TALKING WITH H.W. BRANDS
Yes, Franklin was among the highest of the high-profile Founding Fathers, but “The First American?” Isn’t that a little presumptuous, given that the Adamses, James Otis, and other Boston malcontents were far more vocal in their opposition to British tax policies from a much earlier time?
“I realized that my title would be a little bit provocative,” says William Brands, biographer and professor of history at Texas A&M University. “To me there’s a critical difference between the complaints of most of the American colonists until the early 1770s and the position Franklin took beginning in 1774. John Adams and Patrick Henry and the rest were defending their rights as Englishmen. But Franklin finally came to the conclusion that as long as the American colonies were attached to the British Empire, Americans would never be accorded the respect they deserved. In the beginning of 1774 Franklin began thinking of himself as an American, at a time, I would argue, when even the Boston radicals were still insisting on their rights as Englishmen.”
Franklin was not Brands’ first foray into biography. His previous book, T.R.: The Last Romantic, chronicled the life of Theodore Roosevelt. This earlier effort, in part, inspired his exploration of Franklin’s life. “One of the things that attracted me to Roosevelt was that he was a very multi-faceted individual. At any given time he had a dozen different irons in the fire. After I finished Roosevelt, I asked myself, ‘Who else in American history was as multi-dimensional?’ And immediately Franklin came to mind.”
For his next project, though, Brands has a different approach in mind–a history of the California Gold Rush. “In Franklin I looked at a long period of time through the eyes of a single individual. In looking at the Gold Rush I’m going to look at a short period of time through the lives of many individuals. It ought to be fun.”