It’s fitting that Benjamin Franklin’s name is in the subtitle of this book rather than the title. Those looking for the life story of one of the more colorful of the Founding Fathers had best go to Walter Isaacson’s popular 2003 biography. Instead, author Jonathan Lyons — longtime editor and correspondent for Reuters, with a doctorate in sociology — chooses to focus on Franklin’s ideas in “The Society for Useful Knowledge.” Yes, we do revisit episodes of Franklin’s life — his boyhood and apprenticeship as a printer, his experience as a newspaper publisher and revolutionary propagandist, his insight as a scientist and inventor. But don’t look here for much on Franklin’s personal life or a chronological portrayal of that life as it unfolded in history. No, this is more a biography of an idea than of a man.
That idea, loosely, was the Enlightenment, which originated in Europe in the 17th century and was brought to the fore by philosophers such as Francis Bacon, Voltaire, Rousseau, John Locke, and David Hume, and by the “natural philosopher” Isaac Newton. It was part of a slow shift from a tradition- and faith-based culture and body politic to one of rational skepticism, empirical investigation, and, ultimately, the idea of a democratic republic in place of an inherited aristocracy.
But empiricism — scientific investigation — was the key. The “useful knowledge” of the title was knowledge with a direct practical application — like Franklin’s lightning rod or Samuel Slater’s water-powered textile mill — as opposed to abstract philosophy or religion’s faith-based systems of thought. Lyons argues convincingly that the American brand of the Enlightenment was unique in this regard. He points out that “Americans had to free themselves from a rigid European economy of knowledge that circumscribed their imaginations as surely as England’s colonial rule restricted their economic autonomy and limited their political freedoms.” In effect, “America’s intellectual grievances . . . were virtually identical to its political and economic ones.”
It’s a subtle point, but Lyons makes it well: Whatever the advances in British and European Enlightenment thinking, it was still a culture bound by religion and monarchy. The religious persecution that drove the Puritans to America was still part and parcel of a way of thinking.
In the new America, as Franklin and his cohort saw it, “experimental science and experiential knowledge” were the order of the day. In place of European metaphysical philosophy and classical education in Greek and Latin came a thirst for the practical application of science and for a practical education in reading and writing English. It was philosophy grounded in the artisanal crafts of printing and smithing, and of architecture and husbandry. Franklin’s experiments with electricity were a public sensation in part because it was a literal shock you could feel in your own body. Thus the various organizations of “leather apron” artisans and “useful knowledge” societies spread throughout the colonies. (One of their descendants lives on in Cambridge’s American Academy of Arts and Sciences, cofounded in 1780 by John Adams.) Among Franklin’s circle we meet the astronomer David Rittenhouse, botanist John Bartram, and the Founding Father, physician, and educator Benjamin Rush. All play their role in Lyons’s story.
The problem is, compelling as these ideas and characters are, Lyons does not give them much narrative life. There are some good stories, such as the groundbreaking efforts by the early American “useful knowledge” societies to deploy the discoveries of the English astronomer Edmond Halley (of comet fame) to measure the transit of Venus across the sun and thereby calculate the distance between the planets. This major scientific breakthrough, however, is but one episode in a narrative that is otherwise inert. Lyons becomes repetitive, so that by the time his epilogue comes once again to “the utility of knowledge,” we’ve more than gotten the point. We can see how central these ideas are to the American character. But we may yearn for the drama of a single character living his life.