Ken Burns shows the many contradictions of Benjamin Franklin

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 that we were? Half god ? replied Benjamin Franklin. ” We are men. No more no less.”

But for more than two centuries, Franklin and the Founders were 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 the history of the United States. He was the only one to sign the Declaration, the French Treaty of Alliance of 1778, the Treaty of Paris which put an end to the Revolution and the American Constitution. When he died in 1790, Franklin was literally portrayed as a God. Most Americans know his name, even if only from the single reference to him in hamiltonthat time Eric Cartman traveled back in time, spending a stack of Benjamins, lines like ‘go to bed early, get up early’, or as the mislabeled inventor of the soon to be daylight saving time banished.

Franklin will be rerun again on PBS, thanks to Ken Burns’ latest documentary, benjamin franklin. With a thunderclap, the anticipation of lightning, and the camera slowly panning over a historical portrait, Burns’ film shows much of the tension that dominates public debate about the founders today. We have gone from worship to skepticism to outright vilification of the creators of this country. Today, the conflict is between their service to the nations and the weight of their faults.

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

Burns felt “compelled to recount every facet” of Franklin’s life, from the famous kite to the attempts to capture runaway slaves. And it shows. Taking a middle-of-the-road approach, the two-part documentary features a complicated Franklin full of “hidden contradictions.” Burns’ version is a symbol of Enlightenment and revolutionary freedom, but also a deeply flawed father, husband, and man.

What a difference twenty years make. The last time PBS released a documentary about Franklin was in 2002. It opened with a glowing message from a sponsor “celebrating the wisdom and ingenuity of one of America’s most distinguished founding fathers. America”. Franklin and his accomplishments were celebrated. It took three hours for the film to make mention of Franklin and slavery. Burns’ version does it in 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 18th century. But also because Franklin leaves ussee deeper into the foundation and fabric of America.” Aged 70 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 a way that was unique even to other founders. Burns realizes this and views 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 viewers endure a 1,776-part miniseries, Burns is forced to focus mostly on hits, omit certain names, and gloss over topics worthy of closer scrutiny. This is exactly what Vice President John Adams feared in 1790. Far from being a fan of Franklin, Adams raged that American revolutionary history would be reduced to just two names:Dr. Franklin’s Electric Rod, Smote the Earth and Spring General Washington. That Franklin shocked him with his cane – and from there these two conducted all political negotiations, legislation and war.”

Themes of contradiction, compromise, self-improvement and self-reflection structure the film. It’s a smart and efficient way to manage different interpretations and effectively mix over two centuries of historical writing.

Much of the on-screen tension centers around slavery, mirroring the national conversation about founders today. Franklin and slavery deserves inclusion as the film’s main theme, but the facts are sometimes disproportionately presented. Franklin certainly owned or purchased about seven slaves and profited from slavery (particularly by running fleeting advertisements in its newspapers), but he was far from the most egregious (or even above average) participant in this horrible institution. Franklin was not Jefferson. He came to recognize the value of African Americans, argued the Bray School for black students and served as president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, the first such group in the world. He even asked Congress to “devise means to eliminate the inconsistency of the character of the American people.” Franklin was the only major founder to play such a public and important role.

In the film, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning and recently deceased historian Bernard Bailyn (who Burns calls his “favorite talking head”) asserts, “Before the Revolution, slavery was never a major public issue. After the Revolution, there was never a time when this was not the case. We must not forget that Franklin and the other founders triggered the movement towards freedom, the fall of the monarchy and the aristocracy, but also the rise of abolitionism.

Recent years have brought renewed attention to Franklin and the founders’ personal flaws. In 2018, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, which Franklin helped start, demanded accountability and the removal of the “perfect” reputation. Two years later, Franklin was called “person of concernby the Mayor of Washington, DC, and a statue of him in his adopted hometown of Philadelphia was vandalized with red paint (symbolizing blood) on his hands over the sin of slavery.

Franklin is a complicated character. How to understand his heritage today?

From his formation of the self-improvement society Junto and his plan of Union of Albany for the mutual benefit of the colonies to the Constitution, Franklin always considered the “general goodBut that didn’t 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-reflexive compromiseer. The man who strove to improve himself by practicing his morality and virtue; the same man who enjoyed “to sacrifice to the public good” and national unity, and voted for the Constitution not because it was perfect, but “because I don’t expect better and because I’m not sure it’s not the best.

People on both sides of the political aisle are quickly turning to Franklin. Fox News commentator and author Brian Kilmeade called Franklin “genius.” Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senator Amy Klobuchar both asserted Franklin and his warning of the post-Constitutional Convention that we had “a republic if you can keep it.” Pelosi even changed the words and placed the onus on Americans today: “a republic, if we can keep it.” In the aftermath of the January 6 attack on the United States Capitol, Franklin’s words were a constant reminder of the need for vigilant citizens and so often say again that it might as well be a bumper sticker. All parties recognize the value of Franklin’s ideas, even as they offer varying interpretations. Perhaps Franklin is the necessary middle ground?

Franklin still has such appeal to all segments of society because, as biographer Walter Isaacson said, he is “by far the most approachable of our founders.” His story of rags to riches, like the “the the youngest Son from the youngest Son for 5 generations“to an indentured servant to a fugitive to a successful 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, keep spreadsheets track his progress in mastering 13 virtues, such as chastity and humility. But he was ready to go from a loyal British subject to an American patriot and from a slaveholder to an abolitionist.

He was also fun. Franklin was famous for his humor, wit, flirtations and satire. Unlike most onscreen portrayals of the Founder, Burns’ Franklin is dead serious (perhaps the documentary’s single overriding flaw). Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff calls Franklin “the only founder who obviously 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 next one. drama series for Apple TV. In the meantime, play The Decemberists“Ben Franklin’s Song” (2017) (written by Lin-Manuel Miranda), which masterfully captures his bravado, humor and innuendo.

As the nation prepares to celebrate its 250th anniversary in 2026, will we focus on the wisdom and triumphs of Franklin and the Founders, or throw them off their pedestals for their sins? In conversation, Burns stressed that Americans “need the full, unvarnished truth” about their history. It deliberately offers no definitive conclusions about Franklin. Do Franklin’s flaws as a slave owner, 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 placating scholars who often delight in criticizing it and other pop stories. He aptly captured the tension between past and present. Perhaps Burns’ centrist, “warts and all” approach is the way to go? Either way, the debate is only going to get more contentious as we get closer to July 4, 2026.

Regardless of how they view Franklin the man, Americans would be well served to remember Franklin’s ideas, his dedication to the nation, and his introspection. What do we gain by defending Franklin? A republic, if you can keep it.

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