- The Washington Times - Monday, February 15, 2010



By J.A. Leo Lemay University of Pennsylvania Press, $45

746 pages Reviewed by James Srodes

When J.A. Leo Lemay died in the autumn of 2008 at the age of 73, there was a deserved outpouring of sadness from the American history community over the loss of a genuinely generous friend and an important figure among those who labor on the canon of our national heritage.

Lemay was and arguably remains the leading expert on the long and complex life of Benjamin Franklin, or, as he called Franklin, “our oldest revolutionary.” Not only was Lemay the most thorough explorer into the myriad facets of Franklin’s character and occupations, but he was by far the most eloquent teller of the story of 18th-century America as it evolved from a wilderness society into a beacon of light for other nations.

This is not so surprising because Lemay, like that other great Franklin biographer of 60 years ago, Carl Van Doren, taught English rather than history. He knew how to make the flat facts of the past resonate in the here and now. That is why the publication late last year of the third volume of Lemay’s projected seven-volume “Life of Benjamin Franklin” is cause for both celebration and concern.

Like the two preceding books that begin the Franklin story with his birth in 1706 to the sprawling family of a Boston soap maker, this third installment tracks his personal story against a fascinating backdrop of the emergence of a distinct American identity, the development of a single people out of a polyglot mass of new arrivals from other cultures. This volume covers an exciting period that sees Franklin grow from promising Colonial printer and striver into a rising leader in the second-biggest city, next to London, in the British Empire and an international figure in the new science of electrical physics.

The thing is, when times are as fraught and uncertain as they are right now, history has even more important lessons for us than ever. And the way Lemay tells it, the period from 1748 through 1757 has a special echo for today’s reader.

This part of Franklin’s life shows how critical solid leadership is when a community faces both external threats to its existence and internal conflicts brought on by cultural change. Change one can believe in was something Franklin knew about.

The period from the Glorious Revolution in Britain in 1689 through the battle of Waterloo in 1815 has rightly been called the Second Hundred Years War. Despite being on the farthest frontier of the known civilized world, the settlers struggling in North America felt constantly threatened by the never-ending conflicts that embroiled England with shifting alliances among the great European powers as they scrapped over old Continental boundaries and new colonies around the world.

Against that reality of constant threat, the period between 1748 and 1757 was a dramatic time of change for Pennsylvania as a society and for Franklin the man. As Lemay sets the scene:

“At the beginning of 1748, Franklin was known in Pennsylvania as clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly and in the Middle Colonies as the printer and editor of Poor Richard’s Almanac and the Pennsylvania Gazette (the best colonial newspaper). By the middle of 1757, however, he had become famous in Pennsylvania as a public-spirited citizen and a soldier; well known throughout America as a writer, politician, and the most important theorist of the American empire; and renowned in the western world as a natural philosopher.”

War and the threat of invasion drove many of the challenges that forced Franklin into the public arena at this time. He was in his 40s and had wanted, he said, to retire from business and devote the decade or so left to adult men of that time to pursuing the new science of electricity and to good works for his beloved boomtown of Philadelphia.

But Mother England was at war with either or both France and Spain at this time, and French and Spanish ships routinely raided shipping and even towns along the Atlantic Seaboard. And then, later on, France began to squeeze Pennsylvania’s borders to the west, sparking Indian attacks and the building of French military forts along the Great Lakes and up the Ohio River.

Even with these threats, Pennsylvania was unique among the Colonies for refusing to organize a militia to defend itself either from the raiding privateers who threatened the Delaware Bay or the French and Indian raids of the western counties. The pious Quakers who controlled the Pennsylvania Assembly were as resolutely pacifist as they were parsimonious; the German settlers farther inland also were inclined to resist arming themselves. And the greedy sons of founder William Penn feared that a citizen militia with weapons would be a greater threat to their iron rule than any external attack.

It was during this 20-year conflict over the nature of Pennsylvania that Franklin and his allies began to develop the notion of an American nation; first they conceived of America as the heir and successor to Britain’s home island, but by the end of this volume, their thoughts had turned to America as a stand-alone nation peopled by a unique egalitarian citizenry. How they did it is a gripping yarn.

The trouble is that as one closes this book, the thought immediately occurs: What happens now?

Unless someone steps up, there will be no more volumes coming out of the decades of document research Lemay compiled during his lifetime. The University of Pennsylvania Press had all it could do to get the first two volumes out the door at the same time and nearly missed the Franklin tercentenary celebrations in 2006; it appears to be beyond the editors’ competence to pursue the series further.

As for the University of Delaware, where Lemay taught for years, his extremely valuable Internet Web site of Franklin’s daily doings from his birth through his death in 1790 lies dormant and unfinished at 1748. It still can be accessed at www.english.udel.edu/lemay/franklin and is a highly valuable resource for anyone interested in the man or his time. However, there is no sign that anyone has the slightest intention of completing the task despite the high volume of online visits even now.

Late in December, historian Paul M. Zall of the California State University at Los Angeles died at age 87. Zall had been Lemay’s partner in annotating the authoritative version of Franklin’s “Autobiography” and in other history works. With his passing, these three books of Lemay’s “Life of Benjamin Franklin” become all the more valuable for anyone who relishes our history or has concern about our present. Buy them and cherish them.

James Srodes’ latest book is “Franklin: The Essential Founding Father” (Regnery, 2002).

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