Benjamin Franklin: Founding Father for Our Times (Documentary)

Carla Seaquist
10 min readJun 12, 2024


The era of the American Revolution and our nation’s founding can seem so far away. Not only temporally — almost 250 years have elapsed — but philosophically, we are far from that spirit animating the Founding Fathers: of creating something new in all Creation — an experiment in representative democracy. We are also far from the spirit that in turn animated that era: the Enlightenment and its belief in the perfectibility of man and its reverence for science and reason.

Perhaps no Founding Father better embodies all these qualities than Benjamin Franklin — and thus perhaps there’s no historical figure who is more instructive, useful, and just plain pleasurable to spend time with. Self-improving autodidact, an up-by-his-bootstraps businessman who turned early retirement into world-beating scientific advances and then, upon entering politics, helped secure the new republic with making-it-up-as-he-went diplomacy — Franklin, while he began a loyalist to England’s King George III, once he committed to the revolutionary cause, came to define “being American.”

Ken Burns’ superb two-part documentary “Benjamin Franklin” brings the man to pulsing life, as well as the look, feel, and Zeitgeist of that long ago time — with imagery plumbed from even deeper in the archive than Burns usually goes; with colorful antique maps; with newspapers and text of the time capitalizing the Big Ideas. We get the apt quote from Franklin’s co-patriots (Washington, Adams) and Enlightenment thinkers. Providing today’s retrospect, as well as real affection for their subject and great anecdotes which the humanist Franklin humself would have enjoyed, are historians steeped in Franklin’s life and times.

Best, we get an abundance of Franklin himself: in the voice of an old man, looking back. The film opens with Franklin delivering an overview:

“Histories of lives are seldom entertaining, unless they contain something either admirable or exemplary. Know then, that I am an enemy to Vice and a friend to Virtue, a mortal enemy to arbitrary government and unlimited power. I am naturally very jealous for the rights and liberties of my country and the least appearance of an encroachment on those invaluable privileges is apt to make my blood boil exceedingly.”

Then some doggerel reflecting Franklin’s ambition: “If you would not be forgotten / As soon as you are dead and rotten / Either write things worth reading / Or do things worth the writing.” Franklin did both: writing and deeds, which the film charts in rich detail.

I’ll pass over the early career as printer, which made this once-poor runaway a rich man, and the middle career as a scientist, where his experiments with electricity made him “the world’s most famous American” — to emphasize his late career as politician and diplomat.

Franklin remained loyalist (“I am a Briton”) until quite late, never thinking of independence. But once committed, Franklin was a prime mover: His contribution to the Declaration of Independence was key, suggesting its truths were “self-evident,” not just “undeniable.” Assigned to seek France’s alliance (against its old enemy England) and its financial aid, to fund General Washington’s ragtag army — which aid he secured: as a gift, not a loan! — Franklin was key to our nation’s birth. Absent Franklin securing France (and its navy and the Marquis de Lafayette), historian Walter Isaacson asserts, “I don’t think the American colonists would have won…. 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 Franklin did it without being able to point to American victories, until very late, with Yorktown. Claiming the Americans “could hold out for 30 years,” historian Stacy Schiff says “Franklin was utterly making it up.” It was misinformation — to a good end: our birth.

I’ll note here: Franklin pulled off this magic act at the age of 75. At the age of 81, he was the oldest, and most able, delegate to the postwar crafting of the Constitution. As such, Franklin serves us today as a model of the “creative” in later life.

How else does Franklin speak to our times? Let us count the ways he points us upward.

With little formal education, Franklin read his way into the world.

Franklin read everything: “All money ever to come to my hands went out to books.” Starting with the Bible, he devoured works of the Enlightenment then flourishing in Europe: Locke’s “Essays Concerning Human Understanding,” Newton, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Voltaire. His reading led him away from his family’s Puritanism and its punishing God toward greater tolerance and a belief in good works. He arrived at his own Creed (which the film ends on). Of his writing, “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin” still speaks to anyone endeavoring to make their mark. With America now lost in conspiracy theories, lying, and misinformation to no good end, Franklin assures us of the existence of Truth and value of Reason. Get there and hold your position.

Franklin always sought the civic versus the purely personal.

Beginning with his printer career, in Philadelphia, Franklin’s social instinct was evident. He gathered together other printers, first for socializing, then suggested they share their books (books again!), which over time led to America’s first lending library. As a group they established the academy that led ultimately to the University of Pennsylvania. The founding goes on: volunteer fire company, hospital, the American Philosophical Society. Franklin believed profoundly in the values of the working middle class. He never denied his ambition, though: With his first election (to Pennsylvania’s colonial assembly), which “would enlarge my power to do good,” he noted, “I would not insinuate that my ambition was not flattered by all these promotions, because it certainly was.” With the narcissist and show-boater now so dominant in America, Franklin exemplifies civic magnanimity.

Franklin always sought utility and the common good.

To make “useful” things, thus be useful, was for Franklin the point. As a scientist, his inventions — the Franklin stove, the lightning rod — -were of broadest utility. Immanuel Kant called him “the modern Prometheus.” Yet he never applied for patents on them, as he felt he’d benefited from the earlier inventions of others at no cost. “Be glad to serve,” he wrote. While he often felt a failure — most notably over the lost loyalist cause ending in his public humiliation in London and, tragically, causing a permanent schism with his loyalist son William — he never became cynical. He understood that humanity, especially political man, brings “passions and prejudices” to the table, thus perfection is not possible. Yet, Franklin said, “it astonishes me, Sir, to find this system approaching so near to it,” speaking of the colonials’ convention process. With COVID laying bare America’s lack of cohesion, and cynicism, recall Franklin’s counsel: “Be glad to serve.” In other words, be glad of it — to get to do whatever is needed to save our democracy.

