- Good evening.
I'm John Abbott, president and CEO of GBH.
Welcome to tonight's event exploring Benjamin Franklin and his writing.
GBH is proud to be the public media home in Boston for the extraordinary film by Ken Burns, "Benjamin Franklin," coming to PBS nationally on April 4th and 5th.
I'm here at the Benjamin Franklin Cummings Institute of Technology, a school in Boston that is a direct legacy of Benjamin Franklin.
We're pleased that they are a partner with us for this event, and I am delighted to be joined by their president and CEO, Dr. Aisha Francis, who can tell us more about the college.
- Thank you, John.
The Benjamin Franklin Cummings Institute of Technology owes its existence to Benjamin Franklin.
In his will, he left half of his estate, valued at 1,000 pounds, to the people of Boston, with the intention of creating access to trade apprenticeship for people who were, in the wording of the time, indigent.
Today, that legacy has evolved into an affordable technical college serving the Greater Boston region.
Here, people pursue rewarding careers and economic opportunity, just as Benjamin Franklin did by learning the printing process as an apprentice.
We help our students achieve success and job readiness through programs that build skills focused on the fields that Ben Franklin would have found familiar, as well as new areas that would fascinate him, such as clean technology, life sciences, robotics, and cyber security.
More than two centuries after his death, Benjamin Franklin's legacy continues to do great public good.
I have no doubt that Benjamin Franklin would be proud of every graduate of this school that bears his name.
- Thank you, Aisha.
The Institute is truly changing lives, and as we know, Benjamin Franklin was more than a Founding Father.
He was a scientist, a statesman, inventor, printer, publisher, and much more.
So let's start with a clip from the opening of the two-part, four-hour film by Ken Burns.
It will be followed by a distinguished panel discussing the wit, wisdom, and elegance of Ben Franklin the writer.
Thank you, and enjoy this event.
(thunder rumbling) - [Ben] Histories of lives are seldom entertaining unless they contain something either admirable or exemplar.
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.
(lively folk music) - Franklin is by far the most approachable of our founders.
He's not somebody made of stone, like a George Washington.
Franklin was pretty simple in his moral code.
He was driven by a desire to pour forth benefits for the common good.
But there's a lot in Benjamin Franklin that makes you flinch.
And we see Franklin not as a perfect person, but somebody evolving to see if he could become more perfect.
- [Narrator] He was a teenage runaway who achieved such remarkable success that his example would be handed down for generations as the embodiment of the American dream.
He was a printer, a publisher, and a writer, producing everything from essays on politics and religion to biting satire and words of wisdom that would endure forever.
He was a prolific inventor and a scientist whose pioneering discoveries would make him the most famous American in the world.
He was a civic leader, the founder of a library and a college who introduced a host of improvements that made the lives of everyday people better.
He embraced the enlightenment belief in the perfectibility of human beings.
But no one understood their foibles and failings, including his own, better than he did.
He also owned and enslaved human beings and benefited from the institution of slavery.
(gun bangs) He was a reluctant revolutionary who became an indispensable founder of a new nation, helped craft the document that declared his country's independence, and then did as much as anyone to secure the victory that assured it.
And he guided the complicated compromises that created his nation's constitution, then tried to rectify its central failing.
- He constantly remade himself, from apprentice to printer to scientist to govern official to revolutionary to abolitionist.
He never was finished with himself.
He always thought that he was a work in progress.
- [Narrator] He could be funny and unforgiving, folksy and philosophical, generous, and shrewdly calculating, broad-minded, yet deeply prejudiced, a family man who spent years away from his wife and let political differences destroy his relationship with his son.
He concealed those contradictions behind a carefully crafted public image.
- He's a Puritan who then becomes the leading figure in the enlightenment.
So he stands astride so many contradictions in his own life that he understands them and they don't become contradictions for him.
They become some seamless web of insight.
- He wrote so much, he wrote so well, he's somebody that we need to know about.
He can put us in touch with the sensibilities of the 18th century in a way that makes it both accessible, and yet, captures its remoteness.
- Franklin is endlessly, endlessly interesting.
He is the only founding father who evidently had a sense of humor, who was evidently human, who evidently had a sex life.
And there's so much about him that makes him seem approachable on the one hand and superhuman on the other hand.
- [Narrator] "Let all men know thee," Benjamin Franklin said, "But no man know thee thoroughly."
- [Ben] I never intend to wrap my talent in a napkin.
