Americanization of Benjamin Franklin Thesis
Americanization of Benjamin Franklin
In his book the Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, Wood (2004) demythifies the life of this Founding Father and shows how Franklin became the American icon he would become and how he came to support many of the ideas that would be embodied in the American Revolution.
The book is not a biography in the strict sense and is more interested in the development of Franklin’s thinking over time. Still, the book is divided into chronological sections that do follow the course of Franklin’s life, beginning with his life through his career as a printer, then into Franklin’s love for England and the British Empire up to the Stamp Act in 1765. Wood next develops the growing patriotism of Franklin lead-up to the Revolution, and his activities during the Revolution itself are identified as diplomatic missions. The last chapter leads to the title of the book as it is called “Becoming an American,” addressing Franklin’s reputation as it grew once the new nation was formed. In essence, all of the patriots of the time were Americanized in that they had been British subjects and were transformed along with the country when they won the war and created a new nation.
Franklin is seen in this book not as the first that people might imagine but as a man who was much more loyal to England than that and who came to accept the American cause only after a good deal of examination and consideration of events then unfolding. He was Americanized because he was slowly convinced that the American cause was more just for the colonies than British rule. Much of the adulation of Franklin derives from the publication of his autobiography some years after it was written. When the manuscript ended up with a man named Abel James, the latter wrote to Franklin, then in France, that the work “would be useful & entertaining not only to a few, but to millions” (p. 202). This is precisely what happened, of course, and the book continues to be an inspiration to readers to this day. At the time, James could tell Franklin that he knew of no other character so able to promote certain virtues and reach the young people of the time.
Of course, as Wood shows, Franklin was not a man defined only by the sorts of virtues he promoted in his autobiography, meaning the virtues of hard work and thrift, among others. Franklin’s more rakish side has log been known, though it tends to be ignored by many reading the Autobiography because Franklin does not write about that aspect of his life. That is not surprising given that he wrote the book in the first place to teach certain virtues to his son.
One of the reasons why Franklin shifted from a man not entirely convinced of the rightness of the anti-British sentiment he saw in the developing revolution to a committed revolutionist is noted by Wood as certain rumors and suspicions started that Franklin was perhaps even a spy, and Wood says Franklin’s need to counter this idea might account for his change in attitude (p. 156).
The shift Franklin made from a man dedicated to the alliance of England and America to a man who embraced the American cause has been a puzzle for historians for a long time, and Wood tries to provide some answers to the questions raised. He had entrusted his Autobiography and other papers to his when he had to go to France, but Galloway kept to the British side and fled to England, leaving the papers behind, which is how Abel acquired them. Other friends of like mind did much the same. Only Franklin from this group changed his view and adopted the American cause, in effect being Americanized.
Wood makes it clear that the choice was a difficult one for Franklin. He was loyal to England, and he would become fiercely loyal to America. The break with the one before the dedication to the other took a good deal of time as Franklin struggled with the change coming over him. His first sign of dissension with England came when he questioned the authority of Parliament in America. Franklin spent years in England and experienced a good deal of stress as his attitudes changed and as he felt less and less welcome in England.
Wood depicts Franklin’s life as a series of turning points at which he had to make a decision on what to make of his life after that. The final shift noted is the one to American patriot, and how Franklin arrived at his decision is in keeping with the way chose other shifts in his life.
The Franklin in this book is recognizable as the patriot and icon known to us today, but Wood also shows ore facets to the man’s character and offers more understanding of the nature of the man, not the symbol. Wood also places Franklin more in the society of the time, linking him to various people and showing how these people influenced him and how he influenced their actions as well. Wood’s picture of the time also shows the developments leading to the Revolutionary War as more complex than the usual picture of an overbearing British military presence seeking to tax the colonists more than was right and the colonists simply seeing Britain as a foreign presence to be expelled by a people seeking to govern themselves. The range of thought at the time was broader than that, and Franklin himself occupied several positions along the continuum of thought about what the future should be for the colonies. Wood shows some of the reasons why Franklin made the changes he made and how his shifts in thought were received by his contemporaries, contributing finally to the more persistent image of Franklin that we have to this day.
Wood, G.S. (2004). The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin. New York: Penguin Press.
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