Franklin & Washington: The Founding Partnership
These days many historians would ask: Why another book about a well-known founding father, in this case a dual biography of Benjamin Franklin and George Washington? Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward J. Larson attempts to answer this question by stating that the exceptional leadership provided by his two famous subjects deserves a comparative investigation, based on the profound historical significance of their actions and accomplishments.
Theirs was a “historic collaboration,” states Larson, in bringing into being the new American republic. Further, exploring their life histories side by side will reveal how “each man became more understandable in light of the other.”
This latter statement represents the focus of this book’s purpose, as if a dual biographical analysis will reveal some new nuggets of information heretofore not found in traditional single biographical studies about either Washington or Franklin.
Unfortunately, the author does not come up with such nuggets. Rather, what readers will find is a standard, some might say superficial retelling of his two subjects’ lives, with occasional commentary about similarities and differences that don’t really offer any new insights.
Part of the author’s challenge is that Franklin and Washington rarely crossed each other’s paths. They did exchange letters, but not in any great volume, and the only time they spent significant time working together was during their close involvement in helping to produce the Constitution of 1787.
Ten chapters, not counting the preface and epilogue, generally focus on either Franklin or Washington. Clearly they were Revolutionary colleagues but not close or intimate friends. Clearly, too, as Larson points out, they thought differently on at least one key subject: the vexing problem of slavery. Readers might wonder about the author’s statement regarding how slavery “irreconcilably divided” them, but not enough to undermine their collaborative efforts in founding the new American republic. The author does not resolve this seeming inconsistency.
In terms of possible new insights about Franklin and Washington, the presentation does not offer much of anything. Franklin, the author insists, apparently did virtually all the heavy diplomatic lifting in Europe with little assistance from John Adams, John Jay, and key French officials. New interpretations would disagree with the Franklin-as-savior explanation.
As for Washington, in another example, to stress that he ultimately outgeneraled the British through persistence despite all but impossible odds, represents no breakthrough about this founder. In sum, these characterizations represent standard fare, despite the author’s assurance that his dual biographical effort has uncovered various new findings.
Inexplicable factual errors mar an otherwise readable text, one of the strangest of which has to do with the Quebec Act. Overall, the book conveys a rushed to press kind of feeling, based on the assumption that marketing claims of originality would assure a wide readership.
Back in 1790, John Adams wrote to Dr. Benjamin Rush that “the history of our Revolution will be one continued lie, . . . the essence of whole will be that Dr. Franklin’s electrical rod, smote the Earth and out sprang General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod—and thence forward these two conducted all the policy negotiations, legislation, and war.” (Quote modernized.)
No doubt many persons will enjoy reading this book. Still, whether the Revolution succeeded largely because of the occasional teamwork of Franklin and Washington remains unproven. Many other partnerships occurred that may have contributed just as much, if not more, to the Revolution’s success, especially with a virtual absence of new findings about Franklin and Washington in this study of their “founding partnership.”