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Benjamin Franklin | Official Trailer | PBS | A Film by Ken Burns

Ken Burns talks ‘Benjamin Franklin’ and the art of finding ‘us’ in U.S. history

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Ken Burns, without a doubt, is one of the most influential and enduring documentarians in the history of the medium. Most recently, Burns and his production team have turned their penetrating gaze to the life and legacy of Benjamin Franklin – a man Burns describes as the “Sir Isaac Newton of the 18th Century,” “the best American writer of the 18th century,” and the “first American humorist.”

“Benjamin Franklin: A Ken Burns Film” premieres on WOUB-TV Monday, April 4 and Tuesday, April 5 at 8 p.m. ET. Just a few weeks prior to the two-part series debut, Burns spoke with WOUB’s Emily Votaw about complicating the mythos surrounding one of America’s founding fathers, spending decades finding the “us” in the history of the U.S., and the urgent importance of the emotional truths at the core of each of his massive works.

Listen to WOUB’s conversation with Ken Burns, embedded above. Click on “play” in the Soundcloud widget. A condensed and edited transcript of the interview can be found below. 

Benjamin Franklin

Emily Votaw: In an essay that you wrote for Politico last year, you stated that “what we recognize in history is a combination of fact and myth, often at war with one another.” I’m curious: what are some of the particular ways you found fact and myth at war with each other in the context of making the Benjamin Franklin series?

Ken Burns: Yes, well, I think specifically in the story about Benjamin Franklin, it really comes down to myth being how we’d like to see ourselves. And inevitably that is reductionist. Franklin comes to us as a person on the hundred dollar bill — symbolic of lifting yourself up by the bootstraps and self-sufficiency and all of that sort of stuff. But this neglects the hugely important fact that he never disconnected that individual success from civic responsibility, from civic engagement, from civic discourse. Here you have a man who is able to retire in his forties due to his wealth and devote himself to scientific inquiries, who nevertheless never took out a patent on any of his life saving inventions.

Sometimes the mythology is that he represents, almost in a libertarian spirit, that ‘can do,’ American upward mobility dream — yet he would have been appalled at that, I believe. At the notion that it was in any way disconnected from civic responsibility. This is a man who formed a library in Philadelphia, who started the University of Pennsylvania, who was into volunteer fire departments, who was into all sorts of civic improvements – he created the first philosophical society in the United States! He held those great inventions without patent. He devoted his life to public service. This makes him much more complicated, and to me, much more interesting. Another myth is in our reduction of his important lightning experiments. We’ve reduced it to almost a comic scene of a kite being struck by lightning!

That’s not what he was trying to do. He was trying to prove that in lightning are all the principles of electricity. This experiment is so significant that he was the most famous American in the world, as a result of this discovery. He’s the person who coined all the various phrases that we still use in common language in our attempt to understand the properties of electricity: the positive, the negative, the charge, the battery, the conductor — these are all Benjamin Franklin’s terms. He is a Nobel Prize caliber scientist, Nobel prizes hadn’t been invented, but as the scholar, Joe Ellis, says in our film, he’s that caliber. He’s the Sir Isaac Newton of the 18th century — for the world. And so you have a much more interesting thing when you decide to penetrate that myth.

Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin portrait by Joseph Siffred Duplessis, 1778. Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (PBS Source)

When I was a little boy, I, at 12 years old, decided to be a filmmaker. And that meant in my mind that that was a Hollywood pursuit. And I loved Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford. John Ford said “when you’re faced with the legend or the fact, print the legend.” I went the other way. I went to Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, which was then, and still is now, an amazing experimental laboratory for understanding secondary education as not a transactional thing, but as a transformational thing. And it permitted me to do what I’ve done, which is trying to examine and understand, but not ignore the myth. If you told me you were 150, I would understand more about you than if you told me your actual age. It’s hugely important to understand mythology and how people have seen things in the past, but it’s important to obviously see beyond them.

Emily Votaw: The series doesn’t shy away from the fact Benjamin Franklin owned and enslaved human beings. I’m wondering: from your perspective as a contemporary documentarian, what are the best tactics to approaching the more despicable attributes of historical figures who have often been considered sort of beyond reproach?

Ken Burns: Right. Well, this is the problem. The “beyond reproach” is where the mythology gets encrusted like barnacles on the keel of a boat. To say “complicated human being” is to be redundant. In my editing room is a neon sign in cursive that says “it’s complicated.” Everybody wants to simplify everything. Everybody would love to just pigeonhole something into its category. It just makes things neater, particularly in a world where we’re overwhelmed with information every single day. And yet it is important to be rigorously identifying with the truth, what actually happened, what the facts are.

