Ken Burns follows the revolutionary life of Benjamin Franklin

As the left attempts to eradicate vast swaths of history, it helps to rediscover the reality — the failures and weaknesses, yes, but also the good ones — behind past generations of Americans. On that point, a new biography of America’s first, and in many ways most important, founding father provides a comprehensive portrait of the life and times of Benjamin Franklin.

Filmmaker Ken Burns’ four-hour documentary provides additional context about Franklin beyond the well-told stories of lightning and bifocals. A man who arrived in Philadelphia in 1723 with little more than clothes on his back, Franklin rose from his boots through hard work and luck, his rise echoing that of the country he would help create.

Blue collar statesman

The documentary focuses on several distinctive facets of Franklin’s life, beginning with the working-class roots that set him apart from other members of the founding generation. A runaway apprentice, Franklin made his initial fortune as a printer – a profession that required not only good literacy and vocabulary skills to set lines of type, but also the physical strength to handle and press plates of heavy metal when printing.

The fact that Franklin, unlike most of his peers, ascended the noble class by merit rather than by birth makes him, as one historian has said, the most accessible of founders. The first episode quotes Franklin from his autobiography discussing his “intrigues with low women” in London and Philadelphia. Can anyone imagine a Puritan like John Adams, or a Stoic figure like George Washington, publicly admitting to such bawdy banter?

Cosmopolitan personality

Despite his blue-collar background, Franklin has spent his life soaking up the experiences of other people and cultures. His job as postmaster general meant that he traveled widely through the American colonies in the north and south inspecting the postal routes.

Franklin lived in London three times, the first when he was just 18, and spent more than eight years in France. In total, he crossed the Atlantic eight times in his lifetime – at a time when such a trip seemed almost as rare as space travel today.

When he was only two years old of formal education, Franklin’s innate curiosity led him to become a man of science, earning praise as a modern Prometheus for how his famous kite experiment helped tame the lightning in the skies. He attended the coronation of King George III – the monarch against whom he would eventually lead a rebellion – met philosophers like Adam Smith and David Hume in person, and witnessed some of the earliest hot air balloon flights while living in France.

His cosmopolitan air led him to become a revolutionary, albeit belatedly. In 1754 – when later revolutionaries James Madison and Thomas Jefferson were still children – Franklin helped propose the Albany Plan, a failed proposal for the American colonies to secure their common defense.

For the next two decades, even as Britain and its American colonies separated, he hoped to find the conditions that would prevent an irreparable rift. But a searing experience in the London Cockpit after the Boston Tea Party convinced Franklin of the need for separation from Britain, which would never regard its colonial subjects as anything but second-class citizens.

‘A more perfect union

It seems fitting that Franklin came to embrace the idea of ​​American independence, not least because his scientific experiments made him the only known American in the world at the time of the Revolution. Even more than his Enlightenment contemporaries, Franklin continually devoted himself to betterment – ​​personal improvement, scientific advancement, and civic upliftment.

Inventions such as the lightning rod and its eponymous stove might have made him a fortune, but Franklin never patented a single one, believing that his creations merely repaid the debt he owed to inventors before him. In his adopted hometown of Philadelphia, he helped found a public library, a fire brigade, and what became the University of Pennsylvania, all in the name of bettering society.

Franklin applied his principles of civic improvement to his personal conduct, echoing the aphorisms of his Poor Richard’s Almanac. He examined daily whether he had adhered to the virtues he deemed necessary for a gentleman. He did not always succeed, especially in family matters. He remained abroad for the last decade of his wife’s life and disowned his son William after the latter remained loyal to the British crown.

But Franklin always tried to improve. In his later years, a man who held slaves all his life and who, as a printer, ran advertisements of slavers seeking information on runaways. He played a leading role in the burgeoning abolitionist movement in Pennsylvania, after lamenting his failure to insert a passage condemning human servitude into the new Constitution.

The first founder

The PBS documentary adapts Burns’ techniques to its 18th-century subject. A biography of a statesman who died half a century before the first daguerreotypes made the photographs – a staple of Burns’ documentaries on the Civil War, baseball and Muhammad Ali, among others – anachronistic for a biography of Franklin. Instead, the producers commissioned a series of woodcuts dramatizing scenes from Franklin’s life and used the “Ken Burns effect” for these scenes, along with other portraits and paintings illustrating the Revolutionary era. .

From his advice printed at home to his famous verdict on the outcome of the Constitutional Convention – “a Republic, if you can keep it” – Benjamin Franklin provided words of wisdom that resonate with Americans even today. Burns’ documentary helpfully refreshes those words, and that example, for a 21st century audience.

“Benjamin Franklin” is available on the PBS website or through the PBS app. Check your local listings for replays.


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