James Srodes
James Srodes
Franklin: The Essential Founding Father
ISBN: 0895261634
Franklin: The Essential Founding Father
In His Lifetime, Benjamin Franklin was celebrated all over the Western world. And with good reason, says award-winning biographer James Srodes in his riveting, comprehensively researched portrait of a man he calls "the essential Founding Father."

Having plumbed archives and other sources neglected by previous biographers, Srodes debunks numerous myths that have gatheres about Franklin - many if them spun by other Founding Fathers. Where John Adams - and his biographer David McCullough - had Franklin as indolent and careless, Srodes uses recently discovered documents to show that Franklin was keeping his colleague at arm's length in order to conduct covert activities to help the American cause. Srodes also looks closely at Franklin's reputation asa philanderer and challenges many long-held assumptions.

Franklin is a fascinating study of a man of ceaseless energies and remarkable accomplishments: an apprentice printer from Boston who made his name and fortune in colonial Philadelphia before having the greatest adventures in Europe's leading capitals, London and Paris. Here we find the complete Franklin - scientist, diplomat, tradesman, author, inventor, celebrated wit, spymaster, propagandist, military leader, quartermaster. Srodes offers extraordinary insight into this complex man, showing us how Frankin's ability to divide his life into discrete compartments enabled him to accomplish so much in so many different areas.

Of the many roles Franklin played, he is perhaps most familiar to us as the genius inventor and experimenter. After all, Frankin's electrical experiments earned him the Cpley Medal, the eighteenth-century equivalent (including bifocals, the lightning rod, and the Franklin stove) are still with us today. But as Srodes shows, Franklin's greatest invention was America, for "it is hard to see how we would be what we are today without the eighty-four-year progress of Benjamin Franklin."

More than twenty years before the Declaration of Independence, Franklin was the first to put forward the plan to unite the colonies, and he took the lead in challenging King George's authority. One of only six men to sign both the Declaration and the Constitution, he secured the alliance with France that proved essential to America's success in the Revolution. Indeed, one could say that while George Washington won the battles, Benjamin Franklin won the war.

—from the publisher's website

Franklin: The Essential Founding Father
Program Air Date: May 19, 2002

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: James Srodes, before we talk about your book, "Franklin," I see that you were named the author of the best intelligence book of 2000 by the Association of Former Intelligence Officers. What was that about?
JAMES SRODES, AUTHOR, "FRANKLIN: THE ESSENTIAL FOUNDING FATHER": Well, AFIO, which is the sort of holding company of all the retired intelligence officers of all the disciplines -- defense, CIA, and so on -- was kind enough to give me that award, and it -- were kind enough to cooperate, many of them for the first time talking about Allen Dulles, who was something of a hero of theirs.
LAMB: Then you jumped to having a best-selling book on John Delorean.
SRODES:Yes. I seem to be drawn to people who are on the verge of narcissistic personality disorders! (LAUGHTER)
LAMB: Who was John Delorean?
SRODES:Well, John Delorean was the General Motors executive who founded his own car company in the '80s, and it was a very exciting car. People will remember it for its gull-wing doors and for it having shown up in the movie "Back to the Future," that series. It was an ill-fated venture and fell apart in Northern Ireland. And Arthur Andersen was the accounting firm for it, and many of the same accusations that are being leveled today were leveled then.
LAMB: And now to Franklin, meaning Benjamin Franklin. And you say he's "The Essential Founding Father." What's that mean?
SRODES:Well, just that. Hyperbole aside, I believe, having finished -- come out the end of the research, that without Franklin, we would not have had the American Revolution we did.
LAMB: Why?
SRODES:He was the catalyst. He was that one ingredient that took all the other contributions of all the other founding fathers and mothers and really created something that was going to succeed. Without Franklin, I don't know that we would be a sovereign nation. And I can argue that we probably would still be a very small country clinging to the Atlantic coast.
LAMB: I thought from reading David McCullough's book on John Adams he was the -- he was the man.
SRODES:Well, we all fall into that trap of trying to make your man the essential man, but I think my case for Franklin is stronger than his case for Adams.
LAMB: When did he live?
SRODES:He lived a long time, which is part of the reason he played such a big role. He lived from 1706 to 1790. He was 84 when he died, which was a ripe old age.
LAMB: One of six to sign both the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence?
SRODES:One of three to sign the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Treaty of Paris.
LAMB: Who were the other two on the Treaty of Paris?
SRODES:John Jay and John Adams.
LAMB: Now, how did he have himself in a position to do all three of those?
SRODES:Well, he was, of course, the leading American representative in London for nearly 20 years before that, fighting, in essence, to stop the Revolution, to get the British government to roll back much of its punitive taxation and impositions. When he arrived home in defeat in 1775, he became the sort of focal point of people who were coalescing around this very frightening idea of breaking with England.

England, after all, was how they identified themselves. He took a role in the Declaration. He helped Jefferson write it, and Jefferson freely acknowledged that help. And then because of his international prominence as a scientist and as a politician, he was sent back to France to try to win French support for what was going to be a very long and bloody war. And he did that.

