In Benjamin Franklin, Ken Burns reinterprets an American icon

If we count by money, Benjamin Franklin — the man on the $100 bill — is 20 times more important than Abraham Lincoln, 100 times more important than George Washington, and 10 times more important than Alexander Hamilton, regardless of “Hamilton “. This is bad math, of course, because there is no calculation that says Andrew Jackson is four times as important as Lincoln or 20 times as important as Washington. But it gives you a sense of its historical and cultural status that Franklin, not a president, is the face of the highest currency currently in circulation. (And he was a character in at least two musicals, Ben Franklin in Paris and 1776, so he has Broadway credibility, too.)

Of all the Founding Fathers, Franklin is by far the most colorful, interesting, and comprehensively experienced and talented; That he had his flaws along with his considerable gifts is something Ken Burns’ informative, well-framed, and entertaining PBS documentary — titled “Benjamin Franklin,” in usual Burnsian simplicity — isn’t afraid to say. Indeed, his charges against racism in the 18th century – Franklin owned slaves but ended up being an abolitionist – and the way the American Revolution further dispossessed the indigenous population should make it controversial in those circles currently devoted to euphemism dedicated to American history. There are things in his home life that also make him less than a picture of perfect righteousness. He was full of contradictions, but you can’t exactly call him a hypocrite; He considered himself a work in progress and made progress by methodically charting his failure to live up to his own ideals and prescriptions.

Peter Coyote, Burns’ usual voice, is our narrator, with a rasping Mandy Patinkin speaking Franklin’s own words – many of which he left behind, including an unfinished autobiography and a wealth of aphorisms still in use. “Benjamin Franklin,” which premieres on Monday, sees a range of historians of various ages, races and genders triangulating the founding father’s personality and achievements, comparing the less good with the good, but more grounds for admiration than (softened) criticism Find. He’s been called the only founder “who obviously had a sense of humor, who was obviously a human being, who obviously had a sex life.”

Executed with Burns’ usual wealth of pictorial sources – success gets you access – a minimum of replica (some sailing ships, types being set, a key being made) and new woodcut-style illustrations, it is a handsome piece, spread over four hours and two Nights. As the most famous American of his generation – the first face of the nation – Franklin was much painted in his life and thereafter; We get a good visual picture of his life and times.

With his recognizable grandfatherly demeanor and various colorful extra-political exploits, Franklin is something of a folk figure, taunted and mocked (as in the book and Disney cartoon “Ben and Me,” attributing his accomplishments to a church mouse) and can seem more of a supportive player in the story as one of its main protagonists. Franklin’s story was what we might think of as quintessentially American even before the colonies were even united, though he happily spent years away from them, representing colonial interests in London and revolutionary interests in Paris, where he was feted and flirted with like a seventy-year-old pop star — “Somebody seems to have told me I love ladies, so everyone presented me their ladies, or the ladies presented themselves for a hug” — even as he secured the financial and military support, without which Today you may come out swearing allegiance to the Queen.

A semi-finished portrait of the founding fathers

American commissioners of the preliminary peace negotiations with Great Britain. Left to right: John Jay, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Laurens and William Temple Franklin. Painting by Benjamin West, in the Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library collection


Born in puritanical Boston and formally educated for only two years, Franklin grew up reading books. His first great act was a quest for freedom, he broke his contracts with his printer brother James and arrived penniless at 17 in Philadelphia where his skill and diligence made him wealthy and influential enough to essentially retire at 42 and go on to science to devote to experimentation, intellectual correspondence, civic works, and what was to become national politics. “I would rather say ‘He lived usefully’ than ‘He died rich,'” he wrote to his mother.

He was a signer of the Declaration of Independence – he edited Thomas Jefferson’s original We hold these truths sacred and indisputable to We hold these truths self-evident – the Constitution and Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War. He was a hang-glider: Franklin’s famous experiment to determine if lightning is electricity led him to invent the lightning rod, leading the philosopher Immanuel Kant to dub him “the new Prometheus”. He coined the term “battery” to describe an array of electrically charged containers. He mapped and named the Gulf Stream. He refused to patent any of his inventions – which included a superior type of stove, bifocals, and the glass harmonica, an instrument for which both Mozart and Beethoven composed – because “since we derive great benefit from the inventions of others, we should we do rejoice at the opportunity to serve others through one of our inventions, and we should do so generously and voluntarily.”

The second hour, “An American,” follows Franklin from a colonist who felt drawn to Britain to a revolutionary who felt none, and the progress of the war inseparable from a family drama that has an unexpected note of personal tragedy adds. William, Franklin’s beloved son (with a wife, not his wife), who had assisted him in his electrical experiments and accompanied him to London, had become governor of New Jersey. They ended up on opposite sides of the conflict, with William being an active organizer of British terrorism, and it opened a rift between them – a rift William hoped to mend after the war but which Franklin cold-bloodedly kept open. It’s an unusual note in a life so dedicated to tolerance, compromise and new thinking.

One wonders what Franklin, placed in our present imperfect union, would make of us. As the person who wrote, “Through the clash of emotions, sparks of truth are ignited and political light is gleaned,” he may well have been dismayed at the persistent polarization of a government he helped define. (Though he preferred a one-body congress and a three-person executive committee to a president.) As a man of reason and science who rejected religious orthodoxy, one can guess — without predicting what he would have thought of any particular policy or contemporary Customs that would never have occurred to him – he would have been unhappy if superstitions and conspiracy theories had infected politics. And as someone who introduced home mail delivery and reduced the delivery time from New York to Philadelphia to one day, he would undoubtedly look at a Louis DeJoy and cry.

“Well, doctor, what do we have, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin was asked to leave the constitutional convention.

“A republic,” he famously replied. “If you can keep it.”

The question remains as to what makes “Benjamin Franklin” all the more valuable.

‘Benjamin Franklin’

Where from: KOCE

When: 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. Monday and Tuesday

Rating: TV-PG (may not be suitable for young children)

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/tv/story/2022-04-04/benjamin-franklin-ken-burns-pbs-review In Benjamin Franklin, Ken Burns reinterprets an American icon

Caroline Bleakley

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