Benjamin Franklin gets a pass from many people that go ‘well, he enslaved just household people.’ Well, if you’ve got 300 enslaved people on your plantation down south, that’s bad — it’s also bad to have three, right? It’s just not a good thing. What’s interesting about Benjamin Franklin, more interesting than this binary tendency we have is that he was involved in lifelong self-knowledge and self-perfection. So that by the end of his life, he’s an abolitionist. He makes the first proposal made to the United States government — only he could have made it, begging that slavery be abolished. And it’s ignored in the Senate and doesn’t pass the House. Then many decades later we fight a Civil War — and even now we’re still arguing — over not slavery, but over the differences between people based, not, as Dr. King said, on the content of their character, but on the color of their skin.

In my editing room is a neon sign in cursive that says “it’s complicated.” Everybody wants to simplify everything. Everybody would love to just pigeonhole something into its category. It just makes things neater, particularly in a world where we’re overwhelmed with information every single day. And yet it is important to be rigorously identifying with the truth, what actually happened, what the facts are. – Ken Burns on the penetrating depth of his films

This is one of the principle narratives of the American story: freedom, race, all of these things. What’s so great about Benjamin Franklin is you have the best American writer of the 18th century, the first American humorist; and successful businessman, as an example of sort of rising up against significant obstacles. You have a person who is engaged in civic ideas and civic engagement and all sorts of civic discourse with his fellow Philadelphians. You have someone who’s a postmaster and a printer and a publisher. He knows about what we’d call “social media.” He is social media of the day! He’s the greatest scientist of the 18th century. He’s an editor of the Declaration of Independence. He edited and corrected a very important phrase Thomas Jefferson used. Jefferson wanted, “we hold these truth to be sacred.” And [Franklin] said “no, it should be ‘we hold these truths to be self-evident,’ this is the Enlightenment, buddy! This is the age of reason. This is like the sun coming up!” And it’s a wonderful addition. Franklin left most of the rest of it alone because he understood how beautiful it actually was.

He’s the greatest diplomat in American history. No him, no victory in the revolution. He’s as important, if not more important, than George Washington in that regard. He’s also the person who came and helped forge the Constitution. You know, it created the United States. That was a good thing, but it left in place slavery, and it counted the southern slaves as three fifths of a person to help boost the south’s legislative dominance for decades and decades. The Civil War happened because as Western expansion took place that legislative dominance was challenged for the first time. And it’s all over slavery.

After the government has started, [Franklin’s] in the last month of his life, and he’s an abolitionist well before the famous movements of abolitionism that we know in our histories from the 1820s through the Civil War. He can be a way for us to understand all of those complexities, all of those contradictions, and find a way, if not to reconcile them, then to understand he is us.

Ben Franklin

Emily Votaw: We’re in this moment where all of us are reframing our understanding of our country’s history. And I’m wondering: how do you see this series as sort of fitting into that? Why is it important for us to reframe our understanding of Benjamin Franklin as more than just a cultural symbol?

Ken Burns: Well, I think I don’t sort of set myself up as sort of injecting into a particular moment. It took us almost five years to make this. I couldn’t imagine the moment we’re in now when we began. The Vietnam War film took 10 and a half years to make, you can imagine the kind of sea change that occurred. I’m interested in just telling complicated stories about my country.

You know, one other way to sort of consider this, Emily, is that I’ve spent 45 years making films about the U.S., but I’ve also have spent those 45 years making films about us. That is to say the two-letter, lowercase, plural pronoun, all of the intimacy of us, plus we and our, and all of the majesty, the complexity, the contradiction, and the controversy of the U.S. And it’s been a wonderful, wonderful thing. I’ve done this with every film, I’ve made people more complicated. I wanted to, we can’t do it any other way. So that people who feel they know something go, ‘wow, I had no idea.’ And that’s wonderful.

You know, our last film was on Muhammad Ali. As the film was approaching, critics were saying, “why do we need another film on Muhammad Ali?” And when they saw it and they went, “oh!” Because it showed them there were still new ways of understanding familiar things. And as I said at the beginning, I believe it’s much more interesting to tell a complicated story. There’s something flat and simplistic about mythology — the sort of statues that don’t change expression.

I’ve spent 45 years making films about the U.S., but I’ve also have spent those 45 years making films about us. That is to say the two-letter, lowercase, plural pronoun, all of the intimacy of us, plus we and our, and all of the majesty, the complexity, the contradiction, and the controversy of the U.S. And it’s been a wonderful, wonderful thing. – Ken Burns

Emily Votaw: In past interviews you’ve said that your goal as a filmmaker is to reach audiences in subtle, long-lasting ways without using undue manipulation. And that seems like the antithesis of how a lot of popular media works. Could you talk about that? What does it mean to reach audiences like you do?

Ken Burns: Yeah. Well, popular media is essentially a cudgel, right? Is it not? It sort of beats you over the head and yells at you and screams at you and tells you there’s an enemy amongst you. What I’ve learned over years of talking about the us in U.S., is that there’s only us, there’s no them, and whenever anyone tells you there is — just run away. I think what we try to do is tell those stories in such a way that they invite as many people as possible in. The novelist Richard Powers said the best arguments in world won’t change a single person’s point of view. The only thing that can do that is a good story. And what we do right now is we argue all the time.

