Premieres Monday and Tuesday, April 4-5 on PBS (check local listings), Benjamin Franklin: Ken Burns movie Profiles are perhaps the most enigmatic of the Founding Fathers – who was also a man of faith, if not of the hard-line kind.
The soapmaker’s tenth son was born in Boston (he was legitimate, unlike his own, and that son’s son and grandsons, which made the Franklin family tradition strange), Franklin finished his formal education at the age of 12.
A self-taught multicultural scholar, he held jobs as printer, writer, editor, businessman, social organizer, inventor, amateur scientist, and economic envoy to England before, late in his life, involved in helping the birth of the American Republic.
Historian Walter Isaacson and Ken Burns discuss Franklin
In the recent (virtual) Television Critics Association winter press tour, Walter Isaacson, author of The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklinaddressing the complex nature of Dr. Franklin (who was an honorary doctorate) saying:
Ben Franklin’s importance is that he was able to connect art with science, and able to connect the humanities and technology. He cared about everything you could learn about anything, from art to anatomy to mathematics to music to diplomacy.
His knowledge helped him figure out the things he did. By being an expert on Newton, he understood checks and balances and balances of forces.
His electrical experiments are considered one of the most important scientific achievements of that period immediately after Newton. And so, I think by being a Renaissance man, like Leonardo da Vinci, he is able to see patterns in nature.
He considered himself a scientist and inventor. I think this is rooted not only in him, but in what was the basis of America.
Ken Burns picked up the thread, saying:
Yes, I think Walter is absolutely right. You’ll be glad to know we’ll be back with a Leonardo movie in a couple of years.
Many of these projects were born at a dinner in Washington, D.C. many years ago, when we realized that we couldn’t separate the right and left brain and could not separate either of these two, sort of, personalities that are arguably among the most important human beings, certainly for Franklin In the eighteenth century.
Whatever history thought, Franklin knew that he was not God
John Adams realized that history would view Franklin as a towering figure, as he said in an April 4, 1790, letter to Benjamin Rush:
The gist of it all would be that Dr. Franklin’s electric rod, hit the ground and flew out of Spring General Washington. Franklin had him electrified with his wand – hence these two conducted all the legislation of policy and war negotiations.
But what Adams and Franklin – and likely Washington too – knew was that there was, above them, a Supreme Being.
Benjamin Franklin It deals with its complex subject’s view of religion. Franklin is often called a deist, a believer in a watchmaker God who does not interfere with our daily lives. He has referred to himself as a “comprehensive deism” in his autobiography, but that’s just part of the story.
It is possible that this clip – which was partially included in the documentary – is closer to the truth as shown in a post on Pennsylvania Heritage website:
Ezra Stills (1727-1795), the Calvinist president of Yale College, was curious about Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) and his faith. In 1790, the senior statesman asked if he would stick to his religious beliefs on paper. Franklin agreed.
He was nearing the end of his life – he died six weeks later – and he probably thought that this was as good a time as any to sum up the religious faith he lived by.
“This is my creed,” Franklin wrote to Styles. “I believe in one God, the Creator of the universe. He rules it with His providence. That he should be worshiped. That the most acceptable service we can give him is to do good to his other children. That the soul of man is immortal, and it will be treated justly in another life respecting its conduct in this …
“As for Jesus of Nazareth…I think the system of morals and religion as he left them to us, is the best the world has ever seen…but I have…some doubts about his divinity; though it’s a question I am not dogmatic about, and have never studied, And I guess I needn’t concern myself with it now, as I soon expect an opportunity to find out the truth with less trouble.”
Franklin’s narrative was classic, witty and straightforward. Religion has no value unless it promotes virtuous behavior. Jesus was the greatest moral teacher who ever lived, but he was not God.
Franklin and Slavery – It’s Complicated
four hours Benjamin Franklin The film — which, in form and presentation, is a Ken Burns classic — leans heavily on Franklin’s inconsistent comments and actions regarding slavery.
In this, he is not alone among the Founding Fathers.
In the end, Franklin came on the right side of the issue, but he still had to support compromises in both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution that ensured that the Southern states joined first and then remained in the Union.
The greatest thing they have had to do as founders, and the greatest thing we have to do in our lives, is to know when to compromise and when to be honest in principle.
Franklin is a great example of this. Usually he gets it right. He knows you can’t have a great democracy without compromise, but there are times when he says you can’t compromise.
They erred, and they are, especially with regard to the three-fifths clause, and Franklin knew it, and that is why he devoted the rest of his life after the Constitutional Convention to being an abolitionist, denouncing the idea of slavery, and trying to get rid of it, and even more than Lincoln, he believed that blacks could Be well educated and be just as capable as whites. In doing so, he becomes someone who promotes education as well.
But in life you have to understand when you have erred and are willing to compromise when you should have remained true to the principle, just as you must understand the times when you have erred and taken a high moral stand but screwed things up even because you cannot bargain.
A nation born of compromise and original sin
As a documentary producer, Burns is generally inclined to compromise. But he, like everyone else in the film industry, was influenced by outside culture.
If this was done ten years ago, Benjamin Franklin He may not have delved so deeply into the issue of slavery. But this is a vital part of the story of America’s founding, and it is undoubtedly part of Franklin’s personal and political story.
Franklin clearly knew that one day – in this world or the next – he and his founding companions would be called on the mission for the compromises they had made…but they still had to make.
Possibly a Peter Stone music/film book/screenplay 1776 Captured it better:
Dr. Benjamin Franklin: We have no choice, John. The condition of slavery should go away.
John Adams: [stunned] Franklin, what do you say?
Dr. Benjamin Franklin: It’s a luxury we can not afford.
John Adams: [pause, then] ‘luxury. luxury?’ Half a million souls are chained… and Dr. Franklin calls it “luxury!” Maybe you should go out with the south!
Dr. Benjamin Franklin: [dangerous] You forgot yourself, sir. You have founded the first anti-slavery society on this continent.
John Adams: Oh, don’t wave your credentials at me! Maybe it’s time to renew it!
Dr. Benjamin Franklin: [angrily] The issue here is independence! You may have forgotten this fact, but I didn’t! How dare you jeopardize our cause when we’ve come this far? These men, no matter how we may disagree with them, are not strip-writers to be commanded about – they are proud, witty men, generous of their colonies. Whether you like them or not, they and the people who represent them will be part of this new nation that you hope to create. Now, either you learn to live with them, or you pack your bags and go home!
Dr. Benjamin Franklin: Anyway, stop acting like Boston Fish’s wife.
While we’re on the topic, bits of history have been overlooked
Speaking of aspects of the American Revolution that were not widely covered, I recently finished listening to the excellent autobiographical audiobook of British historian Andrew Roberts. America’s Last King: The Misunderstood Reign of George III.
One of Roberts’ tasks in the book, if not the main one, is to rehabilitate George III’s reputation in the face of the widespread belief (first codified in the Declaration) that he is a tyrant.
History may have judged George III unfairly on this, but one thing that has struck me is the outsized role that anti-Catholicism played in the revolution – in Both aspects of the conflict.
If Mr. Burns is reading, I’d like to ask for a four-hour document on that.
Photo: Benjamin Franklin’s portrait of Joseph Seyfried Duplessis, 1778 / Image source: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
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