- Good evening, I'm Sylvia Bugg, Chief Programming Executive and General Manager at PBS.
Welcome to our conversation on Franklin and Revolution, the final event in our series, "Conversations on Franklin" leading up to the broadcast of Ken Burns' new film, "Benjamin Franklin," which will air on PBS on April 4th and 5th and stream on all PBS platforms.
Benjamin Franklin's life spanned nearly the entirety of the 18th century, providing Ken and his fellow filmmakers an extraordinarily rich backdrop to explore Franklin's evolution from a young apprentice to a successful printer and writer, from a curious person exploring the natural landscape to a leading scientist recognized for his inventions throughout North America and Europe, from an owner of enslaved individuals to a leading abolitionist.
And finally tonight's theme, from an ardent supporter of the crown to a true American revolutionary.
Life, Franklin teaches us, is not constant.
It is in flux, forever changing.
Tonight's event is in partnership with WHYY, the Philadelphia Public Television station.
Philadelphia is a special place for Franklin.
It was his home throughout most of his life.
Franklin's influence can still be seen throughout the city.
It is now my great pleasure to introduce Bill Marrazzo, President and CEO of WHYY.
- Well, thank you Sylvia and good evening.
I'm Bill Marrazzo, President and CEO of WHYY, and welcome to this special conversation celebrating the upcoming premiere of Ken Burns's new film entitled "Benjamin Franklin."
Tonight's conversation, Franklin and the Revolution is the final in a series of discussions leading up to the broadcast of Ken's film on April the 4th and 5th on PBS stations around the country.
The earlier ones are archived at pbs.org/benfranklin.
The film explores the life of one of the 18th century's most consequential and compelling personalities, and certainly one of Philadelphia's hometown celebrities.
In fact, the Franklin home on Market Street was located just a few blocks from where I now stand here in WHYY studios.
Franklin was a revolutionary as a founder of the country, but also a scientist, a businessperson, and a diplomat, but his life is also a complicated one from his start as an indentured servant to his exploitation of enslaved individuals to provide labor in his home and businesses in Philadelphia, though late in life he would embrace abolitionism.
Tonight's conversation will be moderated by Marty Moss-Coane, host and Executive Producer of WHYY FM's "Radio Times."
Marty will be speaking with Ken along with writer and Ben Franklin biographer Walter Isaacson as well as historian and professor Erica Dunbar, both of whom appear in the film.
If you'd like to listen again, the conversation will be re-broadcast on "Radio Times" on WHYY FM and of course will be archived as part of the larger conversation on the Franklin series at pbs.org/benfranklin.
I do hope you enjoy this evening.
- Well, good evening, and thank you, Bill, and thank you for joining us here at WHYY.
We are here in Philadelphia, the home, of course, of Benjamin Franklin for our conversation about Franklin and Revolution.
We are excited that we've got three guests who can talk to you about Franklin, and we're gonna play clips from the documentary series and talk about this complicated, brilliant, imperfect man full of contradictions.
And let me officially introduce the three guests that we have, Ken Burns, Erica Dunbar, and Walter Isaacson.
And it's great to have you with us tonight here talking about Ben Franklin.
- Thank you.
- Good to be here.
- You're very welcome.
There you all are.
And Ken, I wonder if you could set up the first clip for us.
- Sure, Marty, and thanks so much for having me.
I'm happy to be back, however virtually, in the auspices of WHYY and to see my dear friend Bill for just a brief second.
Normally we'd start off with the introduction of our first episode and instead, we're gonna show the introduction of our second episode.
There are only 15 years left on this 84-year life span, and the first episode covers those first years, 69 years of it, and they are, as you suggest, and the other speakers have suggested, pretty monumental, but we're gonna drop you into this pivotal moment in which he's sort of changed his whole worldview from working as hard as he could to prevent a revolution to suddenly beginning to come to accept that a revolution could be inevitable.
And so this is the introduction to part two of our two-part series.
And I think it'll just set the table for our conversations tonight about Franklin and Revolution.
(soft instrumental music) - [Narrator] In January of 1775 Benjamin Franklin turned 69.
He had already achieved extraordinary success as a printer and publisher in his adopted hometown of Philadelphia where a library, a college, and countless civic improvements testified to his belief that his highest calling lay not in making money, but in improving the lives of everyday people.
And his revolutionary breakthroughs in unraveling the mysteries of electricity had made him the most famous American in the world.
- He is every man, but he's a very extraordinary everyman.
He was a Nobel Prize winning caliber scientist, probably the greatest prose stylist of his generation, and he's probably the greatest diplomat in American history.
- [Narrator] Franklin had been in England for the last decade, trying desperately to bridge the growing gulf between Parliament and the American colonies.
Only a year earlier, the future he had envisioned for himself and his family seemed bright and tethered inextricably to the British Empire.
Now that dream was in ruins.
During his long absence from home, he had missed his wife Deborah's death and funeral.
In London, in a government chamber called the Cockpit, he had been publicly humiliated, accused of inciting the colonial crisis he had in fact worked so hard to prevent.
And as that crisis intensified his son, William, now the Royal Governor of New Jersey, seemed to be choosing the wrong side.
- The longer William stayed in New Jersey, the more corrupt and rebellious and selfish the colonies started to look to him and the more wonderful and inspiring the crown looked.
And I think that the longer that Benjamin Franklin stayed in England the more he idealized the Colonies and saw the corruption and banality around him in England.
And so they began to see things kind of as a mirror image of one another.
- [Narrator] For years, Franklin had reveled in the intellectual life of Britain, but increasingly he dwelled more on the differences between the old world and the new, rather than what they shared in common.
- [Benjamin] In America, people do not inquire concerning a stranger, what is he, but what can he do?
The people have a saying that God Almighty is himself a mechanic, the greatest in the universe, and he is respected more for the variety, ingenuity, and utility of his handiworks than for the antiquity of his family.
- [Narrator] "Life," he once said, "is like chess."
