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Response to Review of Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of America’s Founding Father

Considering the glowing nature of Dr O’Donnell’s review, I hope that I won’t be thought churlish in making a few comments in response to it.  Actually at one point, I think that he gives me too much credit, with the second sentence of ‘Goodwin explains the development of imperial politics by examining Franklin’s association with the various ruling ministries and his personal connection to powerful figures. Goodwin implies these working relationships directed the course of the American Revolution’. Thus, although I heartily agree with that first sentence and believe that the evidence contradicts Bernard Bailyn’s statement in To Begin the World Anew that ‘the ruling aristocracy, the power brokers, and the leaders of high fashion had been beyond his [Franklin’s] reach’, I believe that the relationships were chiefly of consequence before the War of Independence and at its end, after the Earl of Shelburne was firstly Secretary of State and then Prime Minister.  

As to Dr O’Donnell’s other comments, I take on board that I give no clear explanation for why Governor Keith sent young Ben Franklin on a wild goose chase to London in 1724.  Unfortunately, no one knows why he did it and an explanation would have been based on mere speculation. However, perhaps I might have pointed that out. Yet there are a couple of other occasions where Dr O’Donnell feels that I omit ‘explanatory context’ for the actions of ‘major antagonists’ citing Penn (p. 55) and Hillsborough (p. 174); in these cases, I believe that my explanations succinctly explain motivation to the extent that I would be happy to refer readers to those same pages.   

But, in the context of the entire review, these are minor details and I am delighted that Dr O’Donnell feels that ‘the book would be useful for a student struggling to connect with 18th-century material’, that ‘the book introduces a broad cast of characters that a researcher can follow through the notes and bibliography’, and that ‘overall, it is a meticulous and engrossing book’.

Having passed judgment on the book, Dr O’Donnell, poses two extremely interesting questions, which can be summarised thus: 1. What are the strengths (and implicit weaknesses) of biography as a genre – specifically in relation to the Founding Fathers and even more particularly ‘because of the importance of his [Franklin’s] autobiography in the literary canon’; 2. ‘how representative is the story of Franklin and his transition to becoming American’.  

To which I can comment that certainly the titling and subtitling of Franklin biographies as ‘The First American’ and ‘The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin’ underlines the interest in the transition from Franklin the Briton (who in 1754 regarded ‘the colonies as so many counties gained to Great Britain’) to Franklin the American patriot of 1775 onwards. But I feel that there is a difficulty caused by the extent to which the ‘ideal American’ in the newly created United States was defined by an interpretation of Franklin’s autobiography as a vade mecum, even though at best the autobiography (taking us only up to 1758) can be regarded as an unbalanced life, which so underplays Franklin’s importance as a scientist that Joyce Chaplin, in her superb introduction to the autobiography’s 2012 W. W Norton edition, comments that: ‘It is as if Albert Einstein were now remembered for the charming stories of his childhood and youth, without any clear memory of what he had done to become so famous in the first place’. With such complications in mind, I personally suggest that modern biographies do not of necessity have to emphasise a ‘top down’ view of history, but rather can play an important role in demystifying and, indeed, in demythologising the Founding Fathers and in reconnecting them to the social and political milieu in which they actually lived their lives.