Ken Burns on Benjamin Franklin and the defective identity of our nation: “Race is the main issue” of the United States

“Guests, like fish, begin to smell in three days.”

The often paraphrased quote from Benjamin Franklin, which appears in the second season of Neflix’s drama The Virgin River, is used by the mayor of a small town who willingly accepts someone she doesn’t like. This is a favorite quote from reluctant hosts for obvious reasons, but also a testament to Franklin’s steady wit more than 250 years later.

The founding father has been the subject of Ken Burns ’latest documentary series on PBS, which airs for two nights. The first part lays the groundwork for Franklin’s sheer brilliance and innovation when it comes to publishing and science. His “Poor Richard’s Almanac” became a sensation because he added humor (e.g., comparing visitors to fish), helpful tips, and other hilarious bonus content to the usual dry weather reports seen in the almanacs that day. This is especially impressive considering that he was mostly self-taught, as at the age of 10 his formal education was interrupted.

Related: Why France Really Helped America’s Founding Fathers Fight the War of Independence

“Studying in print and becoming a printer means you’re flipping words, which means you’re getting some kind of hyper-literacy that he’s showing all the time,” Burns told the Television Crisis Association’s news conference. for the series in January, along with many talking heads from the project.

Franklin is an intellectual pioneer

Biographer Walter Isaacson also credits Franklin in becoming a pioneer in a type of disrespect not seen in suffocating statesmen or religious leaders of the time. This explains why his writing impressed the common man.

“I think he invents the classic form of American writing,” Isaacson told a news conference. “He does not speak of original sin [manner of theologian] Jonathan Edwards. Instead, it’s a casual humor like a “cracker barrel” in which he speaks informally – whether it’s “Poor Richard’s Almanac” or any parodies and mystifications he writes for his newspaper or autobiography.

“So this form of humor will lead you to Mark Twain, Will Rogers and many others, and it’s

“He was the first to develop ‘auu’, a cracker barrel, an informal way of writing”

ridicules the claims of the elite. And he was the first to develop it. He gets a little bit of this from Addison and Steele, the British editors of The Spectator, but in a sense he was the first to develop this “oh, cracker barrel, informal way of writing”.

“Young Franklin in the Press” by Enoch Wood Perry, 1876. (In the collection of the Albright Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York)However, he did not just know how to speak. Most schoolchildren first encounter Ben Franklin as the man who launched the kite and “discovered” electricity – or rather, created the lightning hypothesis and proved it. His curiosity and creativity knew no bounds, and he is rightly revered as one of the true people of the Renaissance in America, who was familiar with words as well as with the application of Newtonian physics.

“I think the importance of Ben Franklin is that he was able to combine art and science, he was able to combine the humanities and technology,” Isaacson added. “He took care of everything you could learn about anything from art to anatomy to math and music to diplomacy.

“And his science helped inform what he was doing. As an expert at Newton, he understood the checks and balances and balances of power. His experiments with electricity are the most important scientific achievements of that period, right after Newton. And so I “I think that being a Renaissance man like Leonardo da Vinci, he can see the laws of nature. And he considered himself a scientist and an inventor. I think that’s not only in him, but in what America was founded on.”

RELATED: Colonial America was divided over smallpox vaccination, but Benjamin Franklin championed science

Among his inventions, which he refused to patent, were lightning rods, bifocals, Franklin’s furnace, and even a terribly loud accordion, a musical instrument that used many glass bowls.

Franklin is a statesman with flaws

However, Burns ’documentation is not hagiography. Despite Franklin’s brilliance, he was a man with flaws who was often the first to admit it. At age 20, he compiled a list of 13 virtues, including restraint, justice, chastity, and humility, with which he sought to develop his character. But even by his own standards he often failed, for example, if he had an illegitimate child. It is still known that Franklin was quite a womanizer.

“He liked the parties. He liked women. “

“He’s also a complete scoundrel,” Dr. Eric Armstrong Dunbar, a professor of history at Rutgers University, told the press. “He’s the one an ordinary person can connect with, isn’t he? He loved parties. He liked women. That’s what Ken made sure to balance in this film that when we see him and his vast knowledge, we also see him as a man. “


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While some of the shortcomings may seem forgivable in a man who has made such a great contribution to our country, one cannot ignore his track record in slavery in a person who is an integral part of how an American defined himself and his ideals. Franklin not only owned several enslaved people, but also allowed slavery through his publications and the use of his shop. Only much later in life, when the country was founded, did he become an abolitionist.

Covering so many American figures, events and institutions throughout his work, Burns has repeatedly had to deal with racism in the nation – whether in the Civil War, Jazz or Jackie Robinson. Racism is as American as apple pie, or, in this case, the founding father.

“Race … this is the main issue of the United States”

“Race … is a central issue of the United States,” Burns said. “It’s three-fifths [Compromise]. This follows from the fact of a Declaration written by a guy who said, “We consider these truths obvious that all people are created equal,” and he owned hundreds of people in his lifetime and saw no hypocrisy or contradiction. It’s us. “

Preliminary peace talks with BritainUS Commissioners for Preliminary Peace Talks with Britain: John Jay, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Lawrence and William Temple Franklin (To agree Benjamin West, in the collection of the Museum, Garden and Library of Winterthur)Despite some proponents of the Three-Fifth Compromise of 1787, in which prisoners were counted as three-fifths in order to distribute income tax funds between states and determine representation in Congress, Isaacson called it “odious … Was it done?” to help the South gain representation or harm the South, it dehumanizes. ”

Armstrong Dunbar added: “It’s an age-old question, a question, a relic, whether we’re talking about three-fifths of human beings, or whether the call about the lives of blacks matters. We can discover those connections. And I ‘d argue that though it was a compromise that this particular decision had long-term, long-term consequences … We all know what side damage was here. ”

“It’s awful. It’s beyond original sin.”

“It’s awful. It’s beyond original sin. It’s unforgivable,” said actor Mandy Patinkin, who voices Franklin in the series. “And to think that if Franklin didn’t understand the need for compromise, we wouldn’t have a Constitution. So he tried to weigh it all and then decided to dedicate the rest of his life to correcting his own grievances. He was a slave owner and then devoted the rest of his life to be an abolitionist ”.

Capturing this context of why Franklin may have had to act against his own beliefs is part of Burns ’problem as a documentary filmmaker. Even the idea of ​​American independence is not necessarily the pure and noble desire for autonomy with which it is usually portrayed.

“I think that’s especially true in this film, understanding all the competing motives of independence,” he said. “It’s okay to give up the dream of democracy, but in the Ohio Valley there is a lot of land speculation that helps you become a patriot rather than stay true. If you think money will be earned, then maybe it’s a decision that take people and definitely take Americans.

“So it’s a very, very difficult and ever-changing thing. We tend to see the past as fixed, but it’s not, it’s malleable,” he continued. “And our task, as historians, is to actually accept this pliability not only as new information, new artifacts, but as new ways of thinking, new ways of research that force us to different ways of expressing ourselves.”

The four-hour “Benjamin Franklin” airs Monday and Tuesday, April 4-5 at 8pm on PBS. Watch the trailer for it below, via YouTube.

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