Benjamin Franklin

Edmund S. Morgan

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A New York Times Bestseller, a 2003 National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, and a Washington Post Book World, Publisher’s Weekly, and Los Angeles Times Book Review Best Book of the Year
“Superb. . . . The best short biography of Franklin ever written.”—Gordon Wood, New York Review of Books
“None rivals Morgan’s study for its grasp of Franklin’s character.”—Joseph J. Ellis, London Review of Books
Benjamin Franklin is perhaps the most remarkable figure in American history: the greatest statesman of his age, he played a pivotal role in the formation of the American republic. He was also a pioneering scientist, a bestselling author, the country’s first postmaster general, a printer, a bon vivant, a diplomat, a ladies’ man, and a moralist—and the most prominent celebrity of the eighteenth century.

Franklin was, however, a man of vast contradictions, as Edmund Morgan demonstrates in this brilliant biography. A reluctant revolutionary, Franklin had desperately wished to preserve the British Empire, and he mourned the break even as he led the fight for American independence. Despite his passion for science, Franklin viewed his groundbreaking experiments as secondary to his civic duties. And although he helped to draft both the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution, he had personally hoped that the new American government would take a different shape. Unraveling the enigma of Franklin’s character, Morgan shows that he was the rare individual who consistently placed the public interest before his own desires.

Written by one of our greatest historians and a Pulitzer Prize winner, Benjamin Franklin offers a provocative portrait of America’s most extraordinary patriot.

Edmund S. Morgan (1916–2013) was Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University. He wrote more than a dozen books including Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America, which won the Bancroft Prize, and American Slavery, American Freedom, which won the Francis Parkman Prize and the Albert J. Beveridge Award. Cited as “one of America’s most distinguished historians,” Morgan was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2000; in 2006, he received a special Pulitzer Prize "for a creative and deeply influential body of work as an American historian that spans the last half century."

A main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club and an alternate selection of the History Book Club and the Military Book Club

“Superb. . . . The best short biography of Franklin ever written. . . . [A] concise and beautifully written portrait of an American hero.”—Gordon Wood, New York Review of Books

“A wise and brilliant study.”—Robert Middlekauff, University of California, Berkeley

"Compelling, instructional and, on occasion, inspiring. . . . It is obvious that Morgan has done his homework and that he has written this book as Franklin would have wanted it written: brief, to the point and ultimately, telling."—Blue Ridge Business Journal (Roanoke, VA) 

"Edmund Morgan is arguably the finest living American historian."—Books & Culture

"So much has been written about Benjamin Franklin in the 212 years since his death that you might imagine there’s nothing left to say. But there always is. Now comes another biography of the man, a fairly short one, and in my opinion it’s one of the best."—Max Hall, Boston Globe

“In the latest biography of the great man, which last summer topped the New York Times bestseller list, Edmund Morgan paints a fascinating portrait of a true titan, a hugely energetic figure whose life influenced countless other lives and touched every part of his century.”—Paula Adamick, Canada Post

"For those who want an entertaining, witty, succinct, and well-rounded account that captures Franklin’s essential character, look no further than Morgan. . . . Morgan’s biography is a book well worth reading."—Mark G. Spencer, Canadian Review of Books

"An elegant intellectual biography of a man who made a tremendous mark on America."—Polly Paddock, Charlotte Observer

"Benjamin Franklin, himself a prolific writer of exceptional grace and vigor, would surely be delighted with Edmund S. Morgan’s sparkling biography. . . . The book . . . is a joy to read. Like a brisk, sprightly conversation, it is spiced with perceptive observations and wit that Franklin would have relished."—Dudley R. Herschbach, Chemical & Engineering News

"Morgan . . . packs a lot of meat into this relatively short biography. . . . But you will be hard pressed to find a better introduction to a great man."—Dolores and Roger Flaherty, Chicago Sun-Times

“A luminous biography.”—Louis P. Masur, Chicago Tribune Book Review

"An essential work for anyone with an interest in Franklin, the American Revolution, or the art of biography."—Choice

"Morgan’s history is a sorely needed, brief, modern biography."—Tony Williams, Columbus (OH) Dispatch

"[Morgan] give[s] a feeling of closeness to a man whose primary goal was to be useful. Few, if any, have been as useful to America."—Bob Trimble, Dallas Morning News

