Review by Choice Review
Waldstreicher (Temple Univ.) examines Benjamin Franklin's thought and action regarding slavery in the revolutionary era. Franklin combined long-time slaveholding with occasional antislavery gestures, exemplifying the paradox that one aspect of freedom is the ability to dominate others. The author deflates Franklin's antislavery reputation as one last self-invention, but he shuns condemnation. The book's core concerns images of American slavery and slavery metaphors generated by Franklin and his British opponents in the 1750s to 1770s. Franklin emerges as a proponent of a wholly white America, understating slavery's significance in Britain's mainland colonies and blaming the British for its introduction. Waldstreicher also shows how some British critics of American resistance focused on the hypocrisy of slaveholders' demands for freedom in rethinking their empire to exclude Africans from equal status. These contributions make this a valuable book, despite the author's tendency to offer multiple and conflicting interpretations of the doings he chronicles. If Waldstreicher therein emulates Franklin, perhaps the result is one more testimony to the power of Franklin's imaginings of himself and America. ^BSumming Up: Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above. T. S. Whitman Mount St. Mary's University
Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review
Why another biography of Franklin? Because this is a distinctive, long-overdue effort to ask some tough questions about someone who is usually given a pass for his genius and charm by otherwise critical historians and biographers. If Waldstreicher's writing isn't as deft as, say, David McCullough's, it's more searching and more balanced. This biography explores Franklin's relationship to free labor and slavery. Himself an indentured servant in his youth, Franklin was inordinately sensitive to questions of freedom and servitude. Yet he was a slaveholder for part of his life and, in Waldstreicher's telling, spoke in circles to avoid having to take a stand for or against racial slavery and those who sought to flee it. Temple University historian Waldstreicher (In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes) skillfully sets Franklin's posture in the context of 18th-century Northern prevarication and racism, but the book's effect is to desacralize Franklin. It reveals the founder's dissimulation in his brilliant, beloved Autobiography and other writings that have been used-wrongly, it turns out-to place him among the nation's early antislavery reformers. Waldstreicher might have dug more deeply into the psychological roots of Franklin's complex behavior. Yet this penetrating interpretation, one that's likely to dismay Franklin's hagiographers, is true to the man, his times and the facts. 16 pages of b&w illus. not seen by PW. (Aug. 18) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Kirkus Book Review
A Founding Father previously considered blameless comes in for hard scrutiny and is found wanting for his role in the slave trade. Benjamin Franklin was one of the wealthiest Americans of his time, probably the wealthiest of those who did not inherit their fortunes. Much of his wealth came from newspaper publishing--and much of the income within that realm came from publishing notices of slave auctions and of runaway slaves. In the 1730s, Franklin recorded in his Autobiography, he set about acquiring the habits of mind and work that would make his fortune; adds Waldstreicher (History/Notre Dame; In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes, not reviewed), Franklin also acquired his first African-American slaves during that time, and for the rest of his life he would count humans among his possessions, using them to build his fortune as well. Unlike Walter Isaacson, according to whose Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (2003) Franklin came to see the incompatibility of slavery with revolutionary ideals, Waldstreicher depicts Franklin as more conflicted, only half-inclined to abolitionism while more than half-inclined toward the status quo. Indeed, Waldstreicher suggests, it is possible to argue that Thomas Jefferson "did more to undermine slavery during the era of the American Revolution than did Franklin": whereas Franklin "projected the blame for slavery onto England and the West Indies," Jefferson acknowledged that it had homegrown origins and "almost succeeded in closing the Northwest Territories to slaveholders." This assertion, readers of Roger Kennedy's Mr. Jefferson's Lost Cause (2003) and Garry Wills's "Negro President" (2003) will recognize, is controversial. Other readers will wonder at Waldstreicher's worry that Franklin was hypocritical for keeping and profiting from slaves while publicly opposing slavery (though "he still kept his few strong statements about the wrongs suffered by Africans for the ears of the already converted"), as did so many of Franklin's generation. Franklin scholars and students of the revolutionary era should take a look--but overall you'd do better to turn to Gordon S. Wood's Americanization of Benjamin Franklin (p. 264). Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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