To be brief, I am courteous and affable, good-humored unless I am first provoked, and handsome.
And sometimes witty.
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.
(lively folk music continues) - Good evening.
It's so wonderful to be with you all this evening to have this conversation about Benjamin Franklin and writing.
I'm Bina Venkataraman.
I am editor-at-large at "The Boston Globe," and I will be soon introducing our esteemed panelists for this conversation.
I wanna begin by just acknowledging that it's very apt that we're having this conversation right now at a time when democracies around the world are under threat.
And in particular, we see Ukraine, a large democracy in Europe, being brutally attacked.
It's apt to be able to reflect on and think about one of the architects of our democracy, the oldest living democracy in the world, and to be able to reflect on the values of democracy that Benjamin Franklin upheld in his writing, in fact.
So I wanna invite our panelists on and just introduce them to you.
In a way, they need no introduction.
Ken Burns, a documentary filmmaker, award-winning filmmaker who made this film.
- Hi, Bina.
And I wanna welcome Jane Kamensky, who is a professor, a historian at Harvard.
- Hi, Bina.
- And good evening to Christopher Brown, a professor of history at Columbia University.
- Hi, Bina.
- Great to see you all.
So I've gotta give the first word to Ken here, because he's made this extraordinary film that I had the privilege of previewing.
And it's been pointed out that Benjamin Franklin was so many things.
He was an inventor.
He was a philosopher of sort.
He's was obviously a politician and a printmaker, a publisher, and in so many ways, we can remark on the extraordinary nature of his life.
But you chose to train your eye and train your camera on Benjamin Franklin as a writer.
And I wanna just ask you, Ken, why, why did you choose to focus on that as the thread of this documentary?
- Well, thank you, Bina.
First of all, thank you for also thinking about the Ukraine, but I'd also like to congratulate "The Boston Globe" for 150 years of helping to maintain a free press in the United States, which is of course, and Benjamin Franklin would agree, central to this enterprise of ours.
You know, my last two films were on Ernest Hemingway, who was arguably the greatest writer of the 20th century, and Muhammad Ali, one of the greatest celebrities, one of the great personalities of the 20th century.
Benjamin Franklin is, without a doubt, the best American writer of the 18th century and the most incredible personality of the 18th century.
So you've got a kind of two for one.
And I think of all the amazing things he was, what often goes underrepresented, and it's one aspect of the story we're telling, is him as a writer.
And just to give you an idea, Yale University began editing his papers in 1954.
They're on volume, I think, 43.
They've got at least five years to go.
There are 30,000 pages.
And it's just an amazing, amazing document, to think that this kid who has two years of schooling becomes the leading thinker in America on the enlightenment, who becomes a world-class scientist and inventor, who is a great, great great writer.
And I'm so glad that, tonight, we're able to focus on this, a person who is beginning to embody how America sounds.
He's the first person, I think, who imagines what it's like to be an American.
First of all, I was asked by a reporter the other day, "What would Benjamin Franklin think of social media?"
I just went, "He was it," right?
He's a printer, he's a writer, he's a publisher, he's a newspaper publisher, he's a postmaster.
He's basically got it coming and going.
And he understands a kind of civic responsibility to that.
He's self-taught, so as someone in our film says, "He didn't know what he was supposed to know so he decided to learn everything."
And you begin to understand that this extraordinarily powerful genius, this autodidact, has invented himself, the greatest invention he has, and also been one of the great American stylists.
And it was just a pleasure to unspool, essentially, in this film lots of first-person voices, but it's essentially a conversation between our narrator, written by Dayton Duncan, a longtime collaborator, and Mandy Patinkin, who voices the words of Franklin.
And they're extraordinarily moving and poetic and funny at times.
And so just great thanks to this evening and our contributors on behalf of WETA, our presenting station, and PBS.
And also, my co-producer, David Schmidt.
- I wanna bring Christopher Brown into this conversation.
Of course, we saw Christopher in this short clip.
And Christopher, you said something very provocative, but I felt like we didn't really get the full thought there, which is that Franklin's writing, in a way, made the 18th century more accessible to us today, it makes it more accessible when we read it, but also reflects its remoteness.
Can you just say more about what you meant about that and how those two things can be true at the same time?
- Yeah, sure.
So if you sit with any of Franklin's essays, whether written under his name or written under a pseudonym, what's immediate striking is just how there's a clarity and a simplicity about his language.