"Splendid. . . . One of the most appealing facets of the book is its strong but down-to-earth narrative style. Morgan writes in a reader-friendly conversational manner that eludes most scholars."—Dennis Lythgoe, Deseret News

"Morgan, one of the greatest living authorities on colonial America, has written a concise, excellent, and eminently readable biography. . . . Morgan has written a book very much like its hero: so fluent, so engaging, and so self-effacing that one only gradually realizes its true breadth and scope. . . . In conveying to modern readers the natural geniality of Franklin’s character, Morgan succeeds also in casting new light on the social atmosphere and political ideas of the emerging American nation."—Walter Russell Mead, Foreign Affairs

"A quiet, wise and revealing perspective on that man many of us thought we knew well."—Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, VA)

"Whatever the extent of the reader’s familiarity with Franklin, one can turn to Edmund S. Morgan’s recently published shorter biography."—Matthew Stevenson, Harper’s Magazine

“Morgan does a superb job of treating Franklin’s role as a revolutionary and founding father. . . . A fine piece of historical writing by a distinguished historian. . . . Highly recommended and a must-read for Franklin enthusiasts.”—David T. Morgan, Historian

"An admirable effort. . . . [A] tight, focused book. Morgan helps us see a truly great man who throughout his life shouldered the ’responsibility of usefulness.’"—Lee Cearnal, Houston Chronicle

"[Morgan] has used the voluminous writings left by Franklin to create a compelling picture of the great American polymath. . . . Morgan presents Franklin as Franklin would himself like to have been presented. . . . Morgan does capture much of the essence of Franklin and shows why alone of colonial Americans he still captures our attention."—Trevor Burnard, Journal of American Studies

“Morgan’s account is based almost exclusively on its subject’s massive collection of writings, but Franklin was diversified enough to satisfy most readers. An excellent portrayal of a patriot’s style and substance.”—Kirkus Reviews

"The best short biography of Franklin ever written. He is ideally suited to the task. . . . The first biography whose author can claim to have read virtually everything ever written by or to Franklin. Without denying Franklin’s flaws, Morgan expresses affection and admiration for his subject throughout. . . . A well-written, thoughtful appreciation of one of the Founding Fathers who did the most to shape his era and our own. Highly recommended for all public libraries."—Library Journal (starred review)

"Morgan . . . has produced a book that crowns his career. While several previous biographies provide fuller accounts of Franklin’s life, none rivals Morgan’s study for its grasp of Franklin’s character, its affinity not just for his ideas, but for the way his mind worked."—Joseph J. Ellis, London Review of Books

“This year publishers are flooding bookstores with works lamenting how U.S. political and business leaders of the 1990s lost sight of the ideals on which the United States was founded. One new book, however, rises above the wistfulness and recreates that original vision. [This book] breathes new life into core American values.”—Los Angeles Times

"For an introduction to the mind of Franklin—one of the most inquisitive, productive and engaging minds of his or any other day—readers can’t do better than this incisive volume."—H.W. Brands, Los Angeles Times Book Review

"Morgan’s broad humanism, gentle wit, and continuing curiosity all mirror those of his subject. As with Benjamin Franklin, we are unlikely to see his like again."—Marc Arkin, New Criterion

“It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to find fault with this book.”—Carol Berkin, New England Quarterly

"By clearing out the underbrush obscuring one of the truly great American lives, Mr. Morgan helps us to see again the many ways in which Ben Franklin’s life still shapes our own."—Ted Widmer, New York Observer

"[Morgan’s] biography of Benjamin Franklin offers an excellent introduction to a man who would be remembered had there been no Revolution but whose contribution to American independence was perhaps greater than any other."—H. A. Scott Trask, American Conservative

"In this engaging and readable book, Edmund S. Morgan . . . does more than recount the colorful and gripping story of Franklin’s long, action- and idea-filled life; he also skillfully dissects the man’s personality and mind, his social self and political beliefs, deftly exploring in Benjamin Franklin how the two halves of his being lived together, not always in harmony. . . . Illuminating."—Susan Dunn, New York Times Book Review

