Ken Burns Shows Benjamin Franklin’s Many Contradictions
“Posterity will never forgive us,” lamented John Adams in the musical 1776The Second Continental Congress agreed to leave out an anti-slavery clause from the Declaration of Independence. “What would posterity think we were? Demi-gods?” responded Benjamin Franklin. “We’re men. No more, no less.”
Over two centuries, Franklin’s founders and their descendants have been considered beyond human comprehension. 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. The Declaration was signed by Franklin in 1778. It is the French Treaty of Alliance. Franklin was literally portrayed as a god by his death in 1790. 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. The conflict today is between the service they provide to other nations and their inability to bear the burden of their faults.
Franklin’s portrait on the $100 bill is as easy to capture as Franklin’s? 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. The documentary is a success. 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.
It’s amazing how twenty years can make a big difference. PBS’s last documentary about Franklin was released 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. Three hours passed before the movie made any mention of Franklin or slavery. Burns’ version does so within three minutes.
What is the point of Americans caring about Franklin and 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. There are many people who can be called Franklin the author, printer, scientist, diplomat, inventor, revolutionary, champion of education and founder. Franklin contributed to American society in a way that is unlike any of the 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. We see Franklin dedicated to national unity and the greater good.
Burns has to concentrate on the highlights, ignore some people, and avoid delve into topics that would be more interesting. 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.”
Film’s themes include self-improvement and self-criticism, as well as the topics of compromise, contradiction, self-improvement and self-reflection. 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. Although Franklin and slavery are a significant theme in the movie, the facts can sometimes be overstated. Franklin owned seven slaves or bought them. He also made a profit from slavery, especially by placing runaway advertisements in newspapers. But he wasn’t the worst (or most outrageous) of those who participated in this horrible institution. Franklin was not Jefferson. He was not Jefferson. 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 an intricate figure. Is it possible to understand Franklin’s legacy 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. However, this didn’t mean that there was an “all-or-nothing” approach. Franklin was open to 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.”
Franklin is a popular choice for people on both the left and right. 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. Maybe Franklin represents the common ground needed?
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 SonYou can find 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’s life was anything but perfect. Franklin was aware of this and kept spreadsheets that tracked his progress in mastering the 13 virtues (chastity, humility, etc.). He was willing to transform from being a loyal British subject into an American patriot, and from being a slaveholder into an abolitionist.
Franklin was fun. Franklin’s humor, wit, flirtations and sense of humor were all well-known. 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. Perhaps Michael Douglas might do better in the drama series that Apple TV will be producing. Play The Decemberists while you wait.’ “Ben Franklin’s Song” (2017) (written by Lin-Manuel Miranda), which captures his bravado, humor, and innuendo masterfully.
Will we be focusing on Franklin’s wisdom and victories as the nation celebrates its 250th anniversary in 2026 or will they focus instead on their mistakes? 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 allows viewers to make their own choices.
Burns created an educative film that, in spite of some historical mistakes, will be enjoyed by most viewers. He also delights in discussing the pop history and academics. His film captures the tension between the present and the past. Perhaps Burns’ centrist, “warts and all” approach is the way forward? Whatever the case, it is certain that the discussion will continue to be controversial until 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. Franklin’s championing is good for us. A republic, if you can keep him.
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