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Ken Burns’ New Documentary Shows Benjamin Franklin in All His Contradictions

9 minute read
Smith is a historian and the author of American Honor: The Creation of the Nation's Ideals during the Revolutionary Era. Follow him on Twitter: @craigbrucesmith. All views are those of the author.  

Posterity will never forgive us,” lamented John Adams in the musical 1776 after the Second Continental Congress compromised to omit an anti-slavery passage from the Declaration of Independence. “What would posterity think we were? Demi-gods?” responded Benjamin Franklin. “We’re men. No more, no less.”

But for more than two centuries, Franklin and the founders have been treated as something beyond mortals. Heralded as the “most famous American in the world,” even before the Revolution, Franklin is one of the most important figures in U.S. history. He was the only person to sign the Declaration, the French Treaty of Alliance in 1778, the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolution, and the U.S. Constitution. By his death in 1790, Franklin was literally depicted as a god. Most Americans know his name—even if it’s just from the one reference to him in Hamilton, that time Eric Cartman time-traveled, spending a stack of Benjamins, lines like “early to bed, early to rise,” or as the mislabeled inventor of the soon-to-be-banished daylight savings time.

Franklin will be recast yet again on PBS, thanks to Ken Burns’ latest documentary, Benjamin Franklin. With a clap of thunder, the anticipation of lightning, and the trademark slow camera pan over a historical portrait, Burns’ film exhibits much of the tension that dominates the public discussion of the founders today. We have moved from worship to skepticism to outright vilification of this country’s creators. Today the conflict is between their service to the nations and the weight of their flaws.

Is Franklin as simple to capture as his portrait on the hundred-dollar bill? Or was he as historian Carl Van Doren described in his 1938 biography “a harmonious human multitude”?

Burns felt “obligated to tell all the facets” of Franklin’s life—from the famous kite to attempts to capture runaway slaves. And it shows. Taking a middle-ground approach, the two-part documentary offers a complicated Franklin full of “concealed contradictions.” Burns’ version is a symbol of the Enlightenment and of Revolutionary liberty, but also a deeply flawed father, husband, and man.

What a difference twenty years makes. The last time PBS released a documentary on Franklin was in 2002. It opened with a sponsor’s glowing message of praise “celebrating the wisdom and ingenuity of one of America’s most distinguished founding fathers.” Franklin and his achievements were celebrated. It took three hours for the film to make any mention of Franklin and slavery. Burns’ version does so within three minutes.

Why should Americans care about Franklin or his legacy? Burns thinks it’s because Franklin was the “greatest scientific mind,” the “greatest diplomat in American history,” and the “greatest personality” of the eighteenth century. But also because Franklin lets us “see deeper into the founding and fabric of America.” 70 years old in 1776, Franklin had lived a lifetime before the nation was even born. He has so many faces: the author, the printer, the scientist, the diplomat, the inventor, the revolutionary, the champion of education, the abolitionist, and the founder. Franklin influenced American society in ways unique even for the other founders. Burns realizes this and casts Franklin as just as “indispensable” to the Revolution as George Washington and as crucial to the Declaration as Thomas Jefferson. Above all, we see a Franklin devoted to the greater good of society and national unity.

Lest the viewers endure a 1776-part miniseries, Burns is forced to focus mostly on the hits, omit some names, and gloss over topics worthy of deeper examination. It’s exactly what Vice President John Adams feared in 1790. Far from a fan of Franklin, Adams raged that American Revolutionary history would be reduced to only two names: “Dr Franklin’s electrical Rod, Smote the Earth and out Spring General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his Rod—and thence forward these two conducted all the Policy Negotiations Legislation and War.”

The themes of contradiction, compromise, self-improvement, and self-reflection structure the film. It’s a smart and effective way to manage the various interpretations and effectively blend more than two centuries of historical writing.

Much of the on-screen tension centers on slavery—mirroring the national conversation about the founders today. Franklin and slavery is a worthy inclusion as a prominent theme of the film, but the facts are sometimes disproportionately presented. Franklin certainly owned or purchased about seven slaves and profited from slavery (especially in posting runaway ads in his newspapers), but he was far from the most egregious (or even above average) participant in that horrid institution. Franklin was not Jefferson. He ultimately recognized the worth of African Americans, supported the Bray School for Black students, and served as the president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, the first such group in the world. He even petitioned Congress to “devise means for removing the Inconsistency from the Character of the American People.” Franklin was the only major founder to take such a public and prominent role.

