The long list of Ken Burns’ documentaries includes biographies of Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali and Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. But his latest is, I believe, the first to focus on someone who’s in a painting that hangs inside the entrance to a Latter-day Saint temple.
And the subject of his latest PBS documentary was a slave owner.
Yikes. Did you know that about Benjamin Franklin?
The two-part, four-hour documentary focuses on Franklin’s best and worst qualities. And it illuminates a fact unknown to most Americans: Although he became an abolitionist later in life, Franklin not only backed the three-fifths Constitutional compromise — which counted slaves as three-fifths of a person — but he was himself a slave-owner.
Which puts him in the same company as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, John Hancock, James Madison and other Founding Fathers.
The fact that there’s a church-commissioned painting that features Franklin signing the Constitution hanging in the foyer of the Philadelphia Temple is not included in the documentary. The fact that Franklin was longtime slave owner — even after he became an abolitionist — is.
Burns said he believes Franklin was “the greatest diplomat in our history because he can hold two opposing things simultaneously. It is a brilliant sign of genius that we are so lucky to have had.”
The two-part documentary, titled simply “Benjamin Franklin,” airs Monday and Tuesday at 7 p.m. on PBS/Ch. 7. Part 1, “Join or Die,” covers his life from his birth in 1706 to 1774. Part 2, “An American,” covers 1775 until his death in 1790. It is, as you might imagine, about Franklin’s life as a scientist, inventor, writer, publisher, humorist, diplomat, revolutionary and signer of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
It is, as we’ve come to expect from Burns, a fascinating four hours filled with facts and opinions from historians, and frequently featuring Franklin’s own words, spoken by Mandy Patinkin.
It doesn’t shy away from the fact that Franklin owned at least six slaves, and that his newspaper published advertisements for slave sales and for rewards for the recapture of runaway slaves. And, at the Constitutional Convention, Franklin back the three-fifths compromise, which counted each slave in southern states as three-fifths of a person.
“The greatest thing they had to do as founders and the greatest thing we have to do in our lives is to know when to compromise and when to stand true on principle,” said historian Walter Isaacson, the author of “Benjamin Franklin: An American Life Franklin,” who is one of the talking heads in the documentary. “He is a great example of that. He usually gets it right. He knows you can’t make a great democracy without compromise, but there’s times where he says you can’t compromise.
“He and they got it wrong, especially on the three-fifths clause. And Franklin knew it, which is why he dedicated the rest of his life after the Constitutional Convention to being an abolitionist, to decrying the notion of slavery, to trying to get rid of it. And, even more so than even Lincoln, believing that Blacks could be well educated and were just as capable as whites.”
Franklin saw the three-fifths compromise as a way to limit the power of the southern, slave-owning states, but it is often seen in the opposite light today. Isaakson called it “odious” and “dehumanizing.”
Historian Erica Dunbar, who also consulted on and appears in the documentary, acknowledged the need for the three-fifths compromise to get the Constitution ratified, but said the “long-lasting, long-reaching effects” and the “collateral damage” since it went into effect in 1789 cannot be ignored.
And, she said, Franklin was much more than just that aspect of his life.
“He’s a total rascal, too,” said Dunbar. “He’s this larger than life [figure] in a way that we don’t see with a Washington or a Jefferson, right? He’s someone who the common man can connect to, right? He liked to party. He liked women. These are the things Ken made certain to balance in this film — that while we see him and his immense knowledge, we also see him as a person.”
By the way, that painting of Franklin in the Philadelphia temple hangs in the same entrance as one of Jesus Christ below two cross quills. According to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, one quill stands for the Book of Mormon and the other for the Constitution.
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