And in the turbulent years ahead as his country and his family would be challenged as never before, Benjamin Franklin would need every skill the game had taught him.
- [Benjamin] The game of chess is not merely an idle amusement.
By playing at chess, we may learn foresight, circumspection, caution, the habit of not being discouraged by present bad appearances in the state of our affairs.
The habit of hoping for a favorable change and that of persevering.
- He's different from the other Founders, from a Washington, from a Jefferson.
He's older and so he brought a past, a past in which he created himself as a man.
He brought his wisdom, his experience, his travel abroad to make, I think, a much more cosmopolitan and urbane understanding of what America could be.
- Franklin was born an Englishman like everybody else in the American Colonies of his generation, He died an American.
He is made to realize that he will never be allowed to be sort of a fully recognized, respected Briton, and for that reason, he decides he has to become an American.
(warm instrumental music) - This is such a fascinating part of Franklin's life.
And Ken, I'd like to start with you.
He came to this cause later than others that we associate with the war and with the creation of this country.
Why was he a reluctant revolutionary, do you think?
- Well, it's pretty interesting because he seems to be the first person who kind of envisioned what an American might be quite apart from a set of English colonies and a set of British subjects occupying those 13 English colonies.
Decades before the revolution he's borrowing, I think, rather ironically from the Haudenosaunee the Iroquois Confederation, an idea of how states could join together and solve their differences.
And he proposes an Albany Plan of Union.
It's famous for the drawing he made of the cut-up snake representing the various states and the slogan "Join or Die" and it's way too radical decades before the Revolution.
So it's interesting that he spends the intervening time really trying to bridge the gaps between the sort of rising rhetoric of revolution and independence and disgust and distaste for the British Empire and the British attempts to sort of squash it and overtax and whatever.
And so he's representing Pennsylvania and other states.
And finally, he reaches this moment as we suggested in the introduction where he is humiliated and sort of realizes that all of his cards have been played and he can't look back.
And as you can hear in his writing, the intimate writing of this essential democratic impulse which is in him and throughout him and throughout his life.
And that is an interesting thing that he allows to grow just as his son, William has sublimated whatever impulse there is to serve the crown.
So we find people going in different directions and of course, Franklin choosing the other side.
- Well, even before we get to his son, and I do wanna talk about him, to you, Walter Isaacson, why did he want to keep us, if I can use that, keep us attached to Britain, to the empire?
What was it about empire that so compelled him?
- He referred to the British empire as sort of a fine, noble vase, he called it.
And he said, "Once it's broken, we'll never be able to put it back together."
He believed correctly that there were, in England, sort of the wellings of commonwealth, of a common-law and individual Liberty.
He had studied under David Hume in Edinburgh.
And you have Locke and Hume and others developing the rights that you see in our Declaration and Constitution.
I also think you have to remember that, I would say, maybe 2/3 of people living in the Colonies in 1770 were very loyal to the crown.
What they wanted was to be represented in Parliament.
So he's trying to hold this together until, as we said, perhaps 1773, 1774, it becomes clear that his friends in the British government who were very conciliatory to the Colonies are no longer in power, and he gets humiliated in the Cockpit in Westminster Palace.
- So it's personal, Erica Dunbar.
And I think what's also so interesting is that his son, William, lifelong loyalty to the crown.
So for Franklin, how does that complicate his idea of independence and creating a new country?
- You know, I think one of the brilliant things about studying this moment of the era of the Revolution through the lens of Franklin gives us a very kind of complicated, nuanced picture with like, messy family stories, right?
It's sort of, you know, it's the stuff that good television is made from that, you know, how does someone like Franklin, who is a diplomat, who is a genius in many ways with great emotional intelligence balance this problem of a son who's on the wrong side, right?
Or who's choosing a different kind of allegiance.
And I think one of the things that we see in the film that Ken has done so well is that we understand his great power of negotiation on multiple levels, whether he is in the Cockpit and kind of taking it or with his kids and his failings at negotiations as well, and how we understand the Revolution as being this moment that fractured families, that fractured relationships across the ocean.
We see all of that through the lens of Franklin.
- And Walter, if I can go back to you, did he have an inventor's view of democracy as a problem to be solved?
- Well, as Ken pointed out from the Iroquois Nation, he takes the concept of federalism.
And not only is he an inventor, but he's a scientist.
He studied electricity, he understands, you know, plus and minus and checks and balances.
He understands Newton.
And in fact there was that beautiful picture of him that we saw in the clip.
And if you saw looking over his shoulder is a marble statue of somebody gazing over at his writing.
That's Sir Isaac Newton.
So he believes in sort of this scientific method of checks and balances.
And so he comes up with a complicated notion that you can have a group of colonies, each of whom could have their own autonomy but be part of a union that also had autonomy.
So that is probably his greatest invention.
I mean, it's better than the bifocals, which I don't think you're wearing a bifocals now, but we're still wearing this notion of federalism and trying to keep those balances that he would've seen in Newton.
- And picking up on something you said earlier, Ken, it's also in the documentary that there was this point of humiliation for him.
Was that the turning point where he began to back on England and began to think of himself as an American?
- I think these sentiments were brewing long, long before that, Marty.
But I think the Cockpit serves as a perfect excuse for storytellers to say, as H. W. Brands does in our film, that he walked into the Cockpit of Britain and after an hour of humiliation by a pompous and ambitious prosecutor, Lord Alexander Wedderburn, that he leaves an American.
And that is in fact a kind of simplification, but it's a good one.
It's a good, economical way to say that some switch has been thrown.
And if we're gonna return to Walter's electrical analogies, you know, the positive and negative are now very clear, and he knows which way he has to strike.
And this is, as Erica suggests, one of the greatest geniuses we've ever seen.
I mean, this is the most important person in the 18th century in America, I think, and in so many different ways that this evening's conversation won't be able to fully and adequately represent with having to say it at each turn, warts and all.
And I think that's what's so great about Franklin is that he's human enough, and though he maintains a great deal of opacity to the world, he nonetheless gives us some access to him and therefore to our founding with its warts and all.