I just finished a film that will be out in the fall on the U.S. and the Holocaust. There’s been lots of arguments over the decades about why we didn’t bomb the rail lines of Auschwitz, right? And it’s as if it has a right or a wrong answer. Our contemplation in the film of this shows it as a very complex thing that has to do with the passage of time and the distance from airfields and whether the rails could be replaced overnight — which they could — to spectacularly inaccurate bombing. You might end up bombing, as they did once, Auschwitz itself, because they were trying to hit a factory five miles away and their bombs were off by five miles. You just dive deep into these subjects and you permit people to form their own — I won’t say opinions, but come to their own conclusions in a way that tells them that we trust them to be intelligent. I think a good deal of media today assumes what we call the lowest common denominator. And we’d rather aim high.

Emily Votaw: I’m curious about your process, so far as the sifting through all this information that makes up history. History doesn’t occur in story form, doesn’t really occur in narrative form, but a part of your job is creating one, of a type, out of it. And I’m wondering: how do you even begin that process?

Ken Burns: Well, you just think about a simple question like ‘honey, how your day,’ right? What is required out of that is a story. It doesn’t begin with ‘I back slowly down the driveway avoiding the garbage can at the curb,’ unless somebody T-bones you, at which point, that’s exactly how you tell the story. What you do is you edit human experience. History’s always changing. And here’s the important thing: as the late historian, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. said, history is a conversation. There’s nothing definitive about what we do.

We were able, say, in our Vietnam series, to collect 23 of the best scholars about it, each one of them had access to information none of the other 22 had and shared it with us. So the film aggregated all of that. And for a few years now, it’s been sort of the optimum public popular, version of it. But somebody will come along, new information will emerge, and the thing changes. And that’s a really important thing to remember that we have this thing, which is history, which is mostly made up of the word story plus ‘hi’, which is a good way to begin the story. You could look at all of human experience as the evidence for history, or you could see history is an attempt by human beings to edit and come to terms with.

Each generation has a different perspective from which it sees past events. When I was a little boy, when the Centennial of the Civil War came around in 1961, I was eight years old. It was a totally different Civil War than the kind of Civil War we seem to all have been hungry for when my series came out in 1990, it was just different earlier. They were interested in guns and regiments and arrows on a map. We had arrows on the map. We had regiments, we had guns, but it was a much more deep thing. There was more an interest in the African American experience and women’s experience and what was happening in an intimate bottom up way, not just the top down one from those mythological generals on both sides. It was a personal one perspective and it was about loss, a country losing what we now believe is 750,000 people, way more than two percent of the population.

Emily Votaw: Your films are known for giving a spotlight to those marginalized voices. The voices of people of color, the voices of women. I’m wondering: how do you research these aspects of human experience that weren’t as thoroughly documented because the people who were experiencing them weren’t privileged enough to be given the opportunity to document them?

Ken Burns: What a wonderful question. Wonderful question, Emily. It just makes our job that much more urgent. To try to do that and to begin to extrapolate from oral histories, from the minimal amount of evidence and from scholarship, which is doing that job every single day way ahead of us. The important thing is to choose to include it, which we have done from the very, very beginning. The problem is that people presume that others will want the simplified version and not the complex one. And we’re just there. I’m happy to see that a lot of that is changing across the board, not just in documentaries, but in feature films as well, that you can have complex things that show other points of view, it’s all important.

And, and the other thing is that you don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Just because you’re kind of tired of it and see the corrupt aspects of the top down story of American history of only of great men, of the political military narrative of presidential administrations punctuated by war. It doesn’t mean that all of that is bankrupt. You just need to include the bottom up version. And that’s what we’ve done.

I mean, what better way to do the Dust Bowl than to ask people than in their ‘80s and ‘90s – this was a film that came out in 2012, so now they are mostly all past – who experienced it as kids? You realize all of a sudden in the middle of interviewing an 85-year-old, that you’re not interviewing an 85-year-old, you’re interviewing a nine-year-old and they are remembering their parent’s anxiety. I bet you, if you looked back to your childhood, the things that you remember are less the kind of pleasant things than the challenging things, and the moments when your parents were worried or upset rocked your world to a foundation.

Imagine, our textbooks say, ‘oh, this is like one big bad storm.’ And sometimes it’s really 10 big, bad storms a year for 10 years. Right? All of a sudden that’s a different kind of Dust Bowl. And it’s killing not only your crops, it’s killing your cattle and it’s killing your children. And when two men in their late eighties start talking about a little sister, they had who died when she was two years old and they start crying because they haven’t brought that up — that helps you understand the Dust Bowl, more than any sort of climatologist telling you about it; more than some sort of expert historian on what it meant to the economy. All of that’s important. And we do include it, but we understand that that emotional archeology, the emotional truth comes from the aggregated attentions that we pay to that. So-called “bottom up,” so-called “ordinary people.” What we’ve discovered very early on is there are no ordinary people.