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Book Takes New Look at  Benjamin Franklin - 2003-07-05

Americans celebrate Independence Day on July 4. It was on that day in 1776 that a group of colonial rebels declared America's independence from Britain. Among those who helped prepare the Declaration of Independence was Benjamin Franklin, the political activist who was also a diplomat, writer, publisher, inventor, scientist, and postmaster. His many callings and colorful personality have inspired a new biography called Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. The author is Walter Isaacson, a past managing editor of Time magazine and chairman of CNN who's now president of the Aspen Institute. In a recent interview, Mr. Isaacson told VOA's Nancy Beardsley why he wrote his book.

Walter Isaacson: "Ben Franklin is the most lovable, interesting and fascinating of our founders. And he also had the best instinctive feel for democracy. He was the shopkeeper, the tradesman among all the founders, the one who wasn't an elitist, who believed that respect for your fellow citizens was at the core of our democracy and that we could build a nation based on that."

Nancy Beardsley: "You also describe him as a practical rather than a profound thinker. How did that shape his outlook?"

Walter Isaacson: "I think he was very much a scientist. He was the greatest scientist of his time. He invented the lightening rod, the bifocal lens, the Franklin stove. But if you notice about all his inventions, they were very practical. He'd look at science and say what use is it. And he did the same thing in his politics. In some ways he was conservative, in some ways he was liberal, but he always looked for the most pragmatic outcome."

Nancy Beardsley: "You also write that possibly the most interesting thing about him was the way he reinvented himself throughout his life. In what sense?"

Walter Isaacson: "Even when he writes his autobiography, it was partly to be a self-help book for up and coming tradesmen, and it's partly to convince his son, who'd become very aristocratic, to keep in mind his humble origin and democratic sentiments, because his son was remaining loyal to Britain during the Revolution. And even when he goes over to France, he decides he's going to cast himself as the back woods philosopher. And he wears a fur cap and a leather coat, and pretends to be the natural man from the frontier, even though he was basically a city guy most of his life."

Nancy Beardsley: "Do you think the fact that he spent his early years in the printing business had effects on his career and outlook?"

Walter Isaacson: "First of all, being a printer made him tolerant of other peoples' opinions. He starts his newspaper and he writes an editorial and says, 'I'm going to have all sorts of voices in this paper.' So he becomes a very open and tolerant man who likes discourse by being a printer."

Nancy Beardsley: "You also describe him as a tireless traveler. How'd that affect his world view?"

Walter Isaacson: "He was the Founding Father who best understood all of the colonies, because as a postmaster he loved to travel up and down America. So when it came time to form a union, he was the one who was the most forceful in saying all the colonies ought to unite and they ought to stand together."

Nancy Beardsley: "And would you explain what role he played in the events leading up to July 4, 1776?"

Walter Isaacson: "[Thomas] Jefferson got to write the Declaration of Independence, and Franklin and [John] Adams were the two editors. And Franklin looked at the line, 'We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable,' and he crossed out the last three words and made it, 'We hold these truths to be 'self evident.' And he said, 'We don't just want this to be an assertion of religion. We want it to be an assertion of reason and rationality that we all have these rights.' So he helped create a very tolerant document in the Declaration of Independence."

Nancy Beardsley: "How did his foreign policy skills also shape the Revolution?"

Walter Isaacson: "He was able to convince France that it was in its national interest to be part of America's side in the Revolution, that it was a great balance of power game with Britain and the Netherlands and Spain. But more importantly he appealed to the French ideals. He said, 'We're a country trying to establish liberty and freedom and equality and justice,' and he became a proselytizer and preacher for America's idealism."

Nancy Beardsley: "He was a good dealer older than many of the other founding fathers. What role was he able to continue to play in America as a new nation?"

Walter Isaacson: "He was the sage during the Constitutional Convention. He was exactly twice as old as the average age of all the other members. He was turning 80. But the best thing he did was say it's important to compromise. Some of them wanted a government based on direct democracy. Others wanted it based on the states. And so Franklin said, 'Let's have a House and a Senate where the House will represent the people and the Senate will represent equal votes per state. And he knew that compromisers may not make great heroes, but compromisers do make great democracies."

Nancy Beardsley: "How have attitudes towards him varied down through American history?"

Walter Isaacson: "Well, during romantic eras people sometimes looked down on Benjamin Franklin because his values are sort of middle class. I think during the 1990s, we went through a whole bubble of a weird economy where the values of frugality and hard work and industry were not all that important. I think now we're getting back to those Main Street values of a Benjamin Franklin."

Nancy Beardsley: "And you suggest he's someone who would have been very much at home in the twenty first century. Why is that?"

Walter Isaacson: "I think if Ben Franklin plopped down today you'd probably show him your palm pilot or your cell phone and talk to him about a business plan for a new venture. He was very entrepreneurial. He loved technology. He loved information, and that's why he fits into our period."

Nancy Beardsley: "Walter Isaacson, thank you very much. Walter Isaacson is the author of Benjamin Franklin. An American Life.

Benjamin Franklin. An American Life was published by Simon and Schuster, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, New York 10020.