And so we don't have to either accept a completely revisionist, throw the baby out with the bath water sort of view of things as one set of crimes, only a set of crimes, nor do we have to sanitize it with a whitewashed Madison Avenue view.
We can have a complicated thing.
We can hold two contrasting things at once and say, yes, they could both be true at the same time of him and more importantly of us, lowercase and uppercase.
- I hear you, and we will get to the warts and all part of Benjamin Franklin, but let's play another clip from Ken's documentary on Benjamin Franklin.
This one is titled "Self-evident," and it's about the wording, the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
It's a hot summer in Philadelphia in 1776.
Let's watch it and then we'll talk some more.
- [Narrator] On June 21st, 1776, a packet arrived at Franklin's Market Street home.
It was from Thomas Jefferson who with Franklin, John Adams, and two other delegates had been assigned to draft a Declaration of Independence.
Working in a rented second floor room of a house a few blocks from Franklin's and attended by his enslaved servant Robert Hemings, Jefferson completed a first draft.
He asked Franklin to "Suggest such alterations as your more enlarged view of the subject will dictate."
The old editor and writer recognized the elegance of Jefferson's prose and made only a few changes before returning it.
- Franklin sits back and ponders it a little, and he makes a few really extraordinary suggestions to Jefferson, and one of them is world class.
Jefferson had written, "We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable."
And Franklin said, "No, no.
We hold these truths to be self-evident."
Just as two plus two is four and the Sun rises in the morning, it is self-evident that we have a right to revolution.
- Franklin is saying, we're trying to create a new type of nation in which our rights come from rationality and the consent of the governed, not the dictates or dogma of a religion.
- They were doing something very radical and very scary.
To say something is self-evident, to say that it's common sense is to say that there's no other way to think about this.
That only an irrational person who's not using their mind correctly, could contend with this thing, which is in fact, really contentious.
It's a classic lawyer's trick to say, "We all agree to this thing."
Who is we?
The we is presumptuous.
- They were not talking about liberating women in any particular way, or certainly not slaves, but in incremental ways it grew and grew because if you talk about liberty for the individual of you and me, you're talking about a greater liberty that can be applied to other people.
- [Narrator] On July 2nd, the Continental Congress unanimously approved the central clause of the Declaration proclaiming American independence.
Two days later, July 4th, 1776, 12 of the 13 former colonies approved the entire Declaration.
New York would take a few more days to make up its mind.
- [Thomas] And for the support of this Declaration, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.
- I find this fascinating.
And Ken, I'll begin with you.
The idea of changing these two words, sacred and undeniable to self-evident.
How did that change, then, this document?
- Well, you know, we can't take away too much from Thomas Jefferson.
It's really easy to.
He's a pretty big target and a big, you know, bullseye on him for lots and lots of legitimate reasons, but it's a spectacularly written thing.
And it is distilling, that second sentence is distilling a century of Enlightenment thinking into one remarkable sentence of the English language, one of the greatest ever written, and Franklin makes it better because he is saying that it has to reflect more than just sacred and undeniable but this Enlightenment we're beginning to understand and appreciate.
It's not that it changes it significantly, in a way, but we'd be a different country if on the 4th of July, as we make our children stop the eating of the hamburgers and hot dogs and we read the Declaration as I have done to my four daughters' consternation for decades, if it had said sacred and undeniable.
But self-evident, as Christopher Brown suggests, is a pretty scary and wonderful bit of dodging, but it's a way of planting your stake and saying, "we now" it's like, you know, a few decades later Emerson is gonna write his things.
The Transcendentalists that come out of the American experience, the energy, the religious and spiritual energy is gonna say about self-reliance what Franklin is manifesting already in his life a century earlier.
And to me, changing it to self-evident is the scientist saying, "This is the experiment that we are making.
It's got to be based on evidence."
- Well, and Erica Dunbar, let's finish the sentence.
"We find these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal."
- And of course we know that's not true in the founding of our country.
- That there's an essential lie at the root of this founding.
Can you speak to that?
- Yeah, I mean, I think, you know, by now, in terms of the way that history is taught, is presented, we understand the sort of signal flaw, one of the serious flaws in this beautifully-written document, but in many ways, it's sort of, it's a written document that really serves as the bedrock for protest that would come from it, right?
So it's a written document and because it's written, that's what makes it so brilliant, so new, so different, but it's also the place that abolitionists decades later would turn to, to say, "Hey, wait a minute.
We should be, although we are not considered a part of everyone, we should be."
And Bernard Bailyn says it in the film.
This is a moment where we're not thinking about women.
We're not thinking about People of Color in any way, shape, fashion, or form, but this gives us that legal document that we return to, that we still return to today.
- And to you, Walter Isaacson, the idea of, I guess, creating a document that doesn't get its authority from on high, whether it's a monarch or a God.
Speak to just how truly revolutionary that was.
- Yeah, and that gets us back to the word self-evident.
Benjamin Franklin had studied with the great Scottish philosophers, as I said, including David Hume.
And Hume is the person who develops a philosophy in which there's certain truths that are self-evident, and he uses that phrase, and certain truths that just happen to be true.
Like, you know, swans happen to be white.
It's not self-evident because in fact, a swan ends up turning to be, you have a black swan at some point.
So the idea of a self-evident analytical truth is a kernel of this Scottish Enlightenment philosophy that you see Dr. Johnson, you see David Hume, you see Bishop Berkeley all embrace.
Berkeley does it as well.
And this is counterpoint to the notion of truths being divine and handed down by God.
And when you get to a monarchy, you have the divine right of the monarch.
It was handed down by God.
And so what they're doing in this document is saying that there's a certain type of truth upon which we're premising our nation that's not simply the divine right of the ruler.
And that just comes from a very deep philosophy that in the late 1700s Berkeley and David Hume are developing.
And Franklin goes to Scotland, goes to Edinburgh and learns this notion of what you would call an analytic or self-evident truth.