In the film, recently deceased two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Bernard Bailyn (whom Burns calls his “favorite talking head ever”) contends, “Before the Revolution, slavery was never a major public issue. After the Revolution, there never was a time when it wasn’t.” It should not be forgotten that Franklin and the other founders sparked the move toward liberty, the fall of monarchy and aristocracy, but also the rise of abolitionism.

Recent years have brought renewed heightened attention to Franklin and the founders’ personal flaws. In 2018, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, which Franklin helped to start, demanded accountability and the removal of that founder’s “pristine” reputation. Two years later, Franklin was labeled a “person of concern” by the Mayor of Washington, D.C., and a statue of him in his adopted city of Philadelphia was vandalized with red paint (symbolizing blood) on his hands over the sin of slavery.

Franklin is a complicated figure. How can his legacy be understood today?

From his formation of the self-improvement society the Junto and his Albany Plan of Union for the mutual benefit of the colonies to the Constitution, Franklin always considered the “general good” of society. But this did not mean an all-or-nothing approach. Franklin embraced compromise.

Given today’s hyper-partisanship, drastic calls for societal change, and challenges to republican democracy, perhaps we need the self-reflective compromiser. The man who strove to improve himself by practicing his morality and his virtue; the same man who valued “sacrifice to the public good” and national unity, and voted for the Constitution not because it was perfect, but “because I expect no better and because I am not sure that it is not the best.”

People on both sides of the political aisle are quick to look to Franklin. Fox News commentator and author Brian Kilmeade has called Franklin a “genius.” Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senator Amy Klobuchar both claimed Franklin and his post-Constitutional Convention warning that we had “a republic if you can keep it.” Pelosi even altered the words and placed the burden on Americans today: “a republic, if we can keep it.” In the aftermath of the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol, Franklin’s words have been a constant reminder of the need for vigilant citizens and so often repeated that it might as well be a bumper sticker. All sides recognize the value of Franklin’s ideas, even if they offer varying interpretations. Perhaps Franklin is the necessary common ground?

Franklin still has such an appeal to all segments of society because, as biographer Walter Isaacson has declared, he’s “by far the most approachable of our founders.” His rags to riches story, as the “the youngest Son of the youngest Son for 5 Generations back” to an indentured servant to a runaway to a prosperous statesman was the literal inspiration of the American dream. Every citizen can find something in Franklin’s life to admire or aspire to. Franklin was far from perfect. He recognized that himself, keeping spreadsheets tracking his progress on mastering 13 virtues, such as chastity and humility. But he was willing to change from a loyal British subject to an American patriot and from a slaveholder to an abolitionist.

He was also fun. Franklin was famed for his humor, his wit, his flirtations, and his satire. Unlike most on-screen depictions of the founder, Burns’ Franklin is very serious (perhaps the one overarching flaw in the documentary). Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff calls Franklin the “only founder who evidently had a sense of humor [and] a sex life.” We really don’t see this light-hearted Franklin in Burns’ film. Maybe Michael Douglas will do better in the upcoming dramatic series for Apple TV. In the meantime, play The Decemberists“Ben Franklin’s Song” (2017) (written by Lin-Manuel Miranda), which captures his bravado, humor, and innuendo masterfully.

As the nation prepares to celebrate its 250th birthday in 2026, will we focus on the wisdom and triumphs of Franklin and the founders, or cast them from their pedestals for their sins? In a conversation, Burns emphasized that Americans “need the full unvarnished truth” about their history. He purposely doesn’t offer any definitive conclusion about Franklin. Do Franklin’s flaws as a slaveholder, father, and husband outweigh his contributions to the nation? Burns lets viewers make their own decisions.

Despite some minor historical inaccuracies, Burns has crafted an educational film that will appeal to the average viewer while also appeasing the academics who often delight in criticizing him and other pop histories. He has accurately captured the tension between the past and the present. Perhaps Burns’ centrist, “warts and all” approach is the way forward? Either way, the debate will only get more controversial the closer we get to July 4, 2026.

Regardless of how they view Franklin the man, Americans would be well served to remember Franklin’s ideas, his devotion to the nation, and his self-reflection. What do we gain by championing Franklin? A republic, if you can keep him.

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