Ken Burns’s Benjamin Franklin, written by longtime collaborator Dayton Duncan, chronicles the multifaceted private and public life of the eighteenth-century Renaissance man. The son of a candlemaker, Franklin was born 1706 in Boston and, despite only two years of formal schooling, went on to become a writer, printer, publisher, humorist, slave owner, scientist, inventor, revolutionary, Constitutional Convention member, and celebrity as “America’s greatest diplomat.”
In covering Franklin’s eighty-four years, Burns does much more than merely create a standard biopic. The filmmaker uncovers an electrifying fact, long overlooked (if not hidden) by school textbooks and even by Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.
Benjamin Franklin unearths the title character’s grand finale, how, in the last months of his life, Franklin fought to live up to the egalitarian credo he’d helped Thomas Jefferson draft in the Declaration of Independence. Franklin’s jaw-dropping final political act, as disclosed by Burns in his almost four-hour nonfiction epic, is genuinely heartwarming and full of hope for our troubled age.
Why did young Franklin leave Puritan Massachusetts?
It’s very interesting. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was essentially — it’s so ironic — founded by Puritans escaping religious persecution in Europe, particularly England. But they had a dogmatic approach to how they ran the colony. So much so that we celebrate people like Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson who fled Massachusetts for religious freedom of their own.
What you find is a young Franklin, who is an indentured servant to his brother in his printshop, beginning to pen things — as his brother is doing — that are upsetting the powers that be. Of course, his brother does spend some time in jail. But what’s so notable about it, besides Benjamin’s fleeing to Philadelphia and becoming a runaway, is that he’s also beginning a literary career — first with these anonymous letters that are tongue in cheek but also making people laugh, yet also have a distance from the kind of criticism he’s leveling.
Franklin seems to be someone embraced by right-wing libertarians today both for his advocacy of being self-made as well as his belief in individual liberty. But your film shows it’s not as simple as that with Franklin.
Isn’t it amazing that we’re debating the tension? Franklin is celebrated for being a self-made person by libertarians. Of course, he’s also someone very into the common good and civic improvement. He’s inventing these wonderful — in some cases — lifesaving inventions, but he doesn’t take out a patent on them.
So it’s plus ça change — it’ so very contemporary without us ever saying that. We didn’t need to. It’s hard for people to believe, with all our films, because they feel like they’re written with an eye on today, and they’re not. Human nature just doesn’t change.