Benjamin Franklin: An American Life / Walter Isaacson

Benjamin Franklin is often thought of as the quintessential American. A man that was born without a silver spoon in his mouth, but achieved greatness through being industrious, frugal and hard working. He did not believe in arbitrary authority but instead evaluated a man based on his merit.  After “retiring” from printing, following decades of working to build a successful business, Franklin proceeds to become a prominent inventor, diplomat and politician. He was a prime contributor to both the establishment of a brand new area of science involving electricity, and a revolutionary new system of government.

The French economist Turgot summaries Franklin’s accomplishments with the epigram:

“He snatched the lightning from the skies and the sceptre from tyrants.”


Isaacson writes: “Franklin’s reputation was also elevated by the emergence of that distinctly American philosophy known as pragmatism, which holds, as Franklin had, that the truth of any proposition, whether it be a scientific or moral or theological or social one, is based on how well it correlate with experimental results and produces a practical outcome.”


Franklin followed the following four rules for living his life:

  1. It is necessary for me to be extremely frugal for some times, till I have paid what I owe.
  2. To endeavor to speak truth in every instance; to give nobody exceptions that are not likely to be answered, but aim at sincerity in every word and action – the most amiable excellence in a rational being.
  3. To apply myself industriously to whatever business I take in hand, and not divert my mind from my business by any foolish project of suddenly growing rich; for industry and patience are the surest means of plenty.
  4. I resolve to speak ill of no man whatever.


In addition to the above rules, Franklin came up with the following “infallible rule” when gambling at a game checkers:

“if two persons equal in judgement play for a considerable sum, he that loves money most shall lose; his anxiety for the success of the game confounds him.”

Franklin found the same to be true in battle, since a person too fearful will perform defensively and fail to seize offensive advantages. I personally summarize the rule as: “he who cares most often loses,” and find it applicable when it comes to both personal relationships and business negotiations. In addition to any detriment to one’s performance caused by fear of a potential loss, I also find that it is the person who is most willing to walk away that often holds the greatest power.


Some life lessons, Franklin had to learn the hard way. Sir William Keith, Pennsylvania’s governor at the time, took a liking to Franklin and promised he would aid him with his goal of setting up his own printing business. He repeatedly promised Franklin that he would supply the credits necessary to purchase the printing press equipment needed from an English supplier. Franklin bought into Keith’s promise enough to actually board a ship bound for England without the credits in hand, but only with the promise that the credits would be mailed over to him in due course.

However, upon landing in England, Franklin was dismayed to discover that the credits had not arrived, and that Keith was a man who did not even possess credits to give. Franklin later wrote about Keith: “and having little to give, he gave expectations.” A good reminder to others to be skeptical of men who make grandiose promises but do not have a verifiable proven track record of actually delivering.


When it came to the qualities of a partner that was suitable for marriage, Franklin commented:

“Frugality is an enriching virtue, a virtue I could never acquire in myself, but I was lucky enough to find it in a wife, who thereby became a fortune to me.”

Franklin also commented on how a women that is costly to get will be one that is costly to keep. And how you should choose a partner who is willing to contribute to the household rather than sit around drinking tea.


I was very impressed by Franklin’s ability to do well by doing good. Franklin was able to achieve his own goals and amount great wealth while simultaneously benefiting society as a whole. This mirrors Franklin’s religious creed that the best way to please God is by being good to one’s fellow man. Franklin held meetings with groups of men for the sole purpose of discussing how they could be of aid to one another’s endevors. By becoming the postmaster for the colonies, Franklin was able to streamline the system and save his fellow citizens time and money, while simultaneously increasing the distribution of his own periodicals. These periodicals that Franklin published and made available for purchase, often contained advice aimed at improving the lives of its readers


I will conclude this passage with the following collection of wisdom (taken from Isaacson’s autobiography) that was originally published over the years in different additions of Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack.



Pick up your copy of Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson

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