Ben & Me: In Search of a Founder's Formula for a Long and Useful Life

Image of Ben & Me: In Search of a Founder's Formula for a Long and Useful Life
Release Date: 
June 11, 2024
Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by: 

“quick and quirky read . . .”

After George Washington, Benjamin Franklin may have been the most famous American colonist of his day. A true Renaissance man, Franklin was a scientist, writer, philosopher, and politician who was feted throughout the capitals of Europe. But he was a very complex man who was also estranged from his son and absent from his wife for most of his life.

In this unconventional volume, the author presents a combination of biography, travelogue, and his own personal journey in Franklin’s footsteps to try and give a more complete picture of Franklin and how his life offers lessons, both good and bad, for people today to live a what Franklin termed a balanced and fruitful life.

From a very young age, Ben Franklin was driven to improve both his personal life as well as his social and economic status. He was relentless (at least as a young man) in discerning those character traits and habits that would lead to virtue, as it was understood in the 18th century, and thereby lead a happy and productive life.

As the author travels those places in Boston, Philadelphia, and other locations associated with the events in Franklin’s life, he takes the reader into various museums and other institutions that were either inspired by Franklin or offer artifacts and stories of his life and accomplishments. While Franklin may not have always lived up to the 13 virtues he espoused, he certainly tried to apply them to his life and situation.

Franklin, like the author, was obsessed with books and writing. From the time he was a young boy to his jobs as a printer, to the success of his publication Poor Richard’s Almanack, one of the bestselling periodicals of the colonial era, Ben sharpened his wit and his pen throughout his life. This determination, wit, and sheer force of will made Franklin financially successful from a fairly young age as the quintessential self-made man. His ability to use wit and humor to either make a point or jab his opponent, often anonymously, would serve him well later in life.

Once Franklin achieved some success, he was devoted to giving back to the community, and the author lists many of the public institutions Franklin helped start in Philadelphia: one of the first libraries, volunteer fire departments, a hospital and clinic, among others, where he tried to mobilize his fellow citizens to contribute to the common good.

However, Franklin also had a temper and made plenty of enemies, especially in England in the early 1770s when he was a colonial agent. Franklin’s journey from loyal subject of the Crown to committed rebel was a journey filled with twists and turns. Although he had spent nearly 10 years in London as a colonial agent, meeting and discussing the affairs of the days with British gentry and members of Parliament, he always felt like he was looked down upon as a colonial bumpkin. When Franklin obtained and leaked private letters from a Royal Governor that disparaged the colonists, he was publicly humiliated and shunned by London society, turning him into an implacable foe of Parliament and the Crown. 

Franklin’s anger and resentment, which quickly turned to wholehearted support of the colonial cause created a long estrangement with his son William, then the royal governor of New Jersey.  When William was imprisoned as a Loyalist, Ben never intervened on his behalf and after his release, William did not speak with his father until after the war when Franklin was in Britain on behalf of the new United States.

All of Franklin’s charms, wit, and intellect made him the perfect envoy of the colonies to France in 1776, sent to gain an alliance and French material support to the American cause. The author provides a marvelous “checklist” of Franklin’s diplomatic “easy steps” to gain French support, a challenging task even after the American victory at Saratoga, and certainly a job that only someone with Franklin’s patience, wit, charm and determination could achieve.

Franklin ended his long career, and shortly his life, helping to launch America’s constitutional government by attending the Constitutional Convention, where he is famously quoted when asked by someone what kind of government was formed: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Throughout his life Benjamin Franklin constantly strove to improve himself, master self-control, and most of all live a useful and virtuous life. As the author reflects in this quick and quirky read, this is not a bad formula for modern Americans who are on a journey of self-discovery.