"An eminent historian portrays Franklin as a magnetic extrovert who channeled his sociability and extraordinary curiosity into a life of commitment to the Philadelphia community and the young nation. This ’engaging and readable’ book ’skillfully dissects the man’s personality and mind, his social self and political beliefs, deftly exploring . . . how the two halves of his being lived together,’ Susan Dunn wrote in these pages in 2002."—New York Times Book Review (New & Noteworthy Paperbacks)

"Short, loving."—Adam Gopnik, New Yorker

"Excellent. . . . Sublime. . . . [An] illuminating portrait of a quintessential, and perennially contemporary, American spirit."—Malcolm Jones, Newsweek

"If anyone can rescue Franklin. . . it’s Morgan, combining a life steeped in relevant sources, an affection barely short of adoration for his subject, and spry octogenarian energy for combing the massive Franklin papers still being organized and published in some 46 volumes at Princeton. . . . Confronting this historical challenge, in which one of the world’s most complex intellectuals and ’universal geniuses’ has come to seem less a public figure than a public building, easily viewable from all sides, Morgan chooses exactly the right strategy. . . . Morgan’s achievement here is not to surprise us with the new, but gracefully to remind us of the true."—Carlin Romano, Philadelphia Inquirer

"[A] brief, elegant biography of one of America’s most complicated and intriguing (in several senses of the word) founders, written by one of America’s most thoughtful and human historians. A pleasure to read."—Luther Spoehr, Providence Sunday Journal

“This wonderful biography of an extraordinary man results from a perfect marriage of subject and scholar. . . . Morgan proves himself still at the height of his powers. . . . The author probably comes as close to understanding him as anyone can. . . . It’s hard to imagine a better life study of a man we’ve all heard about but who is barely known.”—Publishers Weekly

"Thanks to Morgan’s amiable biography, chock-full of well-drawn anecdotes, we meet Franklin and track his love of the British Empire and his eventual disillusionment, identifying the movement when Franklin could no longer dampen the friction between Parliament and the colonists and turned instead to fanning the flames of revolution."—Salt Lake City Tribune

"What Morgan has done, and it is not mean achievement, is to explain what Franklin tried to do in public service, and how well he did it. . . . [A] graceful tribute."—David L. Beck, San Jose-Mercury News

"In telling this story, the author creates a vivid narrative, an adventure story of sorts, which grabs readers with the tale of his subject’s part in the political developments of 18th-century America. Yet, the author never loses sight of the importance of the other aspects of the man’s personality and the thoughts and actions of others toward him. This is the key to this biography’s success: it engages readers’ interest in the great drama of this fascinating man’s life. Teens may well begin here, and have material enough, but this fascinating introduction could entice them to look further."—School Library Journal

"Can the life of someone as eminent as Benjamin Franklin really be described in a book of a little more than 300 pages of text? Remarkably . . . Edmund Morgan . . . has done just that. In his very down-to-Earth, folksy style, he shows us many facets of this fascinating man. . . . Readers will feel that they know Benjamin Franklin after the short time it takes to read this book."—Mark F. Lewis, Tampa Tribune

“Writing with exemplary lucidity, Morgan emphasises Franklin’s omnivorous curiosity and devotion to public usefulness, showing how they connect his activities as printer, journalist, postmaster, soldier, scientist, inventor, entrepreneur, politician, diplomat and author.”—The Guardian (UK)

"Edmund S. Morgan is one of our finest historians, and he brings his skill and knowledge to a thoughtful and well-written biography of a great man."—Josephine Pacheco, Key Reporter (Phi Beta Kappa)

"Morgan represents the best of the Ivy League tradition of master historians who gave intellectual weight to American nationalism."—Alan Taylor, New Republic

"Morgan. . . weaves a spellbinding account. . .. . [A] beautifully written book. . . . Ultimately, Edmund Morgan convinces us that Franklin’s decades of service to his fellow Americans defined this extraordinary man. We come away from this superb book admiring Franklin in a new, more profound way."—Thomas Fleming, New York Sun

"Provocative. . . . [Morgan] writes with an awe and warmth rarely encountered outside grade school primers. . . . Morgan’s book is more than a deeply informed celebration. It is also an argument for seeing Franklin anew-not as an exemplar of individualism but as the embodiment of democracy. . . . Morgan allows us to see Franklin in a new light: not just as a great man but as a man of the people. He shows us an individual who inhabited that rare space where personal achievement and the public good merge, a man who gave us useful inventions and sparkling witticisms, a new nation and an ageless hero."—J. Peder Zane, News & Observer (Raleigh, NC)

