Ben Franklin was the most famous American of his time. Ken Burns’ new documentary shows why

If we go by money, Benjamin Franklin, the man on the $100 bill, is 20 times more important than Abraham Lincoln, 100 times more important than George Washington, and 10 times more important than Alexander Hamilton,” Hamilton” notwithstanding. This is bad math, of course, because there is no calculation that makes Andrew Jackson four times more important than Lincoln, or 20 times more important than Washington. But it gives some idea of ​​its historical and cultural status that Franklin, who was not a president, is the face of the coinage with the highest denomination in circulation. (And he’s been a figure in at least two musicals, “Ben Franklin in Paris” and “1776,” so he has some Broadway credibility, too.)

Of all the founding fathers, Franklin is by far the most colorful, interesting, experienced and talented; that he had his flaws as well as his substantial gifts is something Ken Burns’ informative, well-framed, and entertaining PBS documentary titled “Benjamin Franklin,” with Burns’ usual frankness, doesn’t shy away from saying. In fact, his charges of 18th century racism (Franklin was a slave owner but ended up being an abolitionist) and how the American Revolution further dispossessed indigenous peoples should make him controversial in sectors currently engaged in the concealment, so to speak, of American history. . There are also things in his domestic life that make him look less than a picture of perfect justice. He was full of contradictions, but you can’t exactly call him a hypocrite; he saw himself as a work in progress, and he moved forward, methodically recording his failures to live up to his own ideals and prescriptions.

Peter Coyote, the usual Voice of Burns, is our narrator, with a Mandy Patinkin speaking in Franklin’s own words, much of which he left behind, including an unfinished autobiography and a host of aphorisms still in common use. “Benjamin Franklin,” which opens Monday, features a complement of historians of varying ages, colors and genders, who triangulate the founding father’s personality and achievements, taking the less well with the good but finding more to admire only to censorship (attenuated). He is called the only founder “who obviously had a sense of humor, who was obviously human, who obviously had a sex life”.

Executed with the usual abundance of Burns pictorial sources (success gives access), minimal re-enactment (a few sailboats, type placement, key-making), and new woodcut-style illustrations, it is an attractive job, spread over four hours and two nights. As the most famous American of his generation, the first face of the nation, Franklin was much painted, in his lifetime and afterwards; we get a good visual picture of his life and times.

With his recognizable grandfatherly demeanor and various colorful extra-political exploits, Franklin is a popular character, joked about and ridiculed (as in the Disney book and animated series “Ben and Me”, which credits his successes to a mouse from church) and may appear to be a supporting player in the story rather than one of its main driving forces. Franklin’s story is what we might consider the epitome of pre-colonial America, though he fortunately spent years away from it, representing colonial interests in London and revolutionaries in Paris, where he was celebrated and flirted like a septuagenarian pop star: “It seems someone spread the word that I liked ladies, so everyone would introduce me to their ladies, or the ladies would show up to be kissed”, while obtaining financial and military support without which today one could swear allegiance to the Queen.

American commissioners of preliminary peace negotiations with Great Britain. From left to right: John Jay, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Laurens and William Temple Franklin. Painting by Benjamin West, in the collection of Museum, Garden and Library Winterthur


Born in Puritan Boston and educated for just two years, Franklin grew up with books. His first big act was an attempt at freedom, breaking his contracts with his printer brother James and arriving penniless in Philadelphia at age 17, where his skills and industry made him prosperous and influential enough to essentially retire at 42 years old. scientific experiments, intellectual correspondence, civic work, and what was to become national politics. “I prefer that people say: ‘He lived usefully’ than ‘He died rich’”, he wrote to his mother.

He was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence: he changed Thomas Jefferson’s original “We hold these truths sacred and undeniable” to “We hold these truths self-evident”, of the Constitution and Treaty of Paris, which ended the war of independence. He flew kites: Franklin’s famous experiment to determine if lightning was electricity led him to invent the lightning rod, leading philosopher Immanuel Kant to describe him as “the new Prometheus”. He coined the term “battery” to describe an array of electrically charged containers. He traced and named the Gulf Stream. He refused to patent any of his inventions, which also include a type of upper stove, bifocals and the glass harmonica, an instrument for which Mozart and Beethoven would compose, for “just as we enjoy great benefits from inventions of others, we should be happy to have the opportunity to serve others with one of our inventions, and we should do so with generosity and freedom”.

The second hour, “An American,” follows Franklin from a settler who felt allegiance to Britain to a revolutionary who felt none, and the course of the war, which is inextricably linked to a family drama that adds an unexpected note of personal tragedy. William, Franklin’s beloved son (by a woman other than his wife), who had aided him in his electrical experiments and accompanied him to London, had become Governor of New Jersey. They found themselves on opposite sides of the conflict, with William an active organizer of British terrorism, and this drove a wedge between them, which William hoped to close after the war but which Franklin coolly kept open. It’s an abnormal note in a life so devoted to tolerance, compromise and new thinking.

One wonders what Franklin, transported into our current imperfect union, would think of us. Like the person who wrote, “From the collision of different sentiments, sparks of truth are kindled and political light is gained,” he may well be appalled by the stubborn polarization of a government he helped define. . (Although he preferred a one-body Congress and a three-person executive committee to a president.) As a man of reason and science who rejected religious orthodoxy, one guesses, without predicting what he would think of a particular politics, or contemporary mores that would never have crossed his mind: that it would have been unfortunate to see superstition and conspiracy theory infected the body politic. And as someone who instituted postal door-to-door delivery and cut the delivery time from New York to Philadelphia to one day, I would definitely look at a Louis DeJoy and cry.

‘Benjamin Franklin’


When: 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. Monday and Tuesday

Rating: TV-PG (may not be suitable for young children)

“Well, doctor, what do we have, a republic or a monarchy? Franklin was questioned as he left the Constitutional Convention.

“A republic,” he famously replied. “If it can be maintained.”

The question remains open, which makes “Benjamin Franklin” even more valuable.

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