- Erica, one thing I learned in the documentary is that Philadelphia, at that time, about 10% of the population were enslaved people.
Benjamin Franklin had enslaved people.
I'm not even sure what the language is to describe that.
So help us understand his view of Black people.
- Yeah, you know, I think in some ways Franklin's one of the most sort of interesting Founders when we think about change, when we think about evolution, when we think about shifting ideas.
We know that Franklin, in terms of being a colonial man of some means, he spent the majority of his life as someone who was privy to holding slaves.
He was an enslaver.
He bought and sold slaves.
And that was a part of his reality and another thing that the film nor we can or should shy away from.
I think that what's so very interesting and important is that we see this shift play out with Franklin in a way that we don't see with other Founders towards the end of his life.
And, you know, I think a lot of his shift, his change in feelings about slavery, some of it comes from his time in England.
When we think about the Somerset case in the early 1770s that really begins to challenge slavery in England, he's there when that's happening.
He brings some of those ideas back home, but also comes back to Philadelphia and is in Philadelphia around the time that Quaker abolitionists are pushing for the ending of slavery.
We know that they're doing that in the 1680s, right?
So before Franklin's here.
And he's in a space in a moment, and I think a position in his life where he could do what so many other founders, including George Washington wouldn't do while they were alive, while they were living.
So his decision to move forward to become the President of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society and to make those kind of very public declarations of his feelings against slavery, I think, positions him differently than many of his other contemporaries.
And also reminds us that Philadelphia was one of those places where you could do that, right?
When we think about the North, definitely when we think about anywhere South of Delaware, that's not necessarily an easy thing to do.
It happens in Philadelphia at a certain moment in his lifetime when he was ready to make that change.
- Can I add one other thing to Erica's wonderful thing?
- Yeah, please do and then we'll get another clip, yes.
- Is also, you know, he's being the scientist and being someone who's not static, as Erica's suggesting.
What's so interesting about Franklin is that he gives you an access to our founding that isn't static.
Everybody else is static.
He's constantly willing to change and experiment.
He starts a school for Black kids in Philadelphia and goes there and is shocked, shocked to discover that Blacks are equally as adept at learning as Whites.
So the evidence before this scientist's eyes is of what the truth is, right?
And he begin to make an evolution.
I do think that Erica's right to say that because it's Philadelphia, and I think as she says in the film, "He gets on the right side of things."
But he did, and none of the other founders did.
- Well, let's get back to the film, and here's a clip.
America is at war with Britain.
This is of course the greatest military power at that time.
And Benjamin Franklin is in France and he is negotiating for supplies and for support.
(horses whinnying) (soft music) - At this point, what are the odds?
If you were making a book on this, who would you bet on?
There was the greatest military power in Europe, arguably the greatest military power in the world, and then there are these 13 colonies.
So it was a long shot to put it mildly.
- And then there are significant numbers of enslaved men and women who are eyeing the situation, trying to figure out, is there some way that this conflict could serve my interests personally, serve people like me collectively?
And then you have both within the Colonies, at the borders of the Colonies, Native nations who are trying to understand what this emerging divide might mean for control of their land or access to trade.
We know how it turned out, but nobody in 1775 or 1776 has any idea how this is going to turn out.
And so choosing sides also means choosing fates.
- The Revolution as it emerges and becomes a war is a civil war.
Families are divided.
Friends are divided.
Neighborhoods are divided.
- Almost everyone involved in the Revolution has family members who are on the other side, often very vitriolically on the other side so this really does tear families apart.
In Franklin's case, it comes as a complete break with his son.
- [Narrator] On November 19th, 1781, a young American merchant named Elkanah Watson paid a visit to Passy and found the old man lost in thought.
Franklin invited him in for dinner, played a Scottish pastoral tune for him on the harmonica and then they talked late into the night about the state of the war.
- [Elkanah] We weighed probabilities, balanced vicissitudes, dissected the best maps.
And finally it resulted in a disheartening foreboding that the English fleet would intercept and destroy the French fleet, land their army, and break up Washington's quarters.
Thus, our unhappy country would again bleed at every vein and the war commence with fresh vigor on the part of our implacable enemy.
- Franklin was extremely discouraged.
He was working night and day to supply the Americans with everything they needed, but the war was dragging on and on and on.
So when at midnight, a courier came galloping into Franklin's courtyard with the news of the victory at Yorktown, it transformed him.
- [Narrator] A month earlier, Washington's army of 9,000 Americans and nearly as many French troops had trapped British General Cornwallis at Yorktown on the Virginia Peninsula.
The French fleet offshore had cut off any chance of his being resupplied or reinforced.
After nine days of heavy bombardment, Cornwallis surrendered his 8,000 troops on October 19th, 1781.
Lafayette, a division commander of American forces was at Washington's side.
- If France had not supplied the ships, if Lafayette hadn't come over, if Burgoyne and others hadn't done what they did, if we hadn't had the French Navy helping by the time we got to Yorktown, I do not think that the American Colonies would've won the Revolution.
I think Benjamin Franklin, by sealing the alliance with France, did as much to win the Revolution as anybody with the possible exception of George Washington.
- And Walter Isaacson, that's a really powerful statement that you just said there, that if France hadn't helped America, we might have not won the war and might not be a country.
- Out in the film if you go to Yorktown in that great battle, there they are clothed and armed by the French.
They've got the French fighting with them.
They got the French fleet blocking the British escape.
And so, yes, but the cool thing about Benjamin Franklin, which I wish we could see in our diplomacy better today, is that he's able to interweave the idealism of America by doing printing press in Passy and Paris where he lived in which he's printing the great documents, like the Declaration that appeal to this rising sentiment in France about liberte, fraternite, and egalite, but he's also a great balance of power diplomat.
He knows how to balance the Bourbon-backed nations, France and Spain and the Netherlands off against England.
And so the type of diplomacy that was masterful, and we haven't really seen its like ever since.
- Well to you Ken Burns.
And I mean, it must be said that we are watching this war in Ukraine.
