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Benjamin Franklin by Ken Burns


LuckyDan
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I missed the last few minutes due to a weather bulletin, but Part I, "Join Or Die (1706-1774)" was an enjoyable hour and fifty minutes otherwise. The title is a reference to Franklin's early - and prescient - understanding of the need for the colonies to present as united to Britain, rather than to continue to face the King as a disjointed, scattered collection. Burns, with his signature style, nicely bookends this idea by stating it simply in the form of a title after a cold opening, then bringing the full weight of the words down forcefully in the closing scenes.

Along the way there is much to learn, some of it interesting trivia, much of it valuable history. I knew Benjamin Franklin was a sly wit, a flirt, and a man of many interests. I did not know of his son William and his own rise to prominence, or of his initial love for England and his hopes for a lasting colonial alliance with the Crown on mutually agreeable terms. The episode ended, I could tell despite the interruption, with his disillusionment with the British after the hour-long public tongue-lashing he received following the Boston Tea Party (of which he was critical) at the site where Henry VIII once held cockfights.

Visually Burns is limited to artwork - which is often colorful if textbook looking - and images of antique books and furniture, but the narration is brisk and Peter Coyote provides, as always, an active voice. Mandy Patinkin, who I thought was dead (I don't know who I am confusing him with but I'm happy to learn Mandy is still with us)  provides the voice of Ben Franklin without accent or flourish. 

Franklin's inventions and discoveries were many and significant but regarding the one I was most familiar with. I still had something to learn. He did not discover electricity. It was known but misunderstood. His achievement was in discovering that lightning is electrical in nature. Before Franklin's kite, lightning had been a subject of superstition and scientific confusion. For his discovery, Immanuel Kant said he had stolen the fire of heaven, and named him the modern Prometheus.

If I could pick any nits it would be in mentions of native Americans where Burns's writer, Dayton Duncan, sees no need to point out that during the wars against the allied French and Indians, the native American tribes were not all hostile to the colonists. There were tribes, and no I can't name them but I know there were, who fought alongside the colonists.

Franklin's apathy toward enslaved Africans is well-established, as is his dislike of the Germans who increasingly populated Pennsylvania, and the swarthy complected Europeans, but then there are remarks like wanting to keep the new world comprised of the "lovely white and red" which I take not as a reference to southern oil rig workers but to American Indians. 

Burns said in one interview I watched last night that he keeps in his editing room a neon sign that says, in cursive, "It's complicated." We do ourselves a favor when we remember that when studying our history. 

Looking forward to the Revolution and the Constitutional Convention tomorrow.

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What a humorless tight-a$$ John Adams turns out to be in episode 2 "An American" (1775-1790).  Came as news to me anyway.

Franklin was called perhaps the greatest prose stylist of his day, and so was asked by Thomas Jefferson to "suggest alterations" to the Declaration. We learn that Franklin changed Jefferson's sentence, "We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable," to "We hold these truths to be self-evident." Walter Isaacson, who appears here, has written elsewhere that the concept of self-evident truth came "from the scientific determinism of Isaac Newton and the analytic empiricism of Franklin's close friend David Hume" who had distinguished between "synthetic" truths and "analytic truths that are self-evident by virtue of reason and definition." 

I was most looking forward to the Constitutional Convention but that segment came and went at the hour and a half mark and left me disappointed in Burns. In the brief discussion about how members of Congress were to be selected, the phrase "white men only" is inserted - sounding to me like an afterthought - inaccurately and dishonestly suggesting that the founders would allow no one else to vote. The words do not appear in the Constitution, but it is a phrase those critical of the founders like to spout and that is most likely the group Burns hangs with so, in it went.

Much of the episode concerns Franklin's life in Paris, where he was admired and revered, and his strained relationship with his son William. Of the Revolution, one historian says that with the exception of George Washington, Ben Franklin in securing the alliance of France did as much as anyone to win the war.

The last segment tells of his work as an abolitionist and quotes from his satiric essay, written in the voice of an African slaver of white Christians, asking those who would take his salves to look at things his way. 

I was genuinely moved by the ending, and happy to learn that he was ready for it. Truly an amazing life.

Well done, sir.

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I agree with how John Adams came off. It's interesting that he was voiced by Paul Giamatti, who played Adams in the cable version of David McCullough's book, where Adams' intractability was a feature of his character, but not the defining one.

I haven't read much about Franklin since school days so I was grateful for all Burns' homework. The depth of the divide with his son William was kind of shocking, especially since he seems to have co-opted William's son as his own. But I guess we only have to look at our own time to see what politics can do to families. 

For a while there it seemed as though Franklin was almost a man without a country. I think it was eight trips abroad, ie: sixteen long, perilous ocean journeys.  He seems to have genuinely enjoyed the societies of England and France, so that by the time he returned here for good it's surprising how quickly he was able to snap back into "American" mode. 

When I look back over my own life I see a lot of sameness, so it's satisfying to witness a life so full of thought and incident and consequence, even with the nagging complexities which color some of it. I second your "Well done."

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10 minutes ago, DougieB said:

He seems to have genuinely enjoyed the societies of England and France, so that by the time he returned here for good it's surprising how quickly he was able to snap back into "American" mode. 

His experience in the cockpit with Alexander Wedderburn, which I recall posting about between the two segment reviews, and which I see has been taken down (hmmm...) killed any and all affinity he once had for England. 

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8 hours ago, LuckyDan said:

His experience in the cockpit with Alexander Wedderburn, which I recall posting about between the two segment reviews, and which I see has been taken down (hmmm...) killed any and all affinity he once had for England. 

You also mentioned the "hour-long tongue-lashing" in your post after watching the first night. I wonder if the image they showed was contemporaneous or if it's from a later time. The poor guy had to just stood there, being the good diplomat that he was. I was thinking of an earlier time in England when he found such fun in flirtation with the ladies, etc. (I had no idea that he was such a player.) But you're right that his public dressing-down had to have left a deep hurt, and ultimately reinforced his commitment to the American cause.

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5 hours ago, DougieB said:

I wonder if the image they showed was contemporaneous or if it's from a later time. 

My removed post included a fuller view of the image Burns used, which was a detail from the 1856 painting by American artist Christian Schuessele called Franklin before the Lords Council. Most of the information I related came from this post from the American Philosophical Society titled "How Alexander Wedderburn Cost England America." It's a quick and worthwhile read. 

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