Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson Summary

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Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson

My Thoughts

This was a good biography, and Benjamin Franklin is an interesting person to read about. He had such a diversity of interests. If you enjoy this book I also recommend reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci.

My Favorite Quotes

  • Knowledge is obtained by the use of the ear rather than of the tongue.
  • Diligence is the mother of good luck.
  • He is a fool that cannot conceal his wisdom.
  • The older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment and pay more respect to the judgment of others.

Key Questions

  • How does one live a life that is useful, virtuous, worthy, moral, and spiritually meaningful?


In reviewing the life of Benjamin Franklin, we are grappling with a fundamental issue. How does one live a life that is useful, virtuous, worthy, moral, and spiritually meaningful?

General Notes

A rule of human nature that Benjamin Franklin learned early in life that served him well: people are more likely to admire your work if you are able to keep them from feeling jealous of you.

Knowledge is obtained by the use of the ear rather than of the tongue. Franklin worked on his use of silence and gentle dialogue.

Franklin liked to pursue discussions through soft Socratic inquiries.

Because of the vanity of man, minding what others say is a much surer way of pleasing them than talking well ourselves.

The Library of Congress website has images of Thomas Jefferson’s “original rough draft” of the Declaration of Independence with edits written by Benjamin Franklin’s own hand. Here is the direct link.

Franklin’s List of Common Conversational Sins Which Cause Dislike

  • Talking too much (incites resentment)
  • Seeming uninterested
  • Speaking too much about your own life
  • Prying for personal secrets
  • Telling long and pointless stories
  • Contradicting or disputing someone directly
  • Ridiculing or railing against things (except in small witty doses)
  • Spreading scandal

Franklin used silence wisely, employed an indirect style of persuasion, and feigned modesty and naivety in disputes.

Benjamin Franklin and friends formed the Junto Club which met on Friday evenings for the purpose of mutual improvement. More information is available at this Wikipedia article and this Benjamin Franklin Historical Society article.

Twenty-Four Conversational Contributions Each Member of the Junto Can Make

  1. Have you met with any thing in the author you last read, remarkable, or suitable to be communicated to the Junto? Particularly in history, morality, poetry, physics, travels, mechanic arts, or other parts of knowledge?
  2. What new story have you lately heard agreeable for telling in conversation?
  3. Has any citizen in your knowledge failed in his business lately, and what have you heard of the cause?
  4. Have you lately heard of any citizen’s thriving well, and by what means?
  5. Have you lately heard how any present rich man, here or elsewhere, got his estate?
  6. Do you know of any fellow citizen, who has lately done a worthy action, deserving praise and imitation? Or who has committed an error proper for us to be warned against and avoid?
  7. What unhappy effects of intemperance have you lately observed or heard? Of imprudence? Of passion? Or of any other vice or folly?
  8. What happy effects of temperance? Of prudence? Of moderation? Or of any other virtue?
  9. Have you or any of your acquaintance been lately sick or wounded? If so, what remedies were used, and what were their effects?
  10. Who do you know that are shortly going [on] voyages or journeys, if one should have occasion to send by them?
  11. Do you think of any thing at present, in which the Junto may be serviceable to mankind? To their country, to their friends, or to themselves?
  12. Hath any deserving stranger arrived in town since last meeting, that you heard of? And what have you heard or observed of his character or merits? and whether think you, it lies in the power of the Junto to oblige him, or encourage him as he deserves?
  13. Do you know of any deserving young beginner lately set up, whom it lies in the power of the Junto any way to encourage?
  14. Have you lately observed any defect in the laws, of which it would be proper to move the legislature an amendment? Or do you know of any beneficial law that is wanting?
  15. Have you lately observed any encroachment on the just liberties of the people?
  16. Hath any body attacked your reputation lately? And what can the Junto do towards securing it?
  17. Is there any man whose friendship you want, and which the Junto, or any of them, can procure for you?
  18. Have you lately heard any member’s character attacked, and how have you defended it?
  19. Hath any man injured you, from whom it is in the power of the Junto to procure redress?
  20. In what manner can the Junto, or any of them, assist you in any of your honorable designs?
  21. Have you any weighty affair in hand, in which you think the advice of the Junto may be of service?
  22. What benefits have you lately received from any man not present?
  23. Is there any difficulty in matters of opinion, of justice, and injustice, which you would gladly have discussed at this time?
  24. Do you see any thing amiss in the present customs or proceedings of the Junto, which might be amended?

Benjamin Franklin’s 13 Virtues

  1. Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
  2. Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
  3. Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
  4. Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
  5. Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
  6. Industry. Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
  7. Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  8. Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
  9. Moderation. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  10. Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.
  11. Tranquility. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
  12. Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
  13. Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.


  • Diligence is the mother of good luck.
  • He is a fool that cannot conceal his wisdom.
  • Genius without education is like silver in the mine.
  • There was never a good knife made of bad steel.
  • Half the truth is often a great lie.
  • The good man may do separately is small compared with what they may do collectively.
  • When a man’s actions are just and honorable, the more they are known the more his reputation is increased and established.
  • The older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment and pay more respect to the judgment of others.

Community Organizations Launched by the Junto

  • Library
  • Fire brigade
  • Night watchman corp
  • Hospital
  • Militia
  • College

The Constitutional Convention

Three unique and crucial strengths that made Franklin central to the resolving the core issues of the Constitutional Convention.

  1. He was far more comfortable with democracy than most of the delegates.
  2. He was by far the most traveled of the delegates.
  3. He possessed a sense of tolerance and pragmatic compromise.

Franklin warned the members of the Constitutional Convention that to succeed, they had to be awed by the magnitude of their task and be humble, not assertive.

Franklin realized that the Constitutional Convention had succeeded not because they were self-assured, but because they were willing to concede that they might be fallible.

Related Book Summaries

Hope you enjoyed this and got value from my notes.
This is the 33rd book read in my 2020 reading list.
Here is a list of my book summaries.

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