“The enemy of Vice and friend of Virtue” didn’t start on this path, but he ended there.

As a young man adventuring in London, Franklin consorted with “low” women, fathering an illegitimate son (William). Yet early on, Franklin understood: “Since without Virtue man can have no happiness in this world, I firmly believe He delights to see me virtuous.” He knew human nature to be flawed, but believed anyone can improve. A practitioner of constant self-improvement, Franklin drew up a list of “12 Virtues” — temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity — leading he believed to “moral perfection.” (Touting his list to friends, he was told it lacked the virtue of humility; amused, Franklin knew he’d be proud even of his humility.) Notes historian Joseph Ellis, “He stands astride so many contradictions in his own life that he understands them, they become some seamless web of insight.” At the end of his life, Franklin wrote: “Whether I have been doing good or mischief is for Time to discover. I only know that I intended well and I hope all will end well.” With America having lost its moral compass, Franklin’s upward journey inspires.

Originally a slave-owner, Franklin endeavored to amend the Constitution’s “error.”

Slavery, America’s Original Sin, was embedded in the original U.S. Constitution. The Founding Fathers, knowing it was sinful but needing the Southern delegations to form the Union, acceded, invoking the shameful three-fifths clause denoting slaves’ reduced humanity. Franklin too was on the wrong side — initially: He owned slaves and, in his newspaper, ran ads for their sale. His disdain for “blacks and tawnies” and extolling of “the lovely white,” a “partiality” he deemed “natural,” is hard to hear (but not to whitesupremacists). Franklin, though, redeemed himself: After the Constitution’s ratification, this silent abolitionist, in his last public act, addressed slavery head on: He submitted two anti-slavery petitions to the new Congress — one to abolish slavery, the other to abolish the slave trade — “earnestly” beseeching “removal of this blemish from the American people.” But, after sparking heated debate, they were tabled. Historian Bernard Bailyn, decrying the “gross hypocrisy of not including everybody,” notes, “Before the revolution, the subject of slavery was not a major public issue; after the revolution, there was never a time when it wasn’t.” Franklin also recanted his low view of the American Indian: “These poor people have been always our friends, their fathers received ours when strangers here with kindness and hospitality. Behold the return we have made them.” With America still refusing to reckon with its racism, in fact becoming retributive about it, Franklin’s late self-redemption instructs.

“A republic, if you can keep it”: “Much depends upon the people….”

On leaving the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Franklin, asked by a passerby if we had a republic or a monarchy, famously replied: “A republic, if you can keep it.” That is the question of our moment: Can we keep our republic? Because — Benjamin Franklin might weep — America is committing national suicide. Anti-democratic forces, working from within and not from without, and claiming flag and church, now lay siege to our democratic foundations, with assaults on the vote, elections, rule of law, peaceful transfer of power. Violence now figures in our politics; a violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, to stop power’s transfer, goes largely unreckoned. Our best help, of course, is ourselves; no foreign allies can do the work. “Much depends on the people,” Franklin said. By this, he implied not just agency, but character, or more properly, Character. But a moral falling-off parallels our political one. On this point, Franklin’s guiding principle was “a dislike of everything that tended to debase the spirit of the common people.” So: Do we have the Character?

Woodcut: Chas. Turzak, 1899–1986

To recur to Franklin’s quote opening the film, about his contempt of the “encroachment” of “arbitrary government” and “unlimited power”: There was a personal reason behind this contempt. Benjamin had suffered as apprentice to his older brother James and, because of James’ abuse of his overseer power, they came to blows, forcing Benjamin to run away. In our own perilous moment, the antidemocratic forces strenuously now at work also cry out about encroaching government exerting arbitrary and unlimited power. They would also claim Franklin ratifies their argument that America is a republic, where power is exercised by the people’s representatives, rather than a democracy, or mob rule, thus the imperative to “keep” the republic. But in manifesting their affinity for violence, and resisting any accounting for its past exercise — including an attempted insurrection — Franklin would counsel, “One attempted insurrection is sufficient, there cannot be two. Mind, Sirs, the abuse of power.” Will these forces, in their fever, mind this counsel?

If I may, I’d make this report to Mr. Franklin: Since the inception of this nation, which you so ably oversaw, our abiding challenge over time has been the responsible handling of our historically abundant freedoms, which responsible handling a mature people would exercise. America, it seems, was more mature at its inception than in its later stages. The question now is: Can the people mature?

American Philosophical Society, which Franklin established in 1743

Watching this film, about a singular Founding Father, invites pondering these questions. Enhancing a deep perspective, the camera lingers on evocative Colonial features taking us back to our origin story — the Georgian architecture, narrow city streets and unpaved country roads, shown in late afternoon or early evening light. Time-lapse photography of day transmuting to night, sky darkening to storm, reflects the swirling course of History.

And, oh, the History: What will We the People do with our glorious origin…?

“Benjamin Franklin” can be streamed online at PBS.



Carla Seaquist

Our times examined via politics, culture, morality. Author, "Can America Save Itself from Decline?" (Vol. II). Playwright. Fmr. HuffPost.