We see Russia's aggression, not unlike the superpower that England was, you know, several hundred years ago and a proud people fighting for their own independence.
It's interesting just to think of those parallels today.
- You know, I don't think there's been a film, Marty, that I've worked on in the past 45 years where we haven't, after having wrestled the narrative or perhaps wrestled the narrative to the ground, haven't looked up when it was done and see that it was resonating in the present.
And I had an interview yesterday with some WGBH reporters in Boston who said they just watched the documentary and all they could think about was Ukraine.
And I think this is, this goes back to Faulkner that history is not was, but is.
That it's all, we're watching human nature, and it permits us to then go into the past.
And if you do a deep dive, if you're willing to tolerate the contradictions and understand the undertow that is inevitable to any human being and to any human activity and bring that back, then it serves the present in extraordinary ways.
It gives a little bit of perspective to where we are.
And it also offers us a kind of higher mountaintop with which to see the events of the present moment where sometimes you feel down in the valley and beset by those times rather than perhaps having some insight that I think that past is extraordinarily well-equipped to give us.
- Well, we're getting some questions from our audience.
And Erica, I'll put this one to you.
Kieran from Memphis asks, "What ideas are considered some of Franklin's most revolutionary?
Would they still be considered revolutionary today?"
I'm curious about your response.
- You know, I think when I think about how Franklin processed information or thought his sort of role as a thinker, I want to say it was his attitude about learning that was so revolutionary.
When we think about the kind of, in many ways, the democratization of education, and we see that with him starting the first library in Philadelphia, the Library Company of Philadelphia where I worked for many years.
You know, the notion of pulling together resources to purchase books, which were extremely expensive in the 18th century, and therefore limited the scope of education, of knowledge, the idea of pulling together funds in order to build a library, books that could be loaned out.
That's really sort of, once again, the bedrock of the importance or the notion of importance around education, that without knowledge, there's nowhere to go, right?
That knowledge is that pathway forward.
That sometimes the knowledge that we gain is gonna be difficult, doesn't fit with, and as a scientist, as Walter said many times, sometimes his hypothesis didn't quite pan out the way he thought it would, right?
But the one thing he was pretty solid on and firm about was that without education that we could not advance as a civilization, whether that was a library, whether it was schools that allowed Black students to study there, whether it was universities or involved in medical schools.
All of this was, I think, one of his most significant contributions and revolutionary contributions.
- Walter Isaacson, let me ask you about Benjamin Franklin's use of propaganda.
This is part of the documentary.
When things are going poorly for the Colonies in the war, he made up fake news about how things were going so much better.
Can you speak to that, especially as a journalist yourself?
- Well, the wonderful thing about Benjamin Franklin is he loved parodies and hoaxes.
You have to remember that even as, whatever he was, 15 or 16 years old as a indented servant or an apprentice at his brother's print shop, he's secretly writing under the pseudonym Silence Dogood.
And he's making things up, but he's saying, here's how you know I'm an American.
He's writing in the voice of a widowed elderly woman living in the countryside so it's a great feat of the imagination, but one of them, my favorite is he does a parody and hoax in England that, well, they are two of 'em.
He parodies the edicts being given by the King of England.
And he has an edict from the King of Prussia saying, "England was once our colony, you have to follow us."
And people fell for the hoax until they realized it was Franklin.
And of course, as we point out in the documentary, the best of all was almost on his deathbed when he does what pretends to be a speech in the Divan of Algiers saying, "Here's why we have to keep White Christian Europeans enslaved in order to keep our civilization strong," parodying the horrible arguments made by, I think, a South Carolina Legislature against the abolition of slavery.
- I think, Marty, we're also- - Yeah, go ahead, Ken.
- We're pretty addicted to this notion of fake news, and we think it's a kind of binary thing.
I think what you're referring to in Paris is what we'd call spin, right?
- He's trying to put the best possible face on a horrific situation.
As H. W. Brands said, "What are the odds up against the greatest navy in the world and arguably the greatest military force in the world?"
And you can't give book on that.
You just can't- - You know, there's that wonderful line, Ken, when they tell him in Paris, that General Burgoyne, I think it is, has captured Philadelphia.
And he said, "No, sir.
I think it's that Philadelphia has Burgoyne.
- Has captured, yeah, every- - Turned out to be true!
- Yeah, and he's absolutely right, and that's hugely important.
He does get his victory at Saratoga, which is a legitimate surprised everybody victory and that is sort of the dam that breaks, but he doesn't get there unless he is confident, and painting the best sort of thing.
It's like being down nine to one in the ninth inning and just still saying, we can win it, right?
And that's what he's doing.
That's a little bit different than saying, "My crowd is bigger than your crowd," or, "I won this election.
You didn't win this election."
That's the fake news that we deal with.
This is spinning to try to give yourself a diplomatic advantage, which he did and he did, and he got it.
- And we needed it from the French.
- And we needed it.
I mean, no French.
I mean, this is the funny thing, of course, because we went immediately back to being sort of friends with England and France has become almost a punchline for a couple of centuries and we are utterly beholden to them and obviously for Franklin's persuasive skills for our existence.
- Well, let's play our final clip, and this is from the documentary about Benjamin Franklin.
How this new country, America, decides how to elect representatives to Congress and the compromise that preserves the institution of slavery, let's give it a watch.
- [Narrator] One of the thorniest issues was how Congress would be apportioned.
Under the Articles of Confederation, each state had an equal vote, and delegates from smaller states demanded that it stay that way.
Larger states, which would be contributing more in taxes, wanted Congress to be based on population.
Franklin was placed on a committee to find a workable compromise.
- And finally Franklin gets up and he says, "When we were young tradesmen here in Philadelphia and we had a joint of wood that didn't quite fit, we'd take a little from one side and shave from the other until we had a joint that would hold together for centuries."
And his point was that compromises may not make great heroes, but they do make great democracies.
- [Narrator] As the impasse over apportionment threatened to derail the Convention, Franklin began inviting important delegates to his home where they could socialize in the late afternoon under the branches of his mulberry tree and try to find common ground.
