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Meet Ben Franklin

Ken Burns reveals a Founding Father’s soul in a PBS documentary

a collage featuring a painting of benjamin franklin alongside historic buildings and events

The Library Company of Philadelphia / Everyday Basics/Unsplash / Alicia Razuri/Unsplash / Smithsonian Institution / Courtesy John Carter Brown Library / U.S. Department of State / Library of Congress

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Why watch Ken Burns’ riveting, four-hour Benjamin Franklin (PBS, April 4-5, 8 p.m. ET), narrated by Peter Coyote, with performances and dramatic readings by Mandy Patinkin and Paul Giamatti? “He is the most compelling personality in America in the 18th century, as Muhammad Ali, the subject of my last film, was of the 20th,” says Burns, 68.

“He was the man most responsible for victory in the Revolution, a scientist of Nobel quality. He launched America’s first public library, organized a volunteer fire company and founded the University of Pennsylvania. His annual publication, Poor Richard’s Almanack, set a model for future humorists such as Mark Twain — its maxims are still part of our shared lexicon. And his famous experiments with electricity led to one of his most important inventions — the lightning rod.” This dazzled Europeans, who tended to think of Americans as dim. To them he was America’s brightest star, and he inspired France to finance our bid for independence.

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The oldest by far of the mostly young Founding Fathers, he was arguably the wisest. “He wrote the second-greatest sentence in the English language, right after ‘I love you’: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’ ” says Burns. Franklin added the famous line when he rewrote Thomas Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson had called the truths “sacred and undeniable,” but Franklin changed it to “self-evident,” like the electrifying result of his key-and-kite experiment. “That’s a scientist’s addition,” says Burns.

Plus, his complicated personality makes for excellent TV drama. “He could be whimsical yet philosophical, folksy yet unforgiving, generous yet shrewdly calculating, and broad-minded yet deeply prejudiced. For a man so associated with individual liberty, Franklin enslaved at least six people and did not become an abolitionist until very late in life. Franklin's newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, advertised the sale of enslaved people and published notices of runaways. And while he publicly denounced white settlers who indiscriminately killed Indigenous people, he also championed the expansion of white settlements onto Indigenous lands.”

Entertainingly, Franklin was both a morally ambitious Puritan and a hot mess who betrayed his wife, his anti-independence son and occasionally his ideals.

Director Ken Burns appears on the Today show

Nathan Congleton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Film director Ken Burns

And sometimes Franklin’s world sounds downright modern. “It’s interesting that in a film that seems so distant in the past, there’s vaccination questions,” says Burns. “There’s nothing new under the sun.” In America, inoculation was the bright idea of an enslaved man named Onesimus, from West Africa. Franklin supported the practice — but when smallpox struck Philadelphia, he failed to inoculate his 4-year-old son, Frankie. “He worried that inoculation would make his son’s bad cold worse [back then it involved a small infection with the live virus]. The boy died of smallpox. It was the tragedy of Franklin’s life.”

“Almost every aspect of his life over 215 years ago resonates with something going on today,” says Burns. “As Mark Twain is supposed to have said, history never repeats itself, but you see things that rhyme. Human nature doesn’t change.”

Tim Appelo covers entertainment and is the film and TV critic for AARP. Previously, he was the entertainment editor at Amazon, video critic at Entertainment Weekly, and a critic and writer for The Hollywood Reporter, People, MTV, The Village Voice and LA Weekly.