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"Everyone, Ben believed, had a need to communicate well. Over the years he developed and stuck to these writing rules.
"Good writing should be smooth, clear, and short, and the art of saying little in much must be avoided at all costs. In written discourse, every needless thing gives offense and must be eliminated...Had this always been done, many large and tiresome volumes would have shrunk into pamphlets, and many a pamphlet into a single period."
It seems like a stream of new Benjamin Franklin biographies make their appearance as steadily as the changing of the seasons. That perception has caused my building a healthy skepticism concerning the need for just one more. But Candace Fleming has taken Ben's writing rules to heart. Less is more in BEN FRANKLIN'S ALMANAC, Fleming's continually entertaining and enlightening collection of quotes, anecdotes, illustrations, American history, and other tasty tidbits (including the occasional fish story) that the author has harvested from original source materials.
Rather than assembling a typical chronological tome, Fleming has grouped this assortment of goodies into an eye-catching patchwork format that is clumped around eight themes: Boyhood Memories, The Family Album, The Writer's Journal, Tokens of a Well-Lived Life, The Scientist's Scrapbook, Revolutionary Memorabilia, Souvenirs from France, and Final Remembrances.
"All his life Ben tried to do what was right. His daily routine reminded him to put mankind's problems before his own.
"I rose at five each morning, and addressed Powerful Goodness [Ben's name for God] with the same question: What Good Shall I Do Today? I then studied and planned my day until eight, worked until twelve, dined and overlooked my account books until two, worked again until six when I had supper, music and conversation. At ten I examined my day. What Good Had I Done That Day?"
Not that he was perfect, or anything. As Ben noted, "With regards to places for things, papers, etc., I am a dismal failure." And as Fleming reveals, while his genius included his being credited for so many important inventions including bifocals, he nonetheless lacked the vision to see that women should be accorded the same opportunities and rights as men:
"When his young friend Polly Stevenson talked of devoting herself to studying philosophy, Ben was appalled. 'Knowledge may be useful,' he warned her, 'but there is nothing of equal dignity and importance than being a good daughter, a good wife, a good mother.' Ben wondered why women needed the 'full Pandora's box of knowledge' opened to them. Instead, he argued, women should be taught useful and functional skills--reading, writing, and accounting. This, he claimed, 'stood them in good stead to be active, helpful partners in their husband's business.' "
And, speaking of errors, "Ben once invited a group of friends to an 'electrical picnic.' He planned to kill a turkey by 'electrical shock,' then roast it with 'electrical fire.' Unfortunately, he became so engrossed in conversation he forgot to pay close attention to what he was doing. He touched two wires together and zap! Ben received the shock instead of the turkey. His body vibrated from head to toe, and smoke curled from one buckled shoe. Luckily, he escaped with just a few bruises and a sore chest."
Through the accumulated pieces of her collection, the author succinctly covers the well-trod life-of-Franklin: Ben's printing career, centered on his 26 years as writer and publisher of the annual Poor Richard's Almanack (the second-most read book in the Colonies), would by itself have insured Franklin's immortality. Then that aspect of his life was topped by the jaw-dropping string of inventions coupled with his instigation of public libraries, street lamps, quality postal service, and volunteer fire departments, which made him even more famous. And then, his involvement--the old guy with the fire in his belly--in producing the Declaration of Independence, followed by his pivotal role in the winning of the Revolution by persuading France to enter the fray when Washington's troops were on the verge of defeat, elevated Franklin to American sainthood. If that wasn't enough, he returned to America and (at 81 years old) helped formulate the Constitution.
But he STILL wasn't done!
"Saint" Ben had at one time been a slave owner. But while in England in the years preceding the Revolution, Franklin "found himself trying to defend America against charges of hypocrisy." He had freed his slaves, observed "firsthand 'the natural capacities of the black race,' " and then, after ratification of the Constitution, he petitioned Congress on the subject of slavery:
"Noting Congress had been created to 'promulgate the welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to the People of the United States,' he argued that this should be done 'without distinction of color,' since all people are created by the 'same Almighty Being, alike the objects of his care and equally designed for the enjoyment of happiness.' To tolerate less, Franklin argued, 'was to contradict the meaning of the Revolution.' "
If only Ben could have hung around for another decade in order to persuade the new nation of this argument, we might have had him to thank for the success of one more of his great ideas.
But thanks to the fine work of Candace Fleming, we at least have a thoroughly satisfying "true account of the good gentleman's life," as well as one more important piece of ammunition in my argument that a real love and understanding of American history will much more readily come from trade books of this caliber than from standardized textbooks.Ben Franklin's Almanac: Being a True Account of the Good Gentleman's Life Overview
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