And it was that support -- the guns, the tents, the clothing, the gunpowder, which we could not make, and the money -- that won the war. I say Washington won the battles, Franklin won the war.
LAMB: You say at the other end of the spectrum, he invented these things right here -- bifocals.
SRODES:Yes, indeed.
LAMB: How did that come about?
SRODES:Well, he was a very utilitarian man. His interests were all over the map. In fact, some Harvard medical people have suggested he may have had attention deficit disorder. But he was basically a utilitarian. He invented bifocals because he got tired of taking one set of glasses off and putting another set of glasses on. He invented a fireplace because he got tired of having cold rooms that were full of smoke. He got into electricity because lightning burned down a lot of houses and killed a lot of people. So he was a very utilitarian person, and that infected -- affected his politics.
LAMB: Did he invent electricity?
SRODES:Not invented. He made the connection between lightning and static electricity, the kind you get when you shuffle your foot on the rug and then touch a doorknob and get that jolt. He discovered and proved -- that's the important point. He proved to others that they were both the same thing, that they were the cause -- the cause was an imbalance in charges. And he showed other people all around the world how to prove that to themselves.

So even before he flew his kite, the Franklin experiments were being tried successfully in France and England and Russia, even. And that's where his fame came from, not just the discovery but because he shared it and shared it with a very clear writing style that was accessible to everybody.
LAMB: If he was born in 1706, at what point in his life would he have invented things like -- or, you know, brought electricity to use?
SRODES:Well, it's a good question because people didn't live that long. He retired. He sold his prosperous printing business, sold his newspaper and retired in his mid, late 40s because, he said, "I don't have an awful lot of time left." And man really didn't live past 50. So it was this period between 1747, 1754, where he really got into a frenzy of invention -- rocking chairs, step-ladders for libraries. He experimented with ants and how ants communicate. His interests were extraordinary, and his experiments with electricity, which first began to be publicly known in 1751, just rolled on through the 1750s.
LAMB: How did you get interested in him, in the first place?
SRODES:I've always been interested in Franklin because I'm from Pennsylvania, and he was part of my childhood history. But I was scouting around for another book idea, and I decided I didn't want to spend a couple years of my life with Abraham Lincoln. And I started reading more about Franklin. And most of the historians, previous historians of Franklin's life, confess a frustration in coming to grips with who was Benjamin Franklin.

And the more I read, the more I read, the more, because of Delorean, because of Allen Dulles, I began to say to myself, "I think I know this guy. This is a guy who's really hyper-charged and hyper-energetic and very cold-minded, very tough, and not the fat, jolly fellow we think of. This is a tough customer." And I said, "I think I can get this guy."
LAMB: Now, there's some eclectic connections in all this. First, your book is published by Regnery.
LAMB: Well-known conservative book company.
LAMB: Did they buy this from you because you're a conservative?
SRODES:No, not at all. To the contrary.
LAMB: Didn't matter.
SRODES:No. And nor did they buy the Dulles book -- I mean, Regnery has a number of divisions. They have a health division. They have their political division, which, as you note, is very conservative and very controversial and now very best-selling. But they also have a biographical division of George Washington and everybody, all the way through Calvin Coolidge. It was that division that did both the Dulles and this book. And as you see, they've done a splendid job.
LAMB: But it was endorsed by three people...
LAMB: ... on the back: Al Hunt, who is not a conservative...
SRODES:Not at all.
LAMB: ... Susan Eisenhower, the daughter of John Eisenhower, and Roger Kennedy.
LAMB: Did you have anything to do with getting those endorsements?
SRODES:Oh, yes. Of course.
LAMB: What's your connection to those three?
SRODES:Well, Roger Kennedy was very kind -- Roger Kennedy, for your listeners, is a former head of the American History Museum at the Smithsonian, former head of the National Park Service, a historian of the first water in his own right, a biographer of Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, and was very kind to me about the Dulles book. So he's become a friend and mentor. Susan Eisenhower is a friend, and I admire her work at the Eisenhower Institute. And Al Hunt and I go way, way back. He's a good friend...
LAMB: To what?
SRODES:Oh, to the Treasury press room, when I was at UPI and he was with "The Wall Street Journal."
LAMB: How long were you with UPI?
SRODES:Two years and something.
LAMB: When did you start in the business?
SRODES:In 1958.
LAMB: Doing what?
SRODES:In Florida. I was a student journalist covering the freedom bus rides, went to work for the Tampa "Times," worked out through the South as a reporter and ended up at the Atlanta "Journal" and wrote stuff for "Newsweek" and then came to Washington.
LAMB: How long -- I mean, what are the years that you were with UPI?
SRODES:From '67 through '70?
LAMB: Then what?
SRODES:"Business Week" bureau here, "Forbes" magazine here, went to work with my own little news service, and that was with papers like the London "Telegraph," "Far Eastern Economic Review," doing mainly finance and economic things. That lasted 26 years, so...
LAMB: When did you write your first book?
SRODES:The Delorean book in the early '80s. And it was actually a part of a series of articles about John Delorean because that was such a big story in Britain because the factory was in Northern Ireland, and it was really part of first the Callahan and then the Thatcher government's effort to bring industrial development to Northern Ireland. And it was such a disaster.
LAMB: And what book is this, then, for you?
LAMB: What were the other three that we haven't mentioned here?
SRODES:I did -- the same co-author and I, the same finance editor of the Sunday "Telegraph" and I did a book on the takeover characters, and then I worked on a biography with him of James Goldsmith, the financier. And then I did a biography -- sort of potted character sketches of the 14 presidential candidates in the '96 election.
LAMB: And the name Srodes -- what kind of a name is it?
SRODES:It's a Pittsburgh name.
LAMB: What country originally would it come from?
SRODES:Strasburg, by our family legend. And we were among the indentured servants who came to Pennsylvania. The first we have record of was 1800, so obviously, we came before that.
LAMB: You write about Benjamin Franklin's connection to the Penns and also to William Pitt. I assume that's Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh.
SRODES:Oh, yes. Looms very large.
LAMB: Start with the Penns. Who were they?
SRODES:Well, William Penn was the son of a famous admiral, who was owed a great deal of money by King Charles for having won a famous naval victory over the Dutch. He died, and young William, who had become a Quaker, which was very controversial, couldn't get the money out of the king, but the king gave him a large grant of land in the back of beyond, which he named after his father. Most people think Pennsylvania's named after William Penn. It's named after Admiral Penn. It also included Delaware and parts of New Jersey. It was huge.

