Worldly Ben Franklin – The Stronghold

Half an hour after Ken Burns’ new documentary about Benjamin Franklin, we see a page with ads that the entrepreneurial elitologist posted in his newspaper, Philadelphia Gazette, in the mid-1730s. We are told that Franklin posted ads offering rewards for runaway mercenaries, even though he was once one of them. He also took money for advertisements that offered rewards for runaway slaves, and ran ads offering slaves for sale. It is unpleasant to see these announcements because Franklin, who is revered as a founder, as a “lightning tamer”, as a heroic diplomat during the War of Independence, as a leading abolitionist, is not usually remembered as a slave owner, seller and advertiser. .

The premiere of Burns ’four-hour two-part documentary about Franklin will take place this week on PBS, it airs at various times across the country and is broadcast on PBS.org. The prolific filmmaker is known for his lengthy documentaries on the Civil War and the Vietnam War, and has shot about major American innovations (baseball, jazz, national parks) and figures (Mark Twain, Huey Long, Jackie Robinson). Burns seeks to portray American history in a way that is accessible to audiences of all backgrounds and ages, and while he is sometimes criticized for being too stereotypical – his films do have a cognitive and often simulated look and feel – and too sugary, some Burns Projects have become cultural rehearsals. stones.

With Burns’ usual combination of short stories, expert commentators, actors voiced from historical works, and close-ups of archival art and texts, Benjamin Franklin Chronologically traces the life of his subject, from his birth in 1706 in Boston to his death in 1790 in Philadelphia.

“Young Franklin in the Press”, Enoch Wood Perry, 1876 (courtesy of Albright Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY)

The documentary reviews his early life, but manages to note the most important milestones. Young Ben was imprisoned with his older brother James, which means that Ben was obliged to work for him under contract, in this case as an apprentice printer. Burns shows us some types of tools that Franklin would use in printing. “Printers,” says historian Joyce E. Chaplin, “set fonts upside down and back, and you have to be very literate to understand how language works that way.” Obviously, Ben learned a great deal at his brother’s store, but James, nine years his senior, swore, sometimes beating him up. Thus, Ben broke the contract and fled to Philadelphia, where he eventually established himself as a mainstay of society, inventor, successful publisher and leader in the social and political life of the city.

Burns and his commentators show us how Franklin became world famous for his experiments with electricity and eventually traveled to England to represent Pennsylvania as a colonial agent. He spent most of the years from 1757 to 1774 in England. Towards the end of this period, when tensions between England and its North American colonies grew, Franklin also represented three other colonies in England – and he found himself thwarted in his goal of making Pennsylvania a royal colony to rid the people of their owners. , the Pen family, which evades taxes. Burns shows well how Franklin, stuck between wanting to keep the colonies part of the British Empire and wanting to support them against the growing restrictions imposed on them by Parliament, coped with the crisis as it developed – culminating in a reflection, at the end of the first episode, of an incident when Franklin was dressed by a British official before the Privy Council in Whitehall’s cabin. Forced to make a choice, Franklin sided with the Americans.

The War of Independence begins early in the second episode of Burns. “It’s hard to see why [Franklin] even joined the revolution, “says historian Gordon Wood,” after all, Franklin was already a successful and old man: “Many of the 62 other delegates [to the Continental Congress] he was not even born when he first entered political life forty years ago, ”the narrator tells us. However, it is easy to see why Franklin joined the cause, as his humiliation of the Privy Council severed his last ties with the Empire. However, it was not easy in a human way: Franklin’s failure to reconcile family ties between England and the colonies was reflected in the deterioration of Franklin’s relationship with his son William, the Governor of New Jersey and a loyalist. The juxtaposition of the political and the paternal in this form is a powerful narrative tool that revives the difficult choices Franklin faced.

In 1776, after Franklin helped edit the Declaration of Independence, he crossed the Atlantic again, headed to France to represent his newly independent country and secretly seek an alliance. The years in France give Burns a lot of material to work on – more on that – and make it the most entertaining part of a documentary. Franklin arrived in France as the most famous American in the world; by the time he left nearly a decade later, he was the second most famous American, ahead of his war hero George Washington.

As Franklin ages – and Mandy Patinkin, the actor who voices Franklin, allows himself to sound rude and squeaky – we see Franklin continue to shape the country at the Constitutional Congress in 1787 and when he forced his Americans to address the issue. about slavery for the first time in Congress with his petitions against slavery in the early 1790s. The petitions were unsuccessful, and Franklin died a few weeks later at the age of 84.


BUrns includes in the documentary the voices of experts from a variety of backgrounds, including popular biographers such as Walter Isaacson, and academic historians such as the late Bernard Bailin. In particular, Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s contribution seems to have significantly shaped the overall narrative of the documentary, based on her contributions to the screen and her appearances in captions among the film’s advisers along with H. W. Brands, Joyce E. Chaplin, Ellen R. Cohn , William Leuchtenburg, Gene M. O’Brien, Paige Talbot and Karin A. Wolfe.

While the first episode touched on how Franklin made friendly friendships with women, the second episode examines the subject much more deeply, which will come as no surprise to viewers familiar with Franklin’s popular portrayal as a partygoer and womanizer during his stay in France. . But they may be surprised by the detailed discussion in the film about Franklin’s time among the French elite, which helps shed light on the fact that friendships between men and women are not the same when crossing cultural boundaries.

Benjamin Franklin was surrounded by members of the French court in 1778 when he was ambassador. The case of Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI. (Library of Congress)

Unfortunately, even with the inclusion of Stacey Schiff, who aptly describes Franklin’s time in France, the documentary only underscores how these close friendships helped Franklin achieve diplomatic success. Surprisingly, Madame Brion de Jouy is mentioned only briefly, although she was one of the most valuable connections he established in Paris and contributed to the rift between Franklin and the prickly John Adams (voiced here by Paul Jamati, beautifully repeating the role of Adams from the 2008 HBO mini-series year). Few historians who have written about the personal lives of Franklin and women have either died like Claude Ann Lopez or have not been featured in a documentary. At the very least, Sheila Skemp’s experience with Franklin’s wife, Deborah, and son, William, is noticeably included. However, it is nice to see a reflection of Franklin’s life, which is not dominated by the themes of sex and femininity.

The way the documentary examines the importance of slavery in Franklin’s daily life exceeds expectations. In the past, Franklin’s biographies and relevant stories have generally not paid due attention to how Franklin profited from the system of slavery that took root in all of the original thirteen colonies. Burns demonstrates how the Quakers, with whom Franklin had long and complicated connections in Philildelphia, viewed the practice of slavery as moral corruption and sin. One of the strongest moments in the documentary, as noted above, occurs when we see an advertisement for slaves published by Franklin. One of the ads reads: “Parcel of choice” “young men and women” grown in the plantation business, “recently imported”. Another offers the enslaved girl “probably young,” with the words “Inquire of the Printer” in front and in the center, illustrating that Franklin not only made a profit from printing advertisements, but was more involved:

However, even though Franklin was involved in the slavery system, he published anti-slavery articles along with advertisements he printed and supported the education of enslaved black children in Pennsylvania.

This aspect of Burns ’documentary will help viewers understand more deeply and in a more balanced way how in an era of human slavery, Franklin evolved from a slaveholder to an abolitionist. The documentary does not forget to teach viewers about Franklin’s monumental contribution to science and technology, politics and countless civic projects, but by reminding us that Franklin is a man of flaws, Burns helps us better understand why Franklin is a chaotic, brilliant, ambitious life and example. relevant today.

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