Benjamin Franklin is having a moment. For decades he has hovered on the periphery of popular representations of the American founding. This month, however, Franklin gets marquee billing as the focus of a four-hour biographical documentary from filmmaker Ken Burns (premiering Monday on PBS), plus a new book from writer Michael Meyer on the afterlife of Franklin’s philanthropic efforts. This follows on the heels of a February announcement that Michael Douglas will play Franklin in an upcoming Apple TV+ limited series based on his life.
It is, in some ways, odd that Franklin has not gotten the same level of attention as his compatriots during the flourishing of “Founders Chic,” a two-decade-old trend in American popular history in which biographers, writers, and musical theater impresarios have celebrated the major figures of the Revolution as an 18th century “greatest generation” that nobly led the United States to independence and set it on a path to freedom. Franklin was a generation older than many of the others involved in the founding, a fact that has affected his portrayals in this recent wave of Founder-centric pop culture. In the 1969 Broadway musical 1776, a Founders Chic precursor, Franklin is the avuncular sidekick to John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, dispensing one-liners and the occasional timely advice to keep independence moving. In HBO’s 2008 miniseries John Adams, Franklin, no longer a friendly father figure, is instead portrayed by Tom Wilkinson as a lecherous schemer who preys on the women of Paris and undercuts Adams’ efforts at American diplomacy. Lin-Manuel Miranda cut a Franklin number from Hamilton (2015), but later released it as a stand-alone track performed by the Decemberists. In the voice of Franklin, lead singer Colin Meloy recounts his career accomplishments, leading into a repeated chorus, “Do you know who the f*** I am?” Given the song’s message, it’s a touch ironic that Miranda so easily sidelined Franklin, but that’s how things have gone for the Philadelphian, who has so often seemed like an outlier in the story of the founding.
Why has the spotlight now swung to Franklin? One easy answer is that he’s always seemed to be the Founding Father most likely to enjoy modern American life. One can readily envision Franklin engaging in debates via blog, Twitter feed, or TikTok. That modern sensibility makes him a useful subject for humor. Unlike most of the other Founders, he was truly self-made. His family was not destitute while he grew up in Boston, but he was the 15th of 17 children, and the youngest son. He worked hard wherever he went, from his brother’s printing office in Boston to ones in Philadelphia and London. He cultivated connections with important men in each place. And he sought to project precisely that image to the world. “In order to secure my Credit and Character as a Tradesman,” he wrote in his autobiography, “I took care not only to be in Reality Industrious and frugal, but to avoid all Appearances of the Contrary.” The fact that he rose from a position as a youngest son of a candle- and soap-maker to become a wealthy businessman, renowned scientist, political leader, and diplomat is legitimately impressive, but it also makes him a Founder particularly suited to contemporary American hustle culture.
He also appears accessible and human in his writings. Jefferson, by contrast, is practically inscrutable; Washington cultivated during his own lifetime an arm’s-length distance from the general public; John Adams—well, the man did many great things, but he was prickly. Franklin, in the writings he left behind, appears warm and fun-loving. And he wore his flaws lightly—the contradictions between his accomplishments and his failures are right in the open, sometimes thanks to Franklin himself. In his most extensive piece of writing, his autobiography, Franklin recounts both his triumphs and tribulations. He outsmarts his brother James to escape his indenture, but then arrives in Philadelphia with barely enough money to feed himself. After wandering the streets with “three great Puffy Rolls”—one to eat and one under each arm—he enters a Quaker meeting house and promptly falls asleep. He outlines an attempt at self-discipline by cultivating virtues such as temperance, frugality, and justice. But upon informing his friends about the plan, they insisted that he add one more: humility. He interprets that to mean that he should “imitate Jesus and Socrates.”