It was an enormous piece of land. And he set it up as a Quaker settlement and was very kind to the Indians. And unfortunately, his heirs turned out to be greedy, grasping and duplicitous. And the worst of them was a man named Thomas Penn, who came out in the 1740s to get as much money as he could out of the Indians, and tricked them and duped them and bribed them and fed them rum and generally cheated them out of even more land, and became an enemy of Benjamin Franklin because Franklin began to write against him.

And this was at a time when the press was a new thing. The power of the press to make fun of people was particularly poisonous. I mean, and you could go to jail. You could be exiled. You could have your presses destroyed by the government for writing against the government. You couldn't even report debates in the parliament or the colonial legislature.

So Franklin took a lot of risks, and he made a lifelong enemy -- Penn's life, Thomas Penn's life -- a lifelong enemy out of Penn. And Penn took it out on Pennsylvania.
LAMB: What about Pitt?
SRODES:Pitt was, of course, one of those meteors that crossed the English sky. I mean, he was a complex character. He was from the very start an advocate for the rights of the people, even though he didn't really like the people to be around him. He was very much an aristocrat. But he was honest, which was unusual. He was skillful, which was even more unusual. He ran the French and Indian War with enormous success, far more success than they deserved. And he was a friend of America, and he was a friend of Franklin's.

And we would have been a lot better off if Pitt had lived long enough, but he didn't.
LAMB: Benjamin Franklin was born where to what parents?
SRODES:Born 1706 to a Boston candle and soap maker named Josiah Franklin and his second wife, Abiah. Josiah Franklin had 17 children by his two wives. It was an extraordinary, crowed family. Thirteen of them were around at any one time, by Franklin's reminiscence. They weren't poor, but they were scrapping.

And Josiah was a Congregationalist, which meant that he was constantly reexamining his conscience, trying to perfect himself. And while Benjamin left that church almost as soon as he could, that stuck with him, this constant perfection, inward-looking effort to improve oneself, to find virtue, which wasn't a single quality, it was a multiple of qualities that you sought. Stuck with him all of his life.

He was apprenticed to a half-brother, as a printer apprentice, ran away when he was 17. Didn't have much formal schooling, only had three years in a school but became an omnivorous reader and turned to writing very skillful parodies, which he had published anonymously, without his brother's knowing, in his brother's newspaper. Ran away when he was 17, got to Philadelphia, managed to get to London, which was the center of printing skills, where he perfected his techniques. By this time, he was a really strong guy. People think of Franklin as being, as I said, fat and sedentary. This was a real horse of a guy.
LAMB: How tall was he?
SRODES:Five-nine, five-ten. But to be a printer in those days, you had to be extraordinarily robust and have great upper body strength. He was also a quite well known swimmer and at one point, considered taking up the trade of professional swimming instructor and aquatic star. But he stayed with printing, came back to Philadelphia, bought a newspaper. By the time he was 27, he was running the most popular, widely read newspaper in the colonies.
LAMB: What was the story of where he became a vegetarian in order to save money so that he could buy more books?
SRODES:He was -- this was while he was apprenticed to his brother. And he and his -- Franklins don't get along with each other. They scrapped and they quarreled, and it was like a little bear garden. And his brother and all the other apprentices boarded at a boarding house. And partly to annoy his brother but also to save money, he said, "Well, look, if you'll just give me the money that you pay to have me fed, I'll feed myself." And he adopted a vegetarian regime and was able to save half the money, which he spent on books. He throve on vegetarianism up to the point when he got tired of it, and then he quit.
LAMB: Did he write a lot of books in his life?
SRODES:Not books, pamphlets. He was an exhausting pamphleteer. Pamphlets were an extraordinary political device. He wrote his first one while he was still a printer in London, a dissertation on morals, which was terribly embarrassing because he was very superficial and young. But he became probably the best pamphleteer of the age. He published them anonymously. He published them under other people's names, he published them under his own name, and kept up a drum fire of agitation for American rights that drove the British government mad.
LAMB: What year did he write his own autobiography?
SRODES:He wrote it in two installments. He wrote it in the early -- one installment, which was really in the form of a letter to his son, William, who by that point was about to be a royal governor, named a royal governor of New Jersey. And it was more of a letter like Lord Chesterfield to his son, pointing out how you overcome personal vice and how you become more virtuous. And then he wrote a second installment later, many years later. He never wrote a complete autobiography, but he wrote really about the most interesting and least public of his years, his growing up, his family background and his own struggles with immorality and licentiousness and...
LAMB: You can find that autobiography almost everywhere today.
SRODES:Oh, yes. It's in paperback now.
LAMB: Any -- any -- do you know of any -- the number it still sells?
SRODES:Oh, it still sells in the hundreds every year. I mean, or maybe even the thousands. There are several editions of it. There's a very good one in paperback edited by the distinguished Franklin scholar Leo Lemay.
LAMB: How important was it to you to read that, to get ready for this book you wrote?
SRODES:Oh, it was very important because it confirmed in my mind that you ought to read people's autobiographies, but you ought to read it with a very large spoonful of salt. I mean, it was -- this was a letter -- the first part was a letter to his son, saying, "Look at the mistakes I've made. And here's how you ought to improve yourself. You know, you're a lot like me. You tend to be a bit of a jerk about women. You tend to spend too much money. You like easy -- the easy life. Now, take it from me. Try to be a better guy."

