Saturday, December 02, 2006

Book Review: "Not Your Usual Founding Father"

There is perhaps no man in America as suited to selecting a single volume's worth of Benjamin Franklin's works than Yale historian Edmund S. Morgan. The author of one of the best among the recent Franklin biographies (2002's Benjamin Franklin), Morgan has put his editorial and introductory skills to great purpose with Not Your Usual Founding Father, a fine (if at times idiosyncratic) collection of Franklin's writings that serve as a more-than-adequate introduction to the man or as a delightful complement to a good biography (like Morgan's own effort).

The volume includes some of the writings with which those who read Franklin are fairly familiar, but also some unexpected gems. It is well-measured proportionally to give a sense of Franklin's widely-varying interests and the many roles he took on throughout his long career. Morgan's introductory notes and commentary on each section are useful without being overly analytical (Gordon Wood's jacket-blurb labels them "sprightly and readable", a sentiment with which it is difficult to disagree).

Franklin's ability to distill an argument into a coherent and succinct but substantive form shows through remarkably in these selections, on everything from the treatment of American Indians ("Remarks Concerning the Savages of North-America", 52-57), religion and some of its attendant hypocrisies at the hand of man ("Letter to Joseph Huey", 61-63) and the rationale for America's struggle to free herself from the British yoke ("Letter to Admiral Lord Howe", 227-229).

Perhaps most impressive among these essays (not surprisingly, given that it's Franklin), are the satirical hit-pieces, which even today carry a wallop of irony that cannot go unappreciated. Protesting against the export of English felons to America, Franklin penned a 1751 letter to the editor in which he suggests that America could return the favor with a product of her own: rattlesnakes. Later, as the conflict between England and the colonies grew even more heated, he quoted liberally from Parliament's own acts in "An Edict by the King of Prussia," which lays bare all the outrageous actions taken by England which its people would surely like unconscionable if applied to themselves.

While Morgan is (as Franklin was) unduly harsh toward the erstwhile John Adams, and scarcely mentions Franklin's family affairs, his Autobiography, or his anti-slavery efforts near the end of his life, he has still drawn together a most useful and appropriate collection.