefully crafted his own persona, portrayed it in public, and polished it for posterity.”

“Franklin” literally meant “freeman” – men with property who were not aristocrats.  The Franklins were long a family of intellectuals and independent thinkers; Josiah Franklin struck out for America in 1683 (at the age of 25) for both religious and financial reasons (Isaacson states that to Puritans, the two were interconnected).  

Franklin decided to become a tallow chandler because demand was rising, supply was easier (thanks to mass slaughtering of cattle), and the trade was uncrowded.  For Puritans, church membership served as a “social leveler,” allowing Josiah to network with higher-class members of society.

Isaacson disputes Franklin’s claims in his autobiography that he was pulled out of school due to lack of financial resources, noting that it was more likely that his inborn cheekiness and general disregard for religion would have made the seminary path unfruitful… he does note, though, that:

“one aspect of Franklin’s genius was the variety of his interests… approached from a very practical rather than theoretical angle.”  

Utility.  Isaacson also notes that Franklin’s brother’s paper was one of the first independent, anti-authoritarian papers in the country.

Franklin wasn’t a particularly talented “natural” writer, but focused on self-improvement, developing a style based on:

“fun and conversational prose that was lacking in poetic flourish but powerful in its directness.”  

Franklin was (200 years) later described by others as “the most amusing writer in all of America” at the age of 23.  He often wrote under pen names (including, perhaps surprisingly for his time, posing as women). Stunt marketing, page 61… and also pg 65, pg 95 (fabricated a competitor’s death).  P. 106 (getting himself invited into the Freemasons by publishing an article claiming their secrets were a hoax.)

Pgs 56 – 57… discusses his Dale Carnegie style (self deprecation pgs 71 – 72).  See empathy and incentives.

Pg. 67 – discussion of discretion – Franklin was not someone with a lot of ideology

Pg. 67 – 68… donkey anecdote and criticism

Pragmatism vs. idealism – page 90.  Franklin was extremely pragmatic – his list of moral virtues, per social theorist David Brooks, were:

“not heroic virtues… they are practical and they are democratic.”  

Isaacson’s interpretation:

“Franklin’s focus was on traits that could help him succeed in this world, instead of ones that would exalt his soul for the hereafter.”  

Trait adaptivity and utility. To the latter:

A later quote from Franklin – “What signifies philosophy that does not apply to some use?”

Pg. 93 – Franklin was not “spiritually anxious”

Pg. 98, on originality –

“most of Poor Richard’s sayings were not, in fact, totally original, as Franklin freely admitted.  They ‘contained the wisdom of many ages and nations.’”  

cross-reference Charlie Munger and zero to one vs one to many.

Pgs. 102 – 103… tension between individualism and community, self-reliance and civic involvement

  1. 108 – Franklin rejected the (patently ridiculous) Calvinist predestination notions of his time –

“a virtuous heretic shall be saved before a wicked Christian”

  1. 121 – Franklin was (somewhat) progressive (re: views on women) for his time

Franklin seems like a bit of a populist (at least relative to the class-driven aristocracy of the time).  

Franklin retired at 42 (quite wealthy) to pursue other interests.


Pages 129 – 13X… cross-reference Leslie’s Curious

Franklin never became a great scientist because he was more focused on “how” than on “why” – a direct quote:

“nor is it much importance to us to know the manner in which nature executes her laws; it is enough if we know the laws themselves.  It is of real use to know that china left in the air unsupported will fall and break…”  

Perhaps he went a little too far with this line of thinking, but it’s related to complexity / emergence.  In any case, while his Franklin Stove was not as effective as is widely reported (the now-used version is much simpler), he did invent lightning rods.

  1. 147 Franklin on education (nice reference if anyone ever asks why I’m homeschooling my kids)

Franklin’s views on race evolved over time in response to experience.