And then the second part, which he wrote at a friend's home in France, was really more of a justification of his political career up to the Revolution.
LAMB: His son, you say, was illegitimate.
LAMB: How well known was that back then? And who was the woman that had his illegitimate son?
SRODES:It was known instantly. It was publicly known. It was written about at the time. He was -- his enemies used it as a stick to beat him. The woman is not known, although there have been two books, each nominating a different character. It is probably true that she was a woman -- a prostitute, or at least someone that he had no intention of marrying. And the woman he did marry, Deborah Read, took William in as an infant and raised him as what he was, Franklin's first son. They had two more children of their own.

Their marriage, by the way, was a common-law marriage because she'd married before, and that husband had run away and she couldn't prove that he was dead.
LAMB: What was the relationship between Benjamin Franklin and his son, William?
SRODES:My take is that Franklin wasn't really a great parent. He -- he spoiled his children -- his daughter and another son, who died fairly young. But he spoiled William. But he held back that sort of unconditional love that parents have. And so if you wanted to be Daddy's son, you had to do what Daddy said. So William lived for quite a while in Franklin's shadow. Then he became a royal governor in his own right, actually higher than his father.
LAMB: Appointed by the king?
SRODES:Appointed by the king. Married a wealthy planter's daughter from Barbados and was actually living at a higher station than his father when the war broke out. William stayed loyal to the king, was arrested and finally shipped off to England, where he became the leading advocate for reparations for the loyalists after the war. And he died over there.

Franklin cut him off, just as if he'd never existed. Indeed, took William Franklin's son, William Temple Franklin, away from him and made him Benjamin Franklin's private secretary and took Temple to Paris.
LAMB: You say that William Franklin, at the very end, came to his father for money?
SRODES:Yes. He was broke.
LAMB: Why would he be broke after the king had made him a royal governor and...
SRODES:Well, but he was no longer a royal governor. You got your money from the taxes, the share of taxes you raked off for the king. That ended in 1776. So by 1783, William was in a hard, hard straits, and also wrote, I think, to, you know, reconcile himself with his father. Franklin wasn't having any of it, just rebuked him.
LAMB: You say he crossed the Atlantic eight times.
LAMB: And then he...
SRODES:Which is an astonishing thing.
LAMB: And that he spent 26 years of his life outside the United States, in France and in England.
SRODES:Ireland, Germany. This was a man for whom travel was like vitamins. I mean, he said often, "If I don't travel, I don't feel well." And we think of George Washington as being this rugged outdoorsman out on horseback, riding through the Alleghenies. Benjamin Franklin went from Williamsburg, Virginia, to Maine, back and forth routinely for months on end, as postmaster general, planning routes, sighting bridges, finding mail drops, finding riders to ride the post. He would be gone for months on end. And when he got to London, he was all over the British Isles, went to Ireland, went to Scotland a number of times, at a time when there really weren't any roads. He just traveled, traveled, traveled.
LAMB: Go back over those trips. Were there four trips, then, total of four, back and forth?
LAMB: And those four trips -- how long did he live in these -- in the countries over there at a time? And where were they in his life?
SRODES:Well, he first went to London as a very young man, to work for close to two years as a young printer. Then he came home. So that's two -- that's one trip, one round trip. Then he went back in 1757, and he was there till 1762, as the colonial agent, the lobbyist, if you will, for Pennsylvania, Georgia, New Jersey and late -- lastly Massachusetts. This is right up against the cusp.
LAMB: Paid individually by those colonies.
SRODES:Paid by the general assemblies to look to their interests. And...
LAMB: He'd have been close to 50 then.
SRODES:Oh, yes. Yes, yes. Well, he was -- yes, 51 when he first went. So he was getting on there. Then he came home...
LAMB: By the way, his -- did his wife ever go with him on these...
LAMB: ... trips? Never went?
LAMB: So for 26 year, she was never with him overseas.
SRODES:Insofar as I can tell, she never got any further than her son's home in New Jersey.
LAMB: So the third trip? When would that have been?
SRODES:The third trip -- he came home in 1762 in kind of disgrace because he'd tried to get the king to take the royal charter for Pennsylvania away from the Penns, and it was a no-hoper. A, the king didn't have the money, and B, he didn't have any more desire to run Pennsylvania than the Penns did. There was a huge political upheaval. Franklin found himself -- all during this time, he'd been a member of the Pennsylvania general assembly. He found himself voted out of office one month, and then a couple of months later, he found himself being unanimously chosen to go back to London. So he went back in 1764, and he was there till 1775. He sailed back in 1775.
LAMB: What did he do then?
SRODES:While -- while he was there, he was again trying to get some sort of reforms because the whole nature of colonies was -- the American colonies was changing. And the Americans knew it, and the British refused to acknowledge it. Colonies were supposed to feed the mother country. No decent Englishman went out to a colony and planned to stay. The only people who planned to stay in colonies were people who were on the run, religious dissenters and people of the second class.
LAMB: King George III took over when?
SRODES:In 1762. He was a very young man. He succeeded his grandfather, who -- George II, and was very popular at the beginning because he was supposed to have been raised in a reformist household. And so Franklin thought, "Well, now, here's our chance to get a benevolent king who'll take over and save the colonies." And it turned out that George III wanted none of it, no reform, no innovations, nothing.
LAMB: But in '62, how old was George III?
SRODES:Oh, he was just in his early 20s. He was a very young man and very much under the influence of his tutors and advisers.
LAMB: Which one of these kings came from Germany?
SRODES:Well, George I was German and spoke only German. George II was born in Germany but lived most of his life as an adult in England and spoke bad English. George III was the only one born in England, raised in England, who spoke good English and bad German.
LAMB: Did I remember you say that he came back to the United States on one of these trips in '75? Benjamin Franklin -- 1775.
SRODES:He -- yes, that's right.
LAMB: Because we're getting near the Declaration of Independence.
SRODES:Well, while he -- while he was en route, while he was coming back on this third trip, Lexington and Concord occurred. The war was on. So the question is, do we go ahead with the war? Do we declare independence? And this is -- this debate lasted all the way through 1775 and 1776 and was really an open question until that convention in the summer of '76. And there were numbers of people -- George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams -- who said, "Oh, no. We've got to -- we've got to get some last-minute deal." And there was a petition in the summer of '75 which Franklin drafted, a last petition to the king, saying, "Look, you've got to stop this." And George III refused to even look at it, and indeed, turned the screws, sent more troops. And Franklin undertook this extraordinary journey.

