Had it been released five years ago, Ken Burns’s recent documentary Benjamin Franklin would have seemed like just another iteration of the Burns formula: a stentorian yet intimate narrator, ponderous panning shots over still images, period music transporting us to a bygone time, experts bubbling over with enthusiasm, and a compelling human story to tie the package together. But in the fog of our current history wars — 1619 vs. 1776, contested monuments, and the hyped-up furor over something called critical race theory — the documentary has acquired a cultural weight I’m sure Burns never intended or expected. Benjamin Franklin illustrates everything that is wrong with how most white Americans think about their nation’s founding.
Ken Burns is America’s historian. Since his start with The Brooklyn Bridge, in 1981, for which he earned his first Academy Award nomination, Burns’s documentaries have regularly attracted NFL-size audiences. When The Civil War first aired, in 1990, it drew the largest audience of any PBS show, ever. Since then, Burns has directed dozens of films under a long-term PBS contract. Even professional historians have recognized him as the closest thing America has to a historian laureate: The American Historical Review, the flagship journal in the field, invited him to write an essay on the “changing nature of historical truth” for its centennial issue, in 1995. (Burns declined the invitation but agreed to an interview with the journal.)
Burns’s chosen topics often appear likely to split audiences along culture-war cleavages: the Civil War, Jack Johnson, Vietnam, the Central Park Five, Muhammad Ali. Yet he has shown an uncanny ability to package even divisive topics in ways that ultimately reinforce a sense of patriotism and belonging.
In endeavoring to sing Benjamin Franklin, Burns can’t avoid taking sides in a longstanding scholarly debate in which everyone begins by agreeing that Franklin is the prime exemplar and shaper of the thing we call the United States of America. Franklin’s life does indeed trace the full arc of the 18th century, and no founder had a better vantage point from which to make sense of it all. Franklin soaked up political debates as a printer, surveyed the full sweep and variety of the colonies as deputy postmaster to the Crown, attended the coronation of George III, represented the rebel Continental Congress in London, took part in a last-ditch negotiation on Staten Island to end hostilities with the British, charmed Louis XVI’s court at Versailles to win the diplomatic war, drove a hard bargain with England to secure the peace, and played a pivotal role in the Constitutional Convention. He was the essential founder. The trailer for Benjamin Franklin intones, “The American identity begins when Benjamin Franklin knit the American colonies together.” He has become a metonym for America.
So, when assessing the meaning of Franklin’s life, the details matter. We can see him either as a flawed but evolving genius whose life mirrors and prefigures America’s halting progress toward equality, or as a man imbued with the typical biases of his time, whose overriding concern was the promotion of the well-being of people like himself, a people Franklin called “lovely white.” Franklin, like America, can’t be both.
Burns is an unwavering believer in the idea that Franklin overcame his racial prejudices and atoned for his earlier, unthinking racism by the end of his long life. On the Today show the filmmaker made things simple: “He enslaved human beings but at the end of his life was an abolitionist … The thing about Franklin is that he is always improving, always trying to make himself better — like the union.”
It is true that Franklin accepted election as president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, and published a biting satire of the novel pro-slavery arguments its petitions provoked in Congress. But it is also true that Franklin, in his 80s and suffering from a growing list of maladies, wished to burnish his legacy and could see which side was the wrong side of history to be on. Early in Episode 1, the narrator observes that Franklin continuously and “carefully crafted [his] public image.” Somehow, Franklin’s gift for politics and self-fashioning in Episode 1 becomes, in Episode 2, his unimpeachable sincerity.
To frame Franklin as “evolving” is to see the United States as a nation stained by slavery but equipped with the radical principle of liberty that made its rehabilitation inevitable. This interpretation was pioneered by the Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn in 1956 amid a bare-knuckled ivory-tower fight with an older generation of “progressive” historians, who had painted the Constitution as a greedy power grab by enslavers, land speculators, and bankers.
Burns includes an interview with Bailyn in which the historian argues that the fledgling United States shouldn’t be judged primarily for its reliance on slavery. It should be judged by its single greatest declaration: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights …” A ringing principle that, Bailyn argued, had changed the course of history.