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Book Review


Carla J. Mulford, Benjamin Franklin and the Ends of Empire. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. ix + 426. $65.00 (cloth).


     Benjamin Franklin is known as America's eldest founding father to both students and scholars of history. His vast experience set him apart from the other founders that he worked with as America forged its independence. Benjamin Franklin and the Ends of Empire delves deep into this iconic figure of American history in a way that scholars of both American history and world history will find intriguing and enjoyable. This book presents a literary biography of Benjamin Franklin, and in doing so looks at early modern liberalism in Franklin's own life, how for him common good and personal liberty were very much intertwined. Not only will the reader walk away with a greater understanding of Franklin but also of how his beliefs were shaped by political events of the eighteenth century on both sides of the Atlantic.

     Carla Mulford, editor of The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Franklin and the founding president of the Society of Early Americanists, is well versed to complete what is not an easy task. With so much published already about this era and its history makers, Mulford brings a fresh perspective to the life of Benjamin Franklin, showing that there is even greater complexity to the man so many grow up learning about. Those familiar with him already will see common highlights from the era, but Mulford uses Franklin's writings to provide readers an inside look into the thoughts of one of America's founding fathers. Specifically, the book focuses on trade, economics, and political theory, which the author intertwines with Franklin's writings on populations, impacts on land use, and imperialist attitudes. In the chapters on the colonial era, notably on Franklin's work during the French and Indian War and the American Revolution, Mulford delivers the depth of analysis that other books have failed to provide. Mulford goes beyond the Benjamin Franklin that so many are familiar with and reveals the complex layers to Franklin's life starting with his family's life and struggles in Britain through a thorough examination of his writings and interactions with other influential men, some within the American colonies and others across the Atlantic Ocean.

     The book is organized in a rough chronological fashion. The biography opens with the Franklin family in England and the religious and political turmoil in their homeland that led to their eventual migration to America. The early chapters also elaborate on Franklin's intellectual, liberal, and humanist roots. Mulford keeps a steady pace, moving through Franklin's youth, to Pennsylvania politics and problems with supporting Britain's empire, onto the time he spent abroad, through the American Revolution, and finally, his later years. Selected excerpts of writings from Franklin and his contemporaries still ring as powerfully today as they ever did back then. This only furthers the argument that Franklin understood the problems of politics, society, and the economy of a growing colony and new nation in the midst of the global scene.

     The middle of the book examines Franklin's early adulthood venture into Pennsylvania politics and his thoughts on trade, imperialism, and negotiations of rights in the colonies. It was in Pennsylvania that he began to consider, as Mulford's title states, the ends of empire in relation to people toiling in the empire's lands and participating in its network of trade. Mulford shows Franklin's concern over the restrictive attitude toward paper currency and the negative impact it had on the working class. While wealthier people may not have cared to see more paper money in circulation, Franklin argued it was important in order for greater economic exchanges to take place.

     The book then moves on to Franklin's work in London and his growing frustration with the actions of British ministry that ended up hurting their fellow North Americans and Franklin's eventual break with Britain. The last two chapters cover the American Revolution and Franklin's final years, which show that age did not slow down his continued examinations of social issues and politics in America and abroad. Examples of Franklin's writing and related works throughout the book illuminate the themes of the chapters in which they are included; the few images visually enhance the publication.

     Mulford's analysis and presentation of Franklin's writing shows a deep awareness of the situations both in Pennsylvania and other colonies, as well as on the larger world scale. Her biography displays the perceptive interest Franklin held in the era's colonial and global economy and politics. Her writing draws out Franklin's understanding of the complexity of these issues and his long-term impact on colonial and British history. Mulford's global perspective of Franklin will intrigue those of a world history persuasion, helping them to see how Britain's colonial interest in America and around the globe fit together. Since the book focuses largely on Franklin's thoughts on British imperial politics, economics, and transatlantic trade with multiple colonies of Britain, it helps us understand the subsequent era of industrialization and interregional and global integration. Mulford uses Franklin's writings to place the events in America and his life experiences across both sides of the Atlantic in a global context in which they belong. Franklin's trip to Ireland and his observations regarding absentee landlords versus those who toiled the land impacted his views of the straining relationship between the British colonists in North America and the Crown. It also provides an interesting point of view to some of Britain's economic and political policies within that country and toward its colonies. Franklin's writings to Ireland and Scotland also show that he was not only concerned with the political and economic fate of Britons in North America but about overall health of the British Empire itself. Franklin understood that the British Empire could not continue in the manner it had without considering the impact local economic and political policies had on its imperial subjects. Those interested in American history will appreciate this book's complex treatment of the relationship between Britain and her colony as the struggle for independence in America developed, as well as its more complete biographical picture of America's eldest founding father. Franklin continued to champion for the success of the British Empire, but over time, as evident in the Franklin-Shirley letters of 1750, he came to argue that Britons in North America could remain a part of the British Empire but could also thrive without it. Mulford does a good job of using Franklin's writings to fulfill her task of helping us understand the global context of North American colonial discord with Britain and struggle for American independence. Reading Mulford's biography of Franklin, with her keen use of his political and economic writings, can only deepen one's appreciation for this historical figure and the vision he had for the colonies. One gains a greater sense of his tireless work for the betterment of a land he loved dearly.

Erica Niemi received her Master's of Arts in Military History from American Military University, and teaches Advanced Placement World History and World History survey courses to high school students. Contact her at


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