Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness is a sort of pre-history of the American Revolution. ‘Sort of’ because it is a history told through episodes in the lives of, primarily, Benjamin Franklin and the London printer William Strahan, as well as those of Dr Johnson, John Wilkes, Catharine Macaulay and Thomas Paine. The American Revolution breaks out at the end of the book, but it casts its shadow a good deal earlier.
The book opens in 1740, when Franklin, aged thirty-four, was already a well-known figure in Philadelphia as the author and publisher of Poor Richard’s Almanack, the source of such famous aphorisms as ‘Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.’ He conceived an ambition to create an American version of Joseph Addison’s Spectator, but was betrayed by a collaborator, who took the plan to a rival publisher, and was eventually stymied by the absence of a market for one such magazine, let alone two. It did not interfere with his other projects, such as the creation of what would become the University of Pennsylvania.
In 1743, a friendship began that only the start of hostilities between the American colonists and the British army would put an end to. William Strahan, a Scot, was already a successful printer and publisher when he wrote to Franklin to ask him to help a young protégé,