- [Walter] They discussed science.
They discussed the things they're talking about that they have to compromise on, and he helps cool the passions of that hot summer under the shade of his mulberry tree.
- [Narrator] In the end, a compromise was reached.
Each state would have the same number of senators, two, chosen by their legislatures.
The members of the House of Representatives would be elected by voters, White men only, and each state's share would be based on its population.
To mollify the Southern states their populations would include their number of enslaved people, but each of those human beings would be counted as only 3/5 of a person.
- They can't talk about slavery directly, and the word slavery is never mentioned in the document itself.
The difficult fact to accept is that the union is only possible if it includes the South.
And the states south of the Chesapeake are committed to slavery, especially Virginia and South Carolina.
If you did the moral thing in the summer of 1787 and took a clear stand and insisted on it, the Constitution would've never passed.
- It was a tragic compromise, obviously for many populations in the United States who had no party to this agreement.
They had never agreed that they would be represented in this way.
And so the compromise looks especially compromised in those terms.
- This is America's original sin, and they know it.
Nobody in the Convention or at that moment talks about slavery as anything other than a necessary evil.
- The original sin of slavery was more than just simply compromising.
The original sin of slavery began, at least for these colonists, years before.
For Franklin, unity and compromise was the only thing that could make this new nation move forward.
Without it, it would be a failed journey.
American democracy would not develop without it.
And for that reason, Franklin, as well as others sidestepped the issue of slavery.
- [Narrator] On September 17th, 1787, the delegates gathered to vote on the proposed Constitution.
Benjamin Franklin made the motion for its adoption.
- [Benjamin] I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such, because I think a general government necessary for us.
I doubt, too, whether any other convention we can obtain may be able to make a better Constitution, for when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views.
From such an assembly, can a perfect production be expected?
It therefore astonishes me, sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does.
And I think it will astonish our enemies who are waiting with confidence to hear that our councils are confounded, like those of the builders of Babel, and that our states are on the point of separation only to meet here after for the purpose of cutting one another's throats.
Thus, I can consent, sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better and because I am not sure that it is not the best.
- [Narrator] Franklin's motion was approved.
One by one, the delegates signed the new Constitution so it could be sent to the states for ratification.
- He signed it, and I think he was relieved that it brought Americans together.
And that was something that he had wanted ever since the Albany Conference.
He had wanted Americans to be a part of one grand whole.
This might not be the best, but it was the best that you could get, and he recognized that.
- The Constitution is the framework for an ongoing argument about who we are as a people and where power resides.
And it's presumed that each generation will be engaged in an argument and take it in new directions.
What do we mean by "We the people"?
And certainly we mean a lot more people now than we did then.
- [Narrator] With the work done, the doors to Independence Hall were thrown open.
Franklin was approached by one of the city's most prominent citizens, Elizabeth Willing Powel, whose own rights had not been considered.
She asked him, "Well Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?"
"A Republic," he answered, "if you can keep it."
- "A Republic, if you can keep it," which turns out to be maybe the most prophetic sentence of all.
Everyone who cares about this country has to ask that question every day.
"A republic, if you can keep it."
- There's a lot in that clip to talk about, and I want to start with you, Walter, about when you say that compromisers don't make good heroes, but they are good for democracy.
So from Franklin's point of view, there's no country without the South.
The South's economy and way of life depends on slavery so slavery is preserved without saying the word slavery?
- Well, yes, I think that Franklin had great qualms about that.
And we know he was already becoming an abolitionist.
Right after that is when he becomes the President of the Society for the Abolition of Slavery in Pennsylvania.
And Erica described it well.
And I think in one way, the turning point for him was when he becomes part of the Associates of Dr. Bray, which is the school for the children of slaves and freed slaves and he realizes, as Erica was saying, education for all being this basic radical notion that he has, he writes about how the apprehension, the ability, the cognitive abilities, the temperament of all children are the same.
And then when he watches, you know, Black children learning, he says, "You may be confused that I ever doubted it," but that's sort of the American looking at him saying, "Wait a minute, I've held these bad views.
I've got to learn.
I've gotta change."
- To you, Erica, whether this takes us back to 1619, I mean, that this sort of essential sin, if I can use that word, is embedded and maybe even exists to this day.
- Yeah, you know, I think one of the things we wrestle with when we teach history, when we produce and present history is to think about viewpoint, to think about change over time, all the things that we wrestle with in this film.
We know that both the Declaration and the Constitution were incredibly revolutionary documents yet severely flawed.
We know this.
We know that by digging deeper into these flaws, understanding the relationships, the diplomacy that Franklin was attempting to manage at that moment, the stakes were quite high.
We understand how it triumphed and how it failed at both the same time and that these things can live side by side, right?
I think what I'd prefer to focus on, though, is how the rhetoric of the Declaration, the rhetoric of the Constitution, once again, paves a way for 19th century activists to come.
They say, "Wait a minute.
You've created these documents.
These are the documents that are going to govern our nation.
We the people, whether or not you're represented as a whole person or 3/5 of a person, there are some serious problems, inconsistencies, lack of humanity represented."
So once again, these documents are a starting point and a real sort of a starting place that allows the next generation of men and women, many of whom were not really counted when we think about the Constitution or the Declaration, for them to take these documents and to turn them into a sort of living protest, a way to challenge the nation to be the nation that everyone imagined it could be.
And when I say everyone, I mean even those folks who were not represented in either the Declaration or the Constitution.
- Ken, you have spent years with Benjamin Franklin so I'm gonna ask you to channel him.
And picking up on this, you know, "A Republic, if you can keep it."
Thinking about the last year and a half or so in this country, the Insurrection, efforts to take away people's right to vote, the mixing of money and politics.
What do you think Benjamin Franklin would think of our government today?
- Well, I hate to do those kinds of parlor games in terms about what he would think.
- I know.
- Marty, but it's important that we see that he was addressing exactly these kind of tendencies in human beings.