Now, this is 1775, so he's looking onto 60, goes by sled all the...
LAMB: Close to 70.
SRODES:Yes. I'm sorry. You're right. He goes all the way -- all the way to Canada to try to talk the Canadians into joining in, and they won't have any of it. So he has to come all the way back, nearly dies, gets back on his feet, is there for the Declaration of Independence.
LAMB: And by the way, all through this, he's got a lot of sickness.
SRODES:Gout, which was awful. If you've ever had gout...
LAMB: What is it?
SRODES:Well, it's a -- it's a failure of your kidneys to process uric acid, and it -- the surplus uric acid collects as crystals in your joints. And it's like having grains of sand in those joints. And it affects your feet. It affects your hands and your elbows and your knees. And it's just excruciating. And then you have urinary tract stones that affect -- are just -- you might as well die.
LAMB: When did he have the pleurisy attack?
SRODES:Oh, that -- he had his first pleurisy attack when he was quite young, when he first came back from London on this printing tour. And again, I mean, these -- the health risks of this age are extraordinary. I mean, men were lucky to live to 50. Women were lucky to live to 40. And the smoky fireplaces -- we talk about air pollution now. The air pollution of major cities was an extraordinary health hazard, and tuberculosis and all the other things.

Pleurisy, which is an infection of the outer layers of your lungs, nearly killed him. And he was susceptible to it all of his life.
LAMB: When did he live in France throughout all these trips?
SRODES:Well, he visited France during his second tour in London, where he was celebrated and honored as the electrician and the new Newton. He met Louis XV and was celebrated and honored and made a fellow of royal academies in Germany and Brussels and in Russia, and so on. And so he traveled widely in Europe.

That was his first contact with the French intelligentsia. And it was where I was able to find and demonstrate that he made the first contacts with the French merchants who were rounding up supplies and shipping things in speculation that we were going to go to war with Britain.
LAMB: What was the relationship between France and Britain in those years?
SRODES:Oh, an antipathy that transcended anything we've ever known. The cold war was like a minuet compared to how the French and English hated each other.
LAMB: Why?
SRODES:Well, there had been nearly 150 unbroken years of warfare between them. They had nearly destroyed each other, and they were in intense competition for these worldwide colonies, which were subsidizing the life of the nations at home. You couldn't have these kings and these courts if you didn't have people laboring in the rice paddies and the cane fields of place millions of miles away.
LAMB: Do I remember that he lived in France for nine years, at one point, on one of these trips?
LAMB: And when was John Adams there with him, and John Jay?
SRODES:Well, right after the Declaration of Independence, just as the British troops are coming in earnest to land on Long Island, the Howe brothers, William and Richard, to confront Washington, the French sent secret emissaries to say, "Look, if you're really serious about this war, we'll help you. We don't want to get into war with the British, but you know, there are these islands down in the Caribbean where we'll ship stuff under our own flag, and then if your people can get them into these hundreds of little waterways that dot your Atlantic coast, we'll -- we'll sell you stuff. We'll lend you stuff. We'll take tobacco and jute and things in trade. What do you say?"

