Ben Franklin was the most famous American of his era. Ken Burns’ new doc shows why

A portrait of Benjamin Franklin from circa 1785
Benjamin Franklin portrait by Joseph Siffred Duplessis, circa 1785.
(National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

If we are reckoning by money, Benjamin Franklin — the man on the $100 bill — is 20 times as important as Abraham Lincoln, 100 times as important as George Washington and 10 times as important as Alexander Hamilton, notwithstanding “Hamilton.” This is bad math, of course, because there is no reckoning by which Andrew Jackson is four times as important than Lincoln, or 20 times as important than Washington. But it gives you some sense of his historical and cultural status that Franklin, not a president, is the face on the highest denomination of currency now in circulation. (And he’s been a figure in at least two musicals, “Ben Franklin in Paris” and “1776,” so he has Broadway cred as well.)

Of all the Founding Fathers, Franklin is by far the most colorful, interesting and broadly experienced and talented; that he had his faults along with his substantial gifts is something that Ken Burns’ informative, well-framed and entertaining PBS documentary — titled “Benjamin Franklin,” with customary Burnsian simplicity — does not shy from saying. Indeed, its indictments of 18th century racism — Franklin owned slaves but ended up an abolitionist — and the way the American Revolution further dispossessed Indigenous populations should make it controversial in those quarters currently dedicated to whitewashing, as it were, American history. There are things about his domestic life that make him seem less than a picture of perfect rectitude as well. He was full of contradictions, but you can’t exactly call him a hypocrite; he viewed himself as a work in progress, and progressed, methodically charting his failures to live up to his own ideals and prescriptions.

Peter Coyote, the customary Voice of Burns, is our narrator, with a croaky Mandy Patinkin speaking Franklin’s own words — of which he left many, including an unfinished autobiography and a wealth of aphorisms still in common use. “Benjamin Franklin,” which premieres Monday, features a complement of historians of various ages, colors and genders, who triangulate the Founding Father’s personality and accomplishments, taking the less good with the good but finding more reasons for admiration than (mitigated) censure. One calls him the only founder “who evidently had a sense of humor, who was evidently human, who evidently had a sex life.”


He fretted about his weight, obsessed over work, was a guru of self-actualization and a devotee of high tech, had a thing about his image, knew how to have a good time and could spin on any subject.

Nov. 27, 1996

Executed with Burns’ usual bounty of pictorial sources — success gets you access — a minimum of re-creation (some sailing ships, type being set, a key being made) and new woodcut-style illustrations, it’s 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 afterward; we get a good visual picture of his life and times.

With his recognizable grandfatherly mien and sundry colorful extra-political exploits, Franklin is something of a folk character, joshed and lampooned (as in the book and Disney cartoon “Ben and Me,” which attributes his successes to a church mouse) and can seem a supporting player in history rather than one of its prime movers. Franklin’s story was what we might think of as quintessentially American before the colonies were even united, in spite of the fact that he happily spent years away from them, representing colonial interests in London and revolutionary interests in Paris, where he was celebrated and flirted with like a septuagenarian pop star — “Somebody it seems gave it out that I loved ladies, so everybody presented me their ladies, or the ladies presented themselves to be embraced” — even as he secured the financial and military support without which you might today be pledging allegiance to the queen.

A half-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 collection of Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library

Born in Puritan Boston, formally schooled for only two years, Franklin raised himself on books. His first great act was a bid for freedom, breaking his indentures to his printer brother James and fetching up penniless in Philadelphia at 17, where his abilities and industry made him prosperous and influential enough to essentially retire at 42, devoting himself henceforth to scientific experiments, intellectual correspondence, civic works and what would become national politics. “I would rather have it said, ‘He lived usefully’ than, ‘He died rich,’” he wrote his mother.

He was a signer of the Declaration of Independence — he edited Thomas Jefferson’s original “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable” to “We hold these truths to be self-evident” — the Constitution and the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War. He was a kite flier: Franklin’s famous experiment to determine whether lightning was electricity led him to invent the lightning rod, which led the philosopher Immanuel Kant to describe him as “the New Prometheus.” He coined the term “battery” to describe an array of electrically charged containers. He charted and named the Gulf Stream. He refused to patent any of his inventions — which also include a superior sort of stove, bifocals and the glass harmonica, an instrument for which both Mozart and Beethoven would compose — because “as we enjoy great advantages from the invention of others, we should be glad of the opportunity to serve others by an invention of ours, and this we should do generously and freely.”

There was a moment, however fleeting, when documentary filmmaker Ken Burns thought a change of pace might be in order as he was wrapping up more than a decade of often emotionally draining, logistically nightmarish work on his 10-part, 18-hour exploration of the complex history and bitter legacy of the Vietnam War.

Feb. 1, 2019

The second hour, “An American,” tracks Franklin from a colonist who felt allegiance to Britain to a revolutionary who felt none, and the progress of the war, which is tied inextricably to a family drama that adds an unexpected note of personal tragedy. William, Franklin’s beloved son (with a woman not his wife), who had assisted him in his electrical experiments and accompanied him to London, had become the governor of New Jersey. They wound up on opposing sides of the conflict, with William an active organizer of British terrorism, and it opened a rift between them — one that William hoped to close after the war but which Franklin coldly kept open. It’s an anomalous note in a life so dedicated to tolerance, compromise and new thoughts.


One wonders what Franklin, transported to our present imperfect union, would make of us. As the person who wrote, “By the collision of different sentiments sparks of truth are struck and political light is obtained,” he might well be dismayed by the obstinate polarization of a government he helped define. (Though he preferred a single-body Congress and a three-person executive committee to a president.) As a man of reason and science who rejected religious orthodoxy, one guesses — without predicting what he would have made of any particular policy, or contemporary mores that would have never crossed his mind — he would have been unhappy to find superstition and conspiracy theory infecting the body politic. And as one who instituted postal home delivery and cut delivery time from New York to Philadelphia to a day, doubtless he would look upon a Louis DeJoy and weep.

“Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin was asked, upon leaving the Constitutional Convention.

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

The question remains open, making “Benjamin Franklin” all the more valuable.

‘Benjamin Franklin’

Where: KOCE

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

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)