Ahead of his upcoming documentary on the life and legacy of Benjamin Franklin, the documentary Ken Burns joined Boston Public Radio to explain why he chose to share the story of one of the most famous figures in American history.
Perhaps what attracted Burns most to Franklin’s life was not his role as one of the Founders of America, but rather how Franklin’s life relates to today ‘s world.
“We do not work on our films thinking, ‘Oh, this will be modern,’ we just know it will be.” said Burns. “We just have to fight to tell this story. … But I think you can remember what the Ecclesiastes said: “What happened will happen again, what happened will happen again. “There is nothing new under the sun.”
For one thing, Burns said Franklin understood how to talk to people.
A journalist asked me weeks ago, “What would he think, would he be completely confused by social media?” And I said, “It was social media.” He was a printer, he was a publisher, he was a newspaper man, he was a postman. “He would take it in a second,” Burns laughed.
The Founder was many things, including a symbol of upward mobility. He was born into a lower middle class family with little education before becoming a writer, a successful businessman, a world-class scientist and a diplomat. He is now the literal figure on the $ 100 bill.
“He wanted to do better, but we all wanted to do better,” said the director, adding that Franklin felt a civil responsibility.
Burns notes that Franklin is “someone who seems so fully available and human to us” and is a prime example of “how complex our greatest heroes are.” While widely regarded as an inventor, humorist, and diplomat, little is said about Franklin’s slave ownership and his final turn toward abolition. Towards the end of his life, he founded a school for black children in Philadelphia and introduced one of the first resolutions in America to abolish slavery.
“His greatest invention is himself … He is always curious. And in honor of him we love – and us -, it has to do with improving and getting better, not getting stuck and not being static.” said Burns. “And so this old man, at the end of his life, becomes a revolutionary; and this old man, after helping him create the United States, becomes a supporter of abolition.”
As Burns explained, Franklin’s life story contains political divisions, religious divisions, false information, family conflicts, and more.
“Everything is there,” he said. “This is because human nature does not change. “I will never run out of issues in American history, because they will be guides for who we are right now.”
“Falls down a lot. Unapologetic alcohol guru. Travel specialist. Amateur beer trailblazer. Award-winning tv advocate. Hipster-friendly twitter aficionado”