I mean, the Declaration talks about it that man is capable of suffering these tyrannies if, you know, more disposed to suffer those tyrannies than to throw it off and so I think Erica so eloquently expressed the idea that in some ways, not the vagueness, but the plainness of the language permits it to be used by everybody to live up to it.
Thomas Jefferson meant, all White men of property free of debt.
We don't mean that anymore when we say, "All men are created equal."
The Constitution's preamble suggests a more perfect union.
Things are not very perfect now, but it's more perfect than it was before, and that's the great beauty of these documents.
These are experiments, as Joe Ellis suggested, and we're in the midst of exploring it.
So I think Franklin would be pretty shocked at where things are gotten.
I mean, even he has been reduced, this most seminal and central of figures to, you know, a kite experiment in which the lightning does not have to hit the kite as every school child believes, right?
And that it is a guy who's on the $100 bill, which is the largest bill in sort of general circulation.
That's what everybody wants, more Benjamins, right?
And I think he'd be aghast at that.
He is sort of used and abused by those people who see things only in a kind of a social Darwinian sense that you pull yourself up by your bootstraps.
You know, you're your own self-made man.
He would be shocked at that.
He was about tethering that to social responsibility and civic responsibility and doing for all.
These are not incompatible.
The notion of freedom includes the idea of personal freedom, what I want, but we know that it is in an exquisite tension with what we need.
Let us remember that he was born in the Massachusetts Bay Colony that would eventually become the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
And he died in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Virginia was also a commonwealth and later Kentucky would be.
You know, we have 46 states.
And at the center of Franklin's message to us now, embedded in so many things, including "a republic if you can keep it" is trying to maintain this kind of exquisite balance between the needs of the individual and the needs of everyone collectively.
And so what we feel right now is, is that equilibrium in a kind of distress, upset, out of balance, out of sorts with itself.
And so we can only channel, as you suggest, Franklin and be aghast, but redouble our efforts to speak more about the unum and less about the pluribus.
- Well to you, Walter, and then I've got lots more questions here from our audience.
But I love the way Franklin talks about this document.
That it's written by imperfect men so it is an imperfect document.
He says, "I'm not sure if it's not the best."
I mean, a very clever use of double negatives there, but- - He was great at double negatives.
- He's telling us something.
Yes, he was.
- It was his way of feigning humility.
And, you know, that's what he does also at the Constitutional Convention.
I mean, you know, he's like twice as old as everybody there.
And he says, "You know, the older I get something strange happens to me.
I realize I've been wrong at times."
This is again the scientific method which is, you have a theory, but you're open to new evidence and you change your mind at times.
And that to me is the radical thing about Franklin is he brings that scientific method thinking in, and he says to everybody there, "Look around.
Maybe the person next to you, you disagree, they'll turn out to be right."
And so that gets back to this notion that what he would be, I think, most appalled about in our society is this polarization where we instantly go to our ends on the talk radio dial or on our channels on cable or our corners of the blogosphere and get reinforced in our notion instead of having our notions challenged and then trying to find the common ground that I'm sure 80% of Americans could find common ground on most things.
That was Franklin's passion, which was bringing people together and using that cane of his, in which he had a secret chamber that had oil on it.
And when there was waters that were troubled, he would put his cane on it and it would calm the troubled waters.
That was a metaphor for what he wanted to do to our society.
- Well, let me read some questions.
This is Joan D. and she asks, "Does Franklin have any direct descendants alive today from his marriage or perhaps marriages, Ken?"
- I don't know.
I'll let Walter or Erica answer that.
I can tell you that the other, you know, he left part of his estate to a fund in Boston and into Philadelphia.
And I had one of the great experiences of my life a couple of weeks ago of meeting with children in Boston, kids, students in the trades, most of them immigrants or first generation or People of Color or people who are just finding in the Franklin Institute an opportunity to better themselves.
And I could bring to them through the film a sense of access to this person, but more important, they brought to me the sense that the inheritors of Franklin are many and varied, and that same institution exists in Philadelphia.
Not the same institution but another institution exists in Philadelphia that's doing the same thing, and that's a marvelous legacy.
I don't know what the lineage is of the various kids as they go forward.
- Do you know, Walter or Erica?
- The Bache family, Richard Bache, Mary, Sally, the favorite wonderful daughter.
And there are descendants on the Bache family line, no descendants from the Franklin family line, unless Erica wants to correct me, I may be wrong.
- No, I don't wanna correct you, but I'm so glad this question came up because I think the one thing we haven't really talked about, evening is about Franklin as a family man.
And we've spent a lot of time talking about him as a diplomat, as a brilliant inventor, educator, but there was one area I think that we see in the film where, you know, he wasn't knocking it out of the park when it came to family relations and you know- - That's being very generous, I think, yes.
- Thank you, I was trying.
I did my best.
And you know, when I think about Franklin as a family man, and, you know, he was messy.
Just like, that's the first word that comes to mind that he- - Well, he was away from his family for decades, it seems.
- For decades, and you know, when I think about, geniuses are great, can be great at many things, but oftentimes that takes away from certain things.
And for Franklin, that was his family.
And we could spend a lot of time talking about his relationship with his common-law wife, with his children, all of which, just turbulent and difficult and far from perfect.
And when I think about sort of today's social media and kind of the attention on people's relationships and family, I hate as a historian also to say what Franklin would be feeling today.
But if I had to say that, he'd be really upset that there'd be cameras around him all of the time while he was doing whatever it was he was doing at all times in different places.
But I think it's important to remember that while he was a genius and did so many important things, there was a lot of room for him to improve.
And even though I also think he had great emotional intelligence, we don't necessarily see that displayed with his family, with his immediate family.
- Ken, there's a question for you, which I think I just lost on my... Jack asks, "Was there a key to Franklin's diplomacy that set him apart from other diplomats at the time?"
- Well, I don't know about the other diplomats at the time.
He's got a singularly unique kind of job.
He arrives in France the most famous American on Earth.
