Book: The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin
Gordon S. Wood
Tuesday, June 1, 2004; 11:00 AM
In his newest book, "The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin," author and Brown University professor Gordon S. Wood delves into Franklin as founding father, American folk hero and reluctant revolutionary.
Wood was online to discuss his new book, Franklin's life and image.
Wood is author of both "The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787" and "The Radicalism of the American Revolution," which won the Pulitzer Prize.
The transcript follows.
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Gordon S. Wood: I am glad to be here and eager to answer any questions about the Franklin book or anything having to do with the Revolution or the founding of the United States.
How do you think religious differences affected Benjamin Franklin as opposed to other revolutionary leaders? There have been scholars who have placed great emphasis on the Quaker background of Franklin and Philadelphia in general as opposed to the more activist Protestantism found in Boston. Do you have thoughts on how religious differences affected Franklin and his cohorts?
Gordon S. Wood: Franklin was not a Quaker but he lived a good part of his life in the Quaker dominated city of Philadelphia. I think Franklin found the great diversity of religions to lead him to believe that no one of them was all-important. He was no an emotionally religious man. He valued religion for its usefulness in keeping moral.
Would you characterize Franklin as a reluctant revolutionary? The man did seem to take his time coming around to the cause of independence.
Gordon S. Wood: I would think he was a reluctant revolutionary. He admired the a British Empire and strove right up to the end to hold it together. He came to the revolution late but because he was humiliated by the British government at the end, he came to the revolution with a vengeance.
What are your thoughts on Walter Isaacson's current bestseller on Franklin? Are there any points or theories Isaacson makes that you take exception with? How do your books differ?
Gordon S. Wood: I reviewed Issacson's book in the New York review of books and like it very much. His is different than mine - he covers all the events of Franklins life. Because Issacson is not a historian of the 18th century his contextual knowledge is not as full as it ought to be, but it is a good book.
His book is much more of a celebration of Franklin. His book has more things omitted than included that I would quarrel with.
Chevy Chase, Md.:
By my count (perhaps incomplete?), there have now been 4 biographies of Franklin in the last 3-1/2 years (Brands, Morgan, Isaacson, Wood). Is this a coincidence, or something else at work (e.g., F's papers now more complete, more interest in what is "American" in age of globalization, multilateralism, troubled international times)?
Gordon S. Wood: It could be all of those, but I think it has to do with the 200 anniversary of Franklin's book in 2006.
I am sorry I haven't read your book yet, however I probably will. My question is what did Franklin do during his thirties? He did so much during his life, however I am unsure of how he spent his thirties.
Gordon S. Wood: He spent his thirties making lots of money as a printer and entrepreneur in Philadelphia. He became one of the wealthiest northern colonists.
Grand Rapids, Mich.:
I remember reading that Benjamin Franklin had illegitimate children. Did this have an impact on his career? Did any of the women with whom he had affairs, have an impact on his thinking?
Gordon S. Wood: He has one illegitimate son, as far as we know, his son William, who became royal governor of New Jersey. He was close to his son until the revolution when his son remained a loyalist - and Franklin never forgave him. He may have had relationships with his surrogate family in London - Mrs. Stevenson. 1757-1775 he spent all but two years in London, with two years 1762-1764 back in Philadelphia, with a widow Mrs. Stevens and her daughter. What relationship they had we do not know, but he was obviously not with his wife that time while a man still quite vigorous - in his 50s and 60s.
Your name was mentioned in the 1997 film Good will Hunting. Was it flattering? The life of a historian would seem pretty obscure otherwise. Good luck with the book.
Gordon S. Wood: That was my two seconds of fame.
Even as an evangelical Christian, I am often troubled by assertions that "the founding fathers were godly Christian men". Some undoubtedly were, but it seems to have been a pretty religiously diverse crowd. What were Franklin's religious sensibilities, and where did he figure into the debates as to church/state, etc?
Gordon S. Wood: He was no an emotionally religious person, though a believer in God. He had great doubts about the divinity of Christ. He believed much more in the usefulness of religion than the transidental truth.
Mr. Wood --
In addition to your excellent book, here at the Fairfax County Public Library, we offer more than 20 adult titles on Franklin. We are curious what are other good books we could recommend to interested readers as good studies of his life and times.
-Fairfax County Public Library
Gordon S. Wood: I would recommended Carl Van Doren's biography written in 1938 as well as Walter Isaacson's written in 2003. Edmond Morgan wrote a good short biography.
Has anyone ever estimated Franklin's IQ? It must have been well over 140, as what he accomplished seems astonishing, in view of all the fun he liked to have. How did this man fit so much into a day?
Gordon S. Wood: I don't think anyone has measured his IQ, but he certainly was extraordinarily smart. How he did everything in a day is hard to know. He may not have slept very much. His curiosity is what is most impressive.
Do you think students today know as much as they should about the American Revolution in general and about the Founding Fathers particularly? The more I study that period the more astounded I am that it worked, actually, and that it gave birth to the country we have today.
Gordon S. Wood: Well, from the polls I have read many students don't know about he founding era. I read that more students know who the three stooges are than the three parts of American government, so I think students need more knowledge.
I recall one author (naturally, I can't remember the name) who said there is evidence in UK archives that Franklin was a paid British agent at some time during the revolutionary period. Is there any evidence of this?
Gordon S. Wood: Actually an historian has written a book suggesting that Franklin was a British agent, but there is no convincing evidence that he was.
Hello Prof. Wood,
It's an honor to write to you directly. My question is about the portrayal of Franklin in David McCullough's biography of John Adams. I was surprised to read in Mr. McCullough's book that Franklin was something of a lazy, womanizing gladhander in France when he and Adams were there together. Was he as unproductive as all that or does he just look bad in comparison to John Adams?
Gordon S. Wood: Well there is no doubt that Adams was a hard worker, but diplomacy is not based on getting up early in the morning and working hard, it is based on personal relationships and Franklin had that with the Chief Minister of France. If the relationship between American and France had been left to John Adams we might never had won the revolution.
Are you familiar with a historian down in Georgia named John Ferling? I do a lot of reading about the revolutionary war and the birth of this nation and he wrote what I think is the best book about the topic--A Leap in the Dark--yet I have never otherwise heard of the man. Have you ever read any of his works?
Gordon S. Wood: Yes, Ferling is an excellent historian and I know him. He has about three or four works on different characters. He has a new book coming out on the election of 1800.
Chevy Chase, Md.:
Edmund Morgan, now 88, will be answering questions about his Franklin biography at my college reunion this Friday. If YOU had one question to ask him about the book (and he didn't know it was you), what would you ask?
Gordon S. Wood: That is a good question. Morgan's biography is a celebration of Franklin and his written almost exclusively from Franklin's' point of view. You might ask Proffessor Morgan, if he had written the biography from John Adam's point of view would the biography had been different.
What are you working on next?
Gordon S. Wood: I am working on the Oxford History of the United States in the Early republic 1789 -1815.
What influence did Thomas Paine have on the revolution. I am reading 46 pages (?) and wondering if the author isn't being somewhat overblown.
Gordon S. Wood: Paine was the first modern intellectual in American history - that is to say he lived solely by his pen - and his pamphlet Common Sense voiced what many were feeling in 1776 and was a major call for independence. Paine was the voice put into clear words what many were feeling.
Gordon S. Wood: I will be in Washington, D.C. at Olsson's Book's (Landsburgh) at 7 p.m. on Thursday.
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