- Appreciating Benjamin Franklin
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016
New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016
Gahanna: Kolbe and Fanning, 2015
Scholarship on Franklin has moved well beyond the compendious biographical model, designed partly to mark the three hundredth anniversary of Franklin’s birth in 1706, into more discretely special studies of areas of his life.1 From the 1930s through the 1990s, Franklin scholarship experienced a nationalist tendency, and the character school of interpretation made of Franklin an exemplary American, so that the character of the man was fashioned into the values of the nation (see Mulford, “Figuring Benjamin Franklin”). Rebuttals to such approaches emerged as well, especially during the 1990s, when character assassination seemed to be the main goal (see, e.g., Jennings; D. Morgan; Waldstreicher). For now it seems we have reached a place in Franklin scholarship that enables us to view the life and writings with new and more focused lenses. More recent scholarly studies have featured analyses of Franklin’s Atlantic world environmental, economic, and imperial theory, his impact in the history of science and [End Page 729] medicine, and his mathematical genius, among other things.2 The study of moments in Franklin’s life or material evidence of his many creations are possible, because the life has been so well documented and the pro–American nationalist model has been fully limned and critiqued.
It comes as no surprise, then, to find the three volumes under review being published at roughly the same time. All three volumes retain an eye on scholarly work while presenting their findings for general readers. George Goodwin presents a lively account of Franklin’s activities in his London stays, particularly within the Stevenson household. Corey Mead composes a narrative about the glass armonica that features Franklin’s role in developing the instrument and then moves on to discuss the changing attitudes toward the instrument across time. Richard Margolis pursues the material evidence arising from Franklin’s success in France by exploring in rich detail Franklin’s life at Passy and the lives and works of the craftsmen whose designs of Franklin’s image have circulated around the globe. Of the three, the Margolis volume is the most original: it is a thoroughly readable and original scholarly study, featuring Margolis’s immense research in archival and material evidence that has never before been collected and presented in a single volume.
The three books under review express appreciation of Franklin in all the multiple meanings of the word appreciation.3 Goodwin, Mead, and Margolis all recognize the quality and excellence of dimensions of Franklin’s life and activities. They grasp the significance of Franklin’s accomplishments. And they, in a sense, assist readers in placing values on material elements that have come down across the centuries, whether we are speaking of the Franklin House in London, the glass armonica that fell into disuse but has been rediscovered and offered by a current manufacturer, or the artful terra cotta and metal medallions that circulated Franklin’s image in Britain, Europe, and America.
Franklin lived in London during three different periods in his life. His first trip to London was in 1724, when he was still, relatively speaking, a youth. For about a year and a half he furthered his knowledge and skills in the printing trade. He returned to Philadelphia and went to work as a printer, became involved in the local political scene, and matured. After Peter Collinson, a Fellow of London’s Royal Society, sent Franklin some equipment and publications related to electrical experiments taking place [End Page 730] in Britain and Europe, Franklin was hooked. He devised his own experiments and sent back to Collinson several letters reporting on his findings.
At the same time, Franklin became embroiled in Pennsylvania politics to the extent that he seemed the best person to represent the Pennsylvania Assembly in its tax claims against...