Publisher’s Weekly advance review

Benjamin Franklin’s Last Bet: The Favorite Founder’s Divisive Death, Enduring Afterlife, and Blueprint for American Prosperity

Michael Meyer. Mariner, $28.99 (368p) ISBN 978-1-328-56889-2

Historian Meyer (Last Days of Old Beijing) takes an engrossing look at a lesser-known aspect of Benjamin Franklin’s legacy. Shortly before his death in 1790, Franklin added a codicil to his will allocating £1,000 (equivalent to $133,000 today) each to Boston and Philadelphia, requiring that the money be used to distribute low-interest loans to young, married tradesmen. Drawing on a plan devised by a French mathematician, Franklin projected that with compound interest and careful management, the funds would grow to more than $17 million each by the bicentennial of his death, at which point they were to be “cashed out and spent on civic improvements.” Meyer incorporates intriguing tidbits from Franklin’s biography into the history of the funds, which grew at different rates in Boston and Philadelphia. (The entirety of the Boston fund went to the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology in 1994; the Philadelphia Foundation continues to manage its Franklin Trust Funds.) In the 20th century, Boston trustees voted to include medical students in the loan scheme, while Pennsylvania activist Walter Lyon lobbied for allocations toward environmental conservation. Meyer praises Franklin’s foresight and belief in skilled labor and laments that today, apprenticeship programs lag far behind four-year universities. Enriched by vivid character sketches and lucid explanations of financial and policy matters, this is an entertaining examination of how a wise investment pays off. Agent: Georges Borchardt, Georges Borchardt Inc. (Apr.)