So they -- the Continental Congress sent a number of people to France, but most importantly, they sent Franklin as the person to get a formal declaration of recognition of the United States and a trade treaty. That was really important. And they sent a number of other -- they empowered another -- two other people, who turned out to be just awful and enemies of Franklin, to help him and to seek similar treaties from Spain and Holland and the other courts of Europe, which Franklin disapproved of. He said, you know, "Come on. These monarchies aren't going to help us. The only reason the French king is interested in helping us is not out of any love of liberty. It's to get back at Britain."
LAMB: Which king was it?
SRODES:This, by this point, was Louis XVI.
LAMB: And who was Benjamin Franklin not getting along with from the United States or from the time of the colonies?
SRODES:Well, the Lee family of Virginia and the Adams family of Massachusetts, Samuel and John, particularly John, were suspicious of anybody from the so-called "middle colonies." Both Virginians and people from New England thought of themselves as the natural aristocrats of the colonies. And these tradesmen were just not the kind of person you wanted representing you abroad.

So the first people to come to Franklin's aid were William and Arthur Lee, who were living it up, whooping it up, having a general good time and being very ambitious. And they came to Paris ostensibly to help, but all they really did was write complaining letters back to Philadelphia, saying how Franklin was bullocking up the accounts and not getting the thing done with the French.
LAMB: Populations -- you say that Great Britain back then was about eight million people?
LAMB: This country, 1.6 million in '55, I think?
SRODES:Well, no. By -- by 17 -- yes, by 1750, there was 1.7 million. By 1770, there were 2.1 million.
LAMB: Biggest city in the United States?
LAMB: How big was it?
SRODES:It was about 30,000 people. It was the biggest city in the British empire next to London. It was bigger than Liverpool, bigger than Manchester, bigger than Sheffield. It had had a commercial explosion.

It's an interesting factoid that between 1770 and 1780, even with the loyalists fleeing, hundreds of thousands of loyalist families, population of the 13 colonies, the 13 states, grew by a half a million people. And Franklin kept warning people about this. He kept saying, "Look, people are coming here. We're having children at a young age. We're reproducing ourselves at a fantastic rate. We're going to be larger than you. We're an enormous market for your goods. We're loyal to you. Try to treat us better." And the English weren't having any.
LAMB: You used a word earlier, "licentiousness," when it came to Ben Franklin. How many -- no, quick thing. Deborah, his wife, died in what year?
SRODES:She died in December of 1774.
LAMB: How long had they been married?
SRODES:Since 1730s, so...
LAMB: Forty-nine years, something like that.
LAMB: And 26 of those years are...
SRODES:He's gone.
LAMB: He's gone.
SRODES:And even -- I mean, even during the years he was in America, he was gone.
LAMB: And she had how many of his children?
SRODES:She had two. A son died of smallpox, but a daughter lived on and had multitudes of grandchildren.
LAMB: Sally?
LAMB: The licentiousness of Ben Franklin -- a lot of mistresses? You name a bunch in here.
SRODES:Well, by the time he took the French mistresses, he was a widow. He -- but you know, this is -- you -- you've stuck a needle in me because I'm a -- I'm a little sensitive to this popular attack on -- on our historical figures, trying to tar them with the same brush as many of our contemporary political figures. Franklin, in the autobiography, says that one of the reasons he got married was he was -- he didn't like consorting with prostitutes. It was expensive. It was more trouble than it was worth. And there was this terrible risk of disease. But he consorted with them. Then he got married. He had numerous flirtatious friendships with many of the wealthy young women of the colonies. And his enemies picked up on that, and William's illegitimate birth.

My take on it is women in the 18th century of property were property, and no family was going to risk their daughter's reputation at the hands of a man like Franklin, and -- nor were the -- nor were the women. Franklin -- it's too much, I think, to call him an early feminist, but Franklin saw in young women who were trying to educate themselves and trying to raise themselves a kind of fellow sympathy. He helped women all of his life. He helped women become printers and own their own printing businesses. He appointed the first woman postmaster. And his friendships in England were of the same kind of avuncular nature.

Now, when he got to Paris, he did have two very significant love affairs, both with titled ladies. One was married, one was a widow. The only one he proposed to was the widow.
LAMB: Is that -- which one is Madam Brillon?
SRODES:Brillon was the married woman, who was bit of a neurotic but very talented and...
LAMB: You say deeply loved Benjamin Franklin?
SRODES:They both did, both -- both of these...
LAMB: Is it Claude-Anne...
LAMB: ... how do you pronounce...
LAMB: Lopez? Who was...
SRODES:Yes, a distinguished Yale historian who has written several books about Franklin and his women and who shares my view that people were a little more robust in their affections in those days. People were a little more frank. He flattered them. He professed affection. He wrote poems. And they, in turn, returned the affection.
LAMB: Who was Catherine Ray Green (ph)?
SRODES:Catherine Ray Green (ph) was another one of these young American women that Franklin took an enormous liking to. She ended up the wife of the governor of Rhode Island and maintained a very vocal affection for Franklin that lasted all of her life, largely because of what he had talked to her about and told her about and encouraged her to read, and so on.
LAMB: Who was Polly Stevenson Houston (ph)?
SRODES:Polly Stevenson was the daughter of his long-time landlady in London. She was a bit of a prim and proper lass, but he -- she became a protégé for him, as well, and she married one of Britain's great surgeons and, in fact, came to Philadelphia when she was a widow, brought her sons with her. And those sons became among America's first great surgeons, as well. And she was at his bedside when he died.
LAMB: And who was Ann Catherine (ph)? Ann Catherine -- last name is -- it's like Helvetius or...
SRODES:Oh! Oh, that was the one he proposed to, Madam Helvetius. Helvetius was a famous French philosopher and Mason, and her estate adjoined the estate where he -- where Franklin lived outside of Paris. She was kind of a Bohemian woman, offended Abigail Adams mightily for not being -- for being a little loose and rowdy. She was always kissing Franklin on the cheeks and mussing his hair and sitting in his lap, and that offended Abigail mightily.

