by Esmond Wright; The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press; 404 pages; $25.00.
For most of his political life, Benjamin Franklin strove mightily to preserve the bonds between Great Britain and her American colonies, to keep that “fine and noble China vase, the British Empire” from cracking. When he saw that he must fail in the effort, he strove even more to make sure the revolution succeeded, even if it meant wheeling and dealing with every selfish interest in France, Spain, and Holland. For Esmond Wright in his acute biography, Franklin is the American as heroic fixer—zestful, humorous, open to any man’s ideas but always testing them against his own sense of the reasonable and humane, sometimes overly relishing his own craftiness but, in the end, knowing that nothing could be accomplished without consultation and consent. Wright is especially good in showing us how well Franklin knew men’s psychology; no one understood better the pride and arrogance and bad faith of the British bureaucrats and how this distorted and finally dissipated all their efforts.
Even though the title was later given to Washington, there is no question in Wright’s mind that Franklin was the first American. This was perhaps best expressed by Balzac, who said, with the wit one genius owes another, that Franklin “was the inventor of the lightning rod, the hoax and the republic.”