Top Five Books on Benjamin Franklin

What are the best books on the ever-fascinating founder Benjamin Franklin? As I have been writing a religious biography of Franklin for Yale University Press, I have been getting to know the vast literature on Franklin. Here are my suggestions for where to start.

1) The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. A no-brainer, as this eminently readable memoir is an unquestionable part of the American literary canon. I suggest the Yale edition, which is produced by the Papers of Benjamin Franklin project, but any version of the text will do.

2) The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, by Gordon Wood. Wood, one of our generation’s greatest historians, is able to separate the man from the myth and place Franklin in his eighteenth-century world.

3) Carl Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin. Still arguably the definitive and most readable of all Franklin biographies, Van Doren won the 1938 Pulitzer Prize for this book. It is an important predecessor to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Franklin – also eminently readable – which I might suggest as a bonus sixth addition to this list.

4) Jill Lepore, Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin. A stirring account of the much lesser-known life of Franklin’s sister Jane, an impoverished evangelical Christian who exercised great influence on Franklin, even though he neglected to mention her in the Autobiography.

5) J.A. Leo Lemay, The Life of Benjamin Franklin. 3 vols. The place to start for research on Franklin, this is the definitive biography of Franklin’s life through 1757. Lemay sadly died before finishing what was supposed to be a monumental seven-volume project.

What would you add or subtract from the list?

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  • dr. james willingham

    In addition to Franklin’s Autobiography, I have two books on the man. They are Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin: An American Life and Cecil R. Currey’s Code Number 72 Benjamin Franklin: Patriot or Spy. The latter work is the one which stirs my interest the most. It is written by a Professor of American History and Culture who is the author of another work on Franklin and who received his Ph.D. from the University of Kansas. His thesis was on the subject, “Ben Franklin and the Radicals.” My studies of Franklin indicate an incredible complex individual who could and often did play both ends against the middle with aplomb. There are a number of things in his life which awaken dark suspicions, not the least of which was the finding of bones under the house he occupied in England. His whole life raises the issue of a great charade. Was the American Revolution a game of now you see it and now you don’t? Could there be matters in the Treaty of Paris which basically nullify the constitution as some conspiracists argue?

  • DCListener

    FWIW the Currey book was reviewed many years ago and dismissed as “a conglomeration of suppositions” that treats “idle gossip” by his political enemies as “history” in a manner that the reviewer, Jackson Campbell Boswell, concluded as “inexcusable.”

  • dr. james willingham

    Reviewers don’t always get things right. A book’s value lies in its primary sources and how the author used them. Interesting thing is that the author had access to British sources and paid particular attention to how they were worded.

  • DCListener

    I’m curious about a few things.

    First, why Van Doren rather than Issacson? Have we really learned nothing since 1938 that is important enough to warrant the newer work as the first choice for a single vol. bio?

    2nd, why not Morgan’s volume?

    3rd, curious as to whether you have read and what you thought of Weinberger’s Franklin Unmasked and Houston’s Franklin and the Politics of Improvement?

    Thx!