And he proposed to her, and it -- she had to think about it. She -- to give up everything and come to the wilds of America was just too much for her, though.
LAMB: Go back to these trips back and forth.
LAMB: How long did it take for him to get from, say, London or, you know, Southampton or wherever he left, to come to the United States on a ship?
SRODES:Well, it took generally a month to get from west to east. It could take two months to go from east to west because of the prevailing winds.
LAMB: Well, there's one example you use in 1757, where he ended up having to sit in the harbor in the United States for how long before he could take off to go to...
SRODES:Three months.
LAMB: Just literally off the coast, just at anchor.
SRODES:From April till June.
LAMB: Couldn't leave the ship.
SRODES:Didn't dare leave the ship because at any minute, the governor of New York, the military commander of New York, could file his last dispatch and say, "All right, let the ship go." But because he kept writing dispatches, the ship -- ships in those days went in convoy because Britain was always at war. And so you -- you didn't sail until the rest of the ships sailed.
LAMB: Let me go to the religious thing because you talk about the Quakers and all, but you say he was not a Quaker.
SRODES:No, no.
LAMB: I want to read what you did write about him. You say, "Franklin steadfastly refused to accept most of the doctrinal mysteries of established Christianity, including the divinity of Jesus. Along with Buddha, Mohammed and other religious figureheads, Jesus was relegated to being an admirable exemplar and teacher and an intercessor with divine providence but no more."

How did he fit in, then, with the rest of the Founding Fathers back then? Was he a deist?
SRODES:He was his own -- he invented his own form of deism. Thomas Jefferson was a deist, although I think Jefferson put Jesus a little higher in the category of ancillary divine beings. Jefferson, of course, as you know, cut up a Bible, took the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and cut out all the extraneous matter and left only Jesus’ statements. And that book -- that book is still available. It's called the Jefferson Bible.

There were a lot of deists. This is part of the Enlightenment. As I said in the book, once you cut off a king's head, once you've cut off God's anointed monarch, then you can ask any question you want. You can talk to God directly. And if you don't get the answers you want from God, you can invent your own answers.

Franklin got tired of churchmen. For the same reason he didn't like lawyers, he didn't like ecclesiasticals. He felt that too many of the clergy's interests were in making docile parishes and not enough in really working toward virtue and getting to God. So his God, whom he called God, but most of the time called Providence, was way out there. He was beyond our mortal reach. But you could reach God through Buddha, through Allah, through Moses or any of the Talmudic intercessors. But the best thing you could do to reach God and to please God and to ensure your own salvation was to help other men. And he believed that to great sincerity.
LAMB: You mentioned virtues, and you say in the book that there are 13 virtues.
SRODES:Well, he made up 13 virtues...
LAMB: He made up, yes.
SRODES:... that -- that you...
LAMB: But what -- at what point in his life did he do this?
SRODES:Oh, very young. He started on this on the trip back from London as a young printer. And he worked at it systematically for the next 25 years, at least. He drew up a list of 13 virtues...
LAMB: I've got them here, in case you want them. Go ahead. Go ahead, and I'll...
SRODES:Well, I mean, he started, I think, with the ones that he could control most easily -- temperance -- I can't see. (LAUGHTER)
LAMB: Put on camera. (CROSSTALK)
LAMB: We got temperance and silence and order and I think redemption and frugality -- I'm going to drop this so I can read them. I said, no resolution, not redemption, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity and humility.

How did he do on chastity?
SRODES:Well, you notice that chastity is near the end.
LAMB: Near the end, yes.
SRODES:He's -- he wanted to give up these -- this rowdy youth. He wanted to get away from the punchbowl. It made him silly. It made him a joker and a punster, and he wanted to be taken seriously. He wanted to be industrious. And he worked his way down this list, adopting a virtue every week and really concentrating on it day by day. And then, at the end of the week, he'd say, "Well, was I temperate this week?" And if he got good marks, he'd move on to the next one. So that by doing all 13 in sequence, he would revisit these virtues 4 times every year -- 4 times 13.

