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A Suggested Bibliography


 

Compiled and critiqued by Christopher Lowell.

Books by Franklin:

The Autobiography – 2nd edition with an excellent foreword by Edmund Morgan, one of our most eminent Franklin scholars, who here adds much to this terrific and important autobiography. Regrettably, Franklin wrote of events up to 1757 only, (and he lived until 1790), but even so, this is an entertaining, witty, beautifully crafted memoir. Since Ben wrote only of events preceding his first major trip to England, one can consult…

The Compleated Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (2006) – Here, Columbia University professor Mark Skousen comprehensively arranges Ben’s own letters and other documents to “finish” the autobiography, taking it from 1757 where Ben left it, till his death in 1790. This isn’t Skousen’s whimsical fantasy; it is his meticulous assembling of Ben’s own words about those crucial years that saw our Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War, and the formation of our Constitution. Franklin wrote the words; Skousen arranged them. I loved it.

The Art of Virtue – This volume, edited by George Rogers et al., is a compilation of pieces Ben always wanted to write, and had formed plans to write, but never did.

An Apology for Printers – A delight. Reflections from our first and most important Printer! Franklin’s pride in being of the middle class, a “leather-apron,” comes through here.

The Four Key Biographies:

  • Carl Van Doren’s Benjamin Franklin (Viking Press: 1938) Very complete. This was the bio for years. It doesn’t read “old” at all.
  • H.W. Brands’ The First American (Doubleday: 2000) This Texas Tech history professor has written a detailed and eminently readable book. Very entertaining and easy to absorb. Brands often narrates PBS or History channel programs about Ben.
  • Gordon Wood’s The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin (Penguin Press: 2004) Professor Wood traces the evolution of Franklin from, in his view, middle class tradesman to aristocrat wannabe. Although I disagree with the premise, the book is superbly written and Wood roots Franklin in his times as well as anyone.
  • Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (Simon and Schuster: 2003) Widely acclaimed and on the NY Times Best-Seller List for many weeks. Isaacson is thorough without being the least bit tiresome, and takes the reader through the chronology of Franklin’s life in a most entertaining manner. Extensive footnotes include many useful and appropriate websites.
Particular Facets of Franklin’s Life:

For Franklin and science:
I.B. Cohen’s Benjamin Franklin’s Science (Harvard U. Press: 1996 – reprint) Here, I take an excerpt from Amazon.com’s description of this book: “I. Bernard Cohen, the principal elucidator of Franklin’s scientific work, examines his activities in fields ranging from heat to astronomy. He provides masterful accounts of the theoretical background of Franklin’s science (especially his study of Newton), the experiments he performed, and their influence throughout Europe as well as the United States. Cohen emphasizes that Franklin’s political and diplomatic career cannot be understood apart from his scientific activities.”

Joyce Chaplin’s The First Scientific American: Benjamin Franklin and the Pursuit of Genius (Basic Books: 2006) Here, Harvard professor Chaplin argues that science was not something the Franklin “did,” but lay at the very core of his intellectual life. With both the prolific I.B. Cohen and the insightful Joyce Chaplin, the reader has a detailed and balanced view of Franklin’s scientific life.

For Franklin in the London years:
Charles Morris’s Franklin of Philadelphia in London (Typophile monograph, unknown printer: 1971)

For Franklin in the Paris years:
Stacy Schiff’s, witty (though scholarly) A Great Improvisation: Ben Franklin, France, and the Birth of America (Henry Holt: 2005) is a great complement to David Schoenbrun’s earlier Triumph in Paris: The Exploits of Benjamin Franklin (Harper and Row: 1976)

For Franklin and the American Revolution:
J.A. Leo LeMay’s The Oldest Revolutionary (U of Penn. Press: 1976) places Franklin in the middle of the fray. Catherine Drinker Bowen’s The Most Dangerous Man in America (Little Brown & Co: 1974) is superbly written and riveting.

For Franklin and “the ladies,” particularly in the Paris years:
Claude-Anne Lopez’s Mon Cher Papa: Franklin and the Ladies of Paris (Yale U.Press: 1990) Claude-Anne Lopez was for many years the editor of the Franklin papers at Yale (now grown to over 40 volumes of 800 pages each) and writes in a charmingly conversational, relaxed style.

For Franklin and the Constitutional Convention of 1787:
Catherine Drinker-Bowen’s Miracle at Philadelphia (Little Brown & Co, and Book-of-the-Month-Club: 1986) is a readable, chronological account of this key moment in American history. Gordon S. Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic (U. of N.C. Press: 1969) is equally riveting and treats much more than just the Constitutional Convention, although his account of that meeting forms the core of the book.

For Franklin and slavery:
David Waldstreicher’s Runaway America: Ben Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution. (New York: 2004) Here, Temple University Professor Waldstreicher shows how ingrained into the fabric of the colonial economy were slaves and indentured servants. He highlights Franklin’s changing relationship to slavery with objectivity and thorough scholarship. See also, Adam Hochschild’s Bury the Chains (Houghton-Mifflin: 2005).

For background on the Revolutionary era:
Edmund Morgan’s The Birth of the Republic (3rd ed. U. of Chicago Press: 1992) is a great overview, matched only perhaps by Benson Bobrick’s Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution (Penguin: 1997), which reads like a novel you can’t put down. And David McCullough’s 1776 (Simon and Schuster: 2005) chronicles the first year’s struggle for our independence with a focus on the leadership of George Washington.

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