“No one has ever caught Franklin—his inexhaustible energy, his insatiable curiosity, his scientific temper—more exactly or more endearingly. . . . Morgan traces Franklin’s early life, economic rise, and scientific accomplishment with deft insight, but his emphasis is on Franklin’s later life, where his unsurpassed knowledge of the era of the American Revolution enables him to place Franklin’s activities—political, literary, diplomatic, military, and amorous—in appropriately encompassing contexts. Bon mots abound. Tour de force succeeds tour de force. . . . As vivid an account as we will ever have of what Franklin was up against and what he achieved. And the whole is even more than the sum of its marvelous parts.”—Michael Zuckerman, Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography

"Morgan’s concise biography reminds us of who he was and—importantly—who he wasn’t. . . . Morgan’s book . . . is a quiet, wise and revealing perspective on that man many of us thought we knew well."—William W. Starr, The State (Columbia, SC)

"Franklin’s achievements plus Morgan’s narrative gifts make this a welcome addition to the growing list of Franklin biographies."—Nan Goldberg, Sunday Star-Ledger

"[An] excellent portrait . . . by the distinguished Yale historian Edmund Morgan."—Jay Tolson, U.S. News and World Report

“Entrancing. . . . Lucid [and] entertaining.”—Charles M. Carberry, USA Today

"Morgan’s book, a shortish biography or longish biographical essay, has been on all the important U.S. bestseller lists . . . since its appearance a few months ago. This is hardly a common occurrence for a work by an honoured academic historian published by one of the great university presses. It’s well worth taking a look to see what manner of person Franklin was and how Morgan perceives him. . . . Morgan’s style is fluent and conversational without being slick or glib. He writes with enthusiasm and with the discipline of someone who commands far more detail and context than he has allowed himself space to impart. The result is a pleasant and informative book."—George Fetherling, Vancouver Sun

"The distinguished historian Edmund S. Morgan . . .distill[s] the singularly eventful life of. . . Franklin. . . [to] give the great man, in every important sense, his due. . . . Morgan carefully documents and elucidates with scarcely a wasted word."—Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post Book World

"A superb introduction to Franklin’s wide-ranging intellect, shrewdness, common-sense, good will, and his ’innate affinity for people of all kinds.’"—William F. Gavin, Washington Times

"The author succeeds in pulling together a cohesive story about one of the nation's greatest people. . . . The book is both an enjoyable and highly informative read." —Lynne M. Gilli, Workforce Education Forum

“This best-selling biography has been praised for its accessibility and the author’s almost exclusive reliance upon Franklin’s own writing as his source. Morgan, in working on Yale’s monumental Papers of Benjamin Franklin, has studied virtually everything ever written by Franklin and is said to be one of few to have actually read everything written by Franklin, twice.”—American History

Won a 2003 Lifetime Achievement Award from The English-Speaking Union of the United States

"A model biography: pithy, wise, and — despite its brevity — complete. Franklin emerges as a quintessential hero of his time, and ours."—Newsweek, "Fifty Books That Make Sense of Our Times"

Edmund S. Morgan, honored for what 2006 Pulitzer officials described as “his creative and deeply influential body of work as an American historian that spans the last half century.”

Selected by Choice Magazine as an Outstanding Academic Title for 2003

Named one of the best books of 2002 by Los Angeles Times Book Review

Named a Best Book of 2002—Salt Lake City Tribune

Chosen as a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times Book Review

Chosen as a best book for 2002 by the Washington Post Book World

Chosen as a best book for 2002 by Publishers Weekly

A finalist for the 2003 National Book Critics Circle Award in biography

A New York Times Bestseller

Won a 2003 Lifetime Achievement Award from The English-Speaking Union of the United States

Winner of the 2002 Colonial Dames of America Annual Book Award
ISBN: 9780300101621
Publication Date: August 11, 2003
352 pages, 5 x 7 3/4
24 b/w illus.
Not Your Usual Founding Father

Selected Readings from Benjamin Franklin

Edited by Edmund S. Morgan

View details