And he got to chastity -- chastity was originally the last of his concerns, which tells me that he'd gotten it pretty well under control. And he showed this list to a Quaker elder he respected, and the Quaker said, "You know, you might be a little more humble about this" because Franklin was saying, "Look how virtuous I am. I follow this list." So he added the 13th.
LAMB: Other thing on the list. You -- you say that -- I think you said he started the University of Pennsylvania?
SRODES:Yes. Well, it was an academy. The academy was the foundation of what is now the University of Pennsylvania.
LAMB: Fund-raising for free hospital.
LAMB: What did that mean?
SRODES:He raised the money. He was -- he was the first one to propose matching grants. He went to the general assembly and said, "Look, we need a hospital, a free hospital here in Philadelphia." Smallpox would come racing through the town and kill hundreds. And the assembly said, "No, we can't afford it." And Franklin said, "If I can raise half the money privately, will you come up with the rest?" And they fell for it, and that's how the -- the Philadelphia Hospital is -- is still in existence.
LAMB: The first fire insurance.
LAMB: Nationwide, first time ever?
SRODES:Ever. Ever. He invented the fire companies first, the idea that you would subscribe to a fire company, and you would put a plaque on your door, and when your house caught fire or your chimney caught fire, that company would come and put out the fire. Of course, if they were busy elsewhere, you were -- you were done for. So he said, "You know, we could pool all the companies and we can insure against fire damage through these resources." And yes, the first fire insurance.
LAMB: What about the first modern postal delivery system?
SRODES:When Franklin took over the Post Office, your letter to me would be dumped on a tavern table, and anybody could come by and say, "Oh, here, Brian Lamb's written to Jim Srodes. I wonder what he's saying?" and open it up. Or letters disappeared or the government spied on you routinely. Franklin not only ended that, gave secure mail service, but he halved the time between the time a letter could be posted in Philadelphia and a return come back from Boston, which was some doing.
LAMB: I'm not sure this is the way you pronounce it, but Junto.
LAMB: That's what it was, the Junto?
SRODES:Yes. Yes. Just a group.
LAMB: And what was that in his life?
SRODES:This was his first real effort at self-improvement. He got 12 like-minded men, and it always stayed at 12, although the membership changed dramatically over the years. And these 12 met on Friday night, over a punchbowl, and they would systematically -- again, Franklin and the lists. They would go down a list of -- of topics, self-improving topics, what new business have you heard of, what new -- who's gotten sick, who's in trouble, is there anybody we can help, it's your turn to tell an essay, give us an essay, give us a poem. And they stuck together, and they improved each other's minds and they leant each other's books, which is how the library, the first lending library, came.
LAMB: Anybody we know in the group?
SRODES:No, not as such. I mean, many of them went on to enormous prominence and wealth, but nobody by name.
LAMB: What about "Poor Richard's Almanac"? What's that?
SRODES:Well, almanacs were a profitable line that most printers produced, and they were ostensibly to tell the farmer when to plant and when the moon would be full and other useful items. Franklin took the basic almanac format and added humor and satire and a little political insight, a little political editorialization.

And he created this fictional character Richard Saunders, Poor Richard Saunders, who was an astrologer and was down at the heels, and his -- Saunders's wife was always nagging at him. And he created really the first great literary character in America. Everybody had a wife or knew somebody whose wife was as naggy as Richard Saunders's wife. And there were pranks that he played. But -- and basically, the crop information and the phases of the moon were accurate enough.

But because Franklin was also the postmaster general and because so many of his relatives had printing shops and were postmasters under his patronage, "Poor Richard's Almanac" became the most popular almanac in America. It sold 10,000 copies a year, which would be two million copies today, at 10 pence, which would be, you know, like, $40 or $50 today. It was an enormous source of profit, but it was also an enormous source of influence.
LAMB: You say that he owned slaves but yet was the first spokesman for the abolition movement.
SRODES:He was the primary spokesman. There were others who had come against it. The Quakers had always been against slavery, although William Penn had owned slaves. He probably bought his first slave in the 1740s.
LAMB: When he was in his 30s.
SRODES:Yes. And his progression -- I mean, his father had allowed slaves to be sold in front of his candle factory...
LAMB: In Boston?
SRODES:... in Boston in the 1720s and '30s. I mean, Boston was a major slave port. New York was a major slave port. Many of the great families of Massachusetts built part of their fortunes on that triangular trade that included bringing slaves to -- so young Ben Franklin saw slaves being auctioned under his father's shop sign.

By the time he hit his 40s, he began to make and write an economic criticism of slavery, that slavery really didn't pay the owner, that it was a poor way to use manpower. By the time he got to England, of course, England was already beginning an anti-slavery groundswell of opinion. And he met many of the leading abolitionists and became the president of an effort to build schools in America for young blacks.
LAMB: We're running out of time, but you say that he knew David Hume, who was a member -- who was the -- who was in favor of the checks and balances. But when he was involved in the writing of the Constitution, a member of the constitutional convention, that almost nothing that he supported was successful in the Constitution.
SRODES:Franklin was far more radical and suspicious of power than Hume. Hume believed you could set up checks and balances. Franklin believed that the only way you could check unlicensed power was to limit. He believed in one-year terms in office. He believed in a plural executive. In other words, when he was governor of Pennsylvania during the time between his return at the end of the war and the Constitution, he shared that office with two other men. He believed that the presidency should be a three-man job.
LAMB: And one -- only a one -- unicameral -- one house...
SRODES:One house, popularly elected. But then when that stalled, when that became impossible, he came up with the Senate compromise.
LAMB: How long did it take you to write this book?
SRODES:Better part of two years.
LAMB: What is different about your book than all the others you read?
SRODES:I tried to deal with Franklin's character, which mystified many of his biographers, and I did a lot of research in London and Paris, which a lot of other people haven't done.
LAMB: What's your next book?
SRODES:I'm not telling.
LAMB: When do you expect to have it done?
SRODES:I'm going to take a while. I'm going to take probably five years.
LAMB: Why do you not tell?
SRODES:Because other people write books as quickly as I do. (LAUGHTER)
LAMB: Here is the cover of the book. Our guest has been James Srodes, and the name of this book is "Franklin: The Essential Founding Father." Benjamin Franklin, who died after 84 years on this earth. Thank you very much for joining us.
SRODES:Thank you, Brian.

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