THE AMERICANIZATION OF BENJAMIN FRANKLIN

By Gordon S. Wood

Penguin Press. 299 pp. $25.95The shifts of fashion among America's educated classes are impossible to predict and often impossible to explain. How to account, for example, for the vogue recently enjoyed by that least charismatic of presidents, John Adams? Yes, David McCullough has many admirers, but sales of his Adams biography were wildly out of proportion to what anyone had expected. How, more recently, to account for the ongoing vogue for Benjamin Franklin? First a bestselling biography by the historian Edmund Morgan, then another by the journalist Walter Isaacson -- and now yet another, this by the most respected among all scholars of the colonial and Revolutionary periods, Gordon S. Wood.

Each of these three books has its interesting and admirable aspects, but what is perhaps most striking is that all three complement rather than supplant each other. Morgan's is essentially an interpretive study by someone who has spent much of his life examining Franklin's long career, Isaacson's is a full-dress biography written in a lively fashion, and Wood's relies heavily -- though never heavy-handedly -- on psychology. All three writers admire their subject virtually without reservation -- Wood alludes frequently to Franklin's "genius" -- yet each views him through a slightly different lens, giving the patient reader an exceptionally rich perspective on one of the most accomplished, complex and unpredictable Americans of his own time or any other.

Wood's biography, which does not pretend to be exhaustive or definitive, follows two broad lines of inquiry. The first, as its title makes clear, is Franklin's slow, difficult progress from ardent supporter of England and its empire to a complete reversal that left "no one . . . more committed to American independence than Franklin." The other is the powerful sensitivity to social stratification, traceable to his impoverished childhood and adolescence, that implanted in him "an anger with those who claimed an undeserved social superiority that would become an important spur to his ambition."

Anger is an emotion not commonly associated with Franklin. In American mythology he "seems to symbolize better than any other Founder the plain democracy of ordinary folk." As the Atlantic Monthly put it more than a century ago, he was and is "the personification of an optimistic shrewdness, a large, healthy nature, as of a young people gathering its strength and feeling its broadening power." In drawings and paintings he is often portrayed as jolly, as if he were our own home-grown Santa Claus.

As is usually the case with mythology, there is some truth to this, as Franklin did indeed take an essentially optimistic view of humanity and was affable and gregarious by temperament, but he was far too complicated to be chalked up as the avatar of joy. He was the 15th of his father's 17 children (by two wives) and, "in a hierarchical age that favored the firstborn son," at a disadvantage from the moment of his birth. Wood argues that the "bitterness" he felt about this lasted throughout his life and was a powerful motive behind his entrepreneurial and civic ambitions.

Franklin was also a commoner, the son of a candle and soap maker, at a time when the line between commoners and gentlemen was deep and wide: "This separation . . . , which John Adams called 'the most ancient and universal of all Divisions of People,' overwhelmed all other divisions in colonial culture, even that between free and enslaved that we today find so horribly conspicuous." Commoners worked, gentlemen were at leisure. Gentlemen prided themselves on their manners, their gentility, their "condescension," which now means "snobbery or haughtiness" but then was understood as "voluntary humiliation, that willing descent from superiority to equal terms with inferiors."

Franklin wanted to be a gentleman, first because he believed he was one by nature and second because achieving sufficient wealth would give him the freedom to pursue the other interests, scientific as well as civic, toward which he was drawn. His move from Boston to Philadelphia was the first step in that direction, and the success of his printing business was what made it possible. Wood is hard pressed to explain Franklin's marriage to the loud and crude Deborah Read, whom he does not seem to have loved and who was scarcely the adornment that an aspiring gentleman would want at his side ("She may in fact have become something of an embarrassment to him"), yet presumably she had her uses, and apparently she did not interfere with his upward march.

In these early and middle years of his adulthood, everything in Franklin turned him toward England. He "was a true-blue Englishman" who "had no thought that America should not be a part of England, at least as connected to England as Scotland was" and who cherished his vision of a "glorious English empire . . . made up only of Englishmen." When he finally got to London, he fell utterly in love with it and did not want to return to America; he was such a "thoroughgoing imperialist and royalist." He revered the Crown and thought it far wiser and more humane than Parliament, an opinion that Parliament did everything in its power to reinforce as it undertook one stupid, insulting colonial policy after another.

The stupidest and most damaging was the Stamp Act of 1765, which "seemed to Americans such a direct and unprecedented threat to their constitutional right not to be taxed without their consent that resistance was immediate, spontaneous, and widespread." Franklin, whose British loyalties were well known, initially was suspected of having had some role in getting the law enacted, so he reacted quickly to confirm his American sympathies. Eventually he played an influential role in Parliament's reluctant decision to repeal the act, but by then much of the damage was irreparable. Parliament continued to insist that it "had the right to legislate for the colonies 'in all cases whatsoever,' " a declaration of sovereignty that Franklin found intolerable and that hastened him along the road toward ardent support for the Revolution.

Before he got there Franklin tried hard to find common ground that would allow the empire to stand in all its glory and the American colonists to enjoy full constitutional rights, but pig-headed Parliament was having none of that: "Listening in Parliament. . . to the arrogant dismissals of Americans 'as the lowest of Mankind and almost of a different species from the English of Britain,' Franklin became more and more irate. . . . He was now convinced that the glorious empire to which he had devoted so much of his life was 'destroyed by the mangling hands of a few blundering ministers.' He felt his Americanness as never before. His emotional separation from England was now final and complete."

On March 20, 1775, he left England for the colonies, but he did not stay at home for long. The next year the new (and deeply troubled) American government sent him to France as a member of "a three-man commission to obtain arms and an alliance." The astonishing success of his mission requires no elaboration here: "Franklin was eventually able not only to bring the French monarchy into the war against Britain on behalf of the new republic of the United States but also to sustain the alliance for almost a half-dozen years." He also began his metamorphosis into the Franklin of myth:

"The French aristocrats were prepared for Franklin, and they contributed greatly to the process of his Americanization. They helped to create Franklin the symbolic American. In this sense Franklin as the representative American belonged to France before he belonged to America itself. Because the French had a need of the symbol before the Americans did, they first began to create the images of Franklin that we today are familiar with -- the Poor Richard moralist, the symbol of rustic democracy, and the simple backwoods philosopher."

That this image was nurtured into life by aristocratic, monarchist France is an irony almost too delicious to grasp, but of course the Franco-American connection has always been odd and contradictory. Think of Franklin's image, if you will, as first cousin to the Statue of Liberty -- another unlikely French gift to America, but a gift all the same, and one that we still treasure. *

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.