In fact, probably most people could only name one American, and that would be Benjamin Franklin, the modern Prometheus, the tamer of lightning, all of this stuff.
And he comes into a French setting in which he runs it pretty perfectly, you know, with his pamphlets that he's printing out, with his life in the salon with his flirtations and interest in the ladies of high society in the way he courts the court, in the way he courts the intellectuals, the way he, in essence, courts the King.
And sort of through, as Clay Jenkinson says in the film, "great suavity," convinces them to loosen first the treasury and then the material and men and boats necessary for us to win the Revolution.
It's an incredible diplomatic feat.
And then once Yorktown takes place, he's then with Adams and others charged with forging the Treaty of Paris from the American side, and he's hard-nosed, you know, he's the opposite of how he treated the French.
He, first of all, permits the French to be excluded from it.
Britain gets almost nothing They're completely, you know, this is a win-win for the United States in every way, shape, or form.
And he is tough, you know, the Brits bring up reparations and he says, go F yourself, basically, unless you wanna pay for the towns that you burned down, the people that you killed, the livelihoods that you destroyed there.
And it's just, it's shocking, even to the Adams and other people watching the negotiations.
And then, you know, he has to go back and tell the French, "Sorry, you got cut out of it.
And oh by the way, we still need a little bit of money."
And he gets it.
He gets it.
And I mean, he's the greatest diplomat in American history.
Nobody can come close, nobody can come close to his achievement because no him, no us.
- Well to you, Walter Isaacson, was Benjamin Franklin a flirt?
- Oh, definitely very much so.
To talk about how he was a different diplomat than John Adams, who was also in Paris, Franklin said that Adams learned French by studying funeral orations in French, and I learned French by writing bagatelles to, I guess it was Madame Brillon and Madame Helvetius, his two girlfriends.
I mean, he was in his seventies.
He was unmarried, of course, at the time.
I think he played chess in a bathtub with one of them.
He was in the bathtub.
She was sitting by the side.
- No, he was in the bathtub and she observed it in a covered bath.
- Yeah, so I mean, it wasn't quite as bad.
- It's a great, a salacious scene, but you know, and we think a good deal of the relationships, Walter, are probably in his imagination, right?
- Oh yeah, no.
I want turn it to Erica 'cause I don't know.
You know, give me your sense of his role with women 'cause you were about to talk about him as a family person.
Erica, go ahead.
You know, look, he would, he, I'm thinking about the words my grandmother would use to describe someone like Franklin and women, and she would definitely have said he was slick, you know?
(group laughing) - Messy and slick.
- Messy and slick, but you know, the diplomacy that he used in all places, he also used with the ladies.
And I do think, you know, while we joke about it, because we do, we know this about Franklin.
But seriously, we also have to think about what this means or how he positioned the role and the rights of women at that time.
And also when I sort of go back and I think about Deborah so very often and what a position she was left in to hold down the fort, to have very little contact, even by letter from her partner, her spouse, her common-law spouse, and what that did to her in her life.
Even at her, really at her end as sick and the strokes that she had, he still didn't return.
And so there's a story there.
There's a narrative that I do think we should spend some time with.
And that has everything to do with the ways in which husbands and wives, men and women valued one another and or their relationships.
But I'll go back to the word that my grandmother used.
And every time I would walk by a bust of Franklin I'll smile because aside from the brilliance, I see a slick cat right there.
- No it's true.
15 of the last 17 years of Deborah's life, he is away.
- And knows that she is ill and doesn't return to be present at her death, and of course, funeral.
He is a proponent of women's education but doesn't seem to want to extend that to his favorite daughter.
You know, you could just chalk up the stuff with his son William as just a phenomenal betrayal on William's part, I suppose, but there's two sides to that coin.
They are best friends and William chooses empire in Britain and is the last governor seated that's deposed in the colonies and is jailed for a while, exchanged for some prisoners and presumed to go back to England, but he starts a terrorist organization killing Patriots.
There were lots of Patriot organizations killing Loyalists.
And so it's very complicated, and Franklin never forgives his son and takes everything from him, including his own out-of-wedlock son with him.
You're right, there are low marks in that regard, and the family life and the family side of things isn't perfect.
And a lot of it must be born with his childhood.
You know, he's an indentured servant to his brother.
He runs away from his, that he breaks that contract, right?
You know, seeking freedom.
This is not an unusual circumstance, right?
And ends up in Philadelphia as a result of breaking that contract.
- Well, we are out of time, but I do need to ask you, Ken Burns, are you working on your next documentary?
- Yeah, like six of 'em.
We've locked it and it'll be out in September called "The US and the Holocaust."
If you want to think about contemporary things, that's one of them.
And there's several others on the history of the, a kind of biography of the American buffalo, which is obviously not about the buffalo, about the people for thousands of generations that took care of it and the second group of people who came in and less than three generations nearly brought it to the brink of extinction.
We're doing a massive history on the Revolution in which you'll see many of the people that you saw in this film, including the late Bernard Bailyn, whom we all miss very much for his wisdom and his intelligence.
- And Leonardo.
- And we are doing a film on Leonardo da Vinci because I had a wonderful dinner with Walter many, many years ago where I thought I was going to ratify to him and a beloved friend of ours no longer with us as well that we would be doing Benjamin Franklin, and I walked out doing two films, one on Benjamin Franklin and the other on Leonardo da Vinci.
And then we're doing a history called, "Emancipation to Exodus," which is exactly what it sounds like from the Emancipation Proclamation to the beginning of the Great Migration and mostly obviously on the most misunderstood period in American history, Reconstruction.
And doing another on LBJ and the Great Society, all of which are underway.
They're not ideas.
Their film has been shot and scripts have been written and we're working night and day.
So lots of stuff on the horizon.
God and funding willing.
- (laughs) Well, we're looking forward to all of that.
Ken Burns, Erica Dunbar, Walter Isaacson, thank you so much for joining us today.
- [Erica] Good to be here.
- [Ken] Thank you.