In response to the threat of the French, Franklin supported a unification of the colonies… partially modeled off the Iroquois.  Given that they couldn’t agree to it internally, he pushed for support from the British. He helped create the concept of “federalism.”  The plan that was agreed upon by an assembly (later to be rejected by both the colonies and London) wasn’t exactly Franklin’s, but his decision calculus in being happy with it was:

“one is obliged sometimes to give up some smaller points in order to obtain greater.”

Opportunity costs and local vs. global optimization.

Isaacson recounts the fundraising Franklin did for the British army (which Franklin discusses in some detail in his autobiography), noting that Franklin foresaw the Indian raids that ultimately made the mission unsuccessful.  Franklin eventually abandoned his anti-dispute stance when the British and the Governor/Proprietor of Pennsylvania imposed taxes on citizens (but of course, not on themselves). He traveled to London and became increasingly outraged at the stance on the colonies.  (He also conducted some experiments on heat and evaporation.)

He was frequently generous (though not showily), one time taking care of a friend’s son after his death.

Isaacson on perspective and schema:

as a publishing magnate and then as a postmaster, [Franklin] was one of the few to view America as a whole.  To him, the colonies were not merely disparate entities. They were a new world with common interests and ideals.”

Franklin continued to be relatively tolerant and progressive (see p. 211 – 212) – when a mob went around murdering Indians, he published a number of spirited pamphlets defending the Indians… he believed individuals should not be punished for the crimes of others of their race.  


Franklin had a great sense of humor… but even he was not immune to mistakes and schema bottlenecks:

“his hatred of the Penns blinded him to the fact that most of his fellow Pennsylvanians hated taxes imposed from London more.”  (P. 223, discussing the stamp act.)

He did drink later in his life (both Madeira and beer), though seemingly not to excess.

Franklin was a reluctant revolutionary (he held out for a long time hoping for a solution that was peaceful – he was initially concerned by some of the mob acts like the Boston Tea Party) but he eventually ended up wholeheartedly in the “revolution” camp and was both intellectually (postmaster, currency, etc) and sometimes physically (an arduous trip to Quebec) involved in the effort.

Definitely a populist (proposed the discouragement of large holdings of property or concentrations of wealth), though this needs to be contextualized with the time period (most of the very wealthy were not self-made).

Franklin in France –

among Franklin’s cards was his fame, and he was among a long line of statesmen, from Richelieu to Metternich to Kissinger, to realize that with celebrity came cachet, and with that came influence.”

Combined power of idealism and realism…

Pages 372 – 373 – later in his life, he was no longer “early to bed and early to rise.” – perhaps no other Franklin aphorism has done more damage to society… but I’m talking my own book here 🙂  See sleep.

Negotiated peace w/ British… he was not suspicious enough, however (John Jay saw what the French were doing).  Maybe win-win doesn’t work in politics?

Benny Bache, Franklin’s grandson, describing Ben Franklin:

“very different from other old persons, for they are fretful and complaining and disasatisfied, and my grandpa is laughing and cheerful like a warm percen.”

Franklin’s beliefs on science and the utility thereof, per Isaacson:

“science should be pursued initially for pure fascination and curiosity, and then practical uses would eventually flow from what was discovered.”  

On balloons: while he saw no immediate purpose, he thought they might

“pave the way to some discoveries in natural philosophy of which at present we have no conception… important consequences that no one can foresee.”  

Another quote:

“what is the use of a newborn baby?”


“It does not seem to me a good reason to decline prosecuting a new experiment which apparently increases the power of man over matter until we can see to what use that power may be applied.  

When we have learned to manage it, we may hope some time or other to find uses for it, as men have done for magnetism or electricity, of which the first experiments were mere matters of amusement.”

Constitutional convention – a bit “doddering” by this time – but :

“More important than his specific ideas was his tone of moderation and conciliation.  His speech, with its openness to new ideas and absence of one-sided advocacy, provided time for tempers to cool, and his call for creative compromises had an effect.”  

On empathy and cognition vs. emotion.  See also “Getting to Yes” (GTY review + notes).


First Read: 2017

Last Read: 2017

Number of Times Read: 1

Planning to Read Again?: no


Review Date: 2017

Notes Date: 2017