You don't get the sort of florid 18th century, distant, archaic, modes of expression.
It feels very immediate.
Ken just made reference to how he would've done with social media.
I mean, if you read "Poor Richards Almanack," it's almost like he's writing tweets with his various aphorisms and proverbs.
And so there's a familiarity too, because so much of his language, so many of the things that he, you know, sort of have kind of filtered into our common speech today, the cliches, right?
So that's part of it, but you also get access to this world, to the everyday world of, you know, first Boston and then Philadelphia and then London and then Paris, depending on what part of his life you enter into.
And you get all the immediacy of what's happening with that day.
What are the issues of the day?
What are the concerns of the day?
And they seem resonant and relevant, but they also are very specific to their moment.
They're specific to Pennsylvania politics.
They're specific to Boston's religious culture.
They're specific to the intellectual life in London.
And so I really believe that Franklin is, in some ways, one of the best ways into the 18th century in terms of really trying to understand its texture, its feel.
And he gives us access to that.
- Jane, you are an expert on some of the writers who were formative in the American Revolutionary years, our Founding Fathers or Founding Mothers who often go neglected.
And I wonder how you reflect on this issue of what makes Franklin distinctive amongst his contemporaries of that time.
And because Christopher mentioned the places that Franklin described, I hope you can also say a little bit about his early life in Boston, where you and I both are right now.
Let me loop back to Ken's comments about "The Franklin Papers" for a moment.
They're digitally searchable at franklinpapers.org, thousands of letters you can dip in and keyword search and find out what he thought about almost anything.
And to pick up on Chris's sense that you're close to the ground with him, he's very much of the people and unashamed of that even as he rises in ways that I think other founding era leaders who want to be cognoscente in a different way are not.
I think it matters a great deal that he comes out of Boston, which is probably the most literate place in the Western world when Franklin is born in the early 18th century.
It matters that newspapers and the British colonies started there.
So many people could read.
Cotton Mather is his opponent, because he's on his heels by the time Franklin and the incredible dynamic, cultural economy of the early 18th century tree is coming up around him.
So he's American in the sense of his aspiration and his sort of dynamic mobility, socially.
I think a story of Franklin in a provincial town in Britain of the same size of Boston, Derbyshire, or slightly smaller, Edinborough, would not have had the two years of schooling and then becoming the voice of a nation that he did.
It was a place where it was easy for a free person to be ambitious.
- So would Franklin's contemporaries have been similarly self-taught, or what do you see is the role that his sort of self-taught literacy played in that style and in what made him distinctive?
- I think the printer as an occupation is a sort of fascinatingly in-between creature, So would've read everything that a John Adams was reading at Harvard, at least in the vernacular.
Franklin's not reading Latin or Greek and not aspiring to be a classically educated person, but he would've read all the English letters that are pouring through a place like Boston.
And as Joyce Chaplin says in the film, "Setting them upside-down and backwards in type," there's a combination of the life of the mind in the bookshops that he's just consuming, omnivorous, he's an he's an omnivorous intellectual, and the life of the hands, the leather apron that he hangs onto into his majority in Philadelphia.
And printing is just exactly that kind of in-between thing where he's hearing the equivalent of stevedores and sex workers on the wharf, and he's also hearing preaching and reading tracks and learned books that come into the bookstores on King Street.
- So his vernacular is coming from the very high and the very low brow of society.
Very interesting, and it does sound very American.
Ken, I'm wondering if you could set us up and introduce, because I think Jane really alluded to something that shows up in the next clip we're gonna see from the film about the effect, or what it means to be someone who sets type.
So I'm hoping you can do that and play for us the next clip.
- Well, I don't really need to do anything.
Jane has set it up so perfectly and quotes something from Joyce Chaplin, who will appear, but it's just to show his early apprenticeship and the way in which this industrious kid begins to transform even his older brother's business, with his wit, with his intelligence, with that omnivorous curiosity and the insatiable desire to know more, wherever that comes from.
It's just spectacular to behold and has an element of courage and bravery and risk, but also humor and a kind of wink to us that I think speaks to Chris's sense of how familiar he is to us.
There's the other stylists' feel of that period.
And almost everything that Franklin wrote, you sort of feel like it could have been written today and could be handled perhaps as a tweet or as a letter to the editor or as an essay that you've read.
So let's just look at the second clip without further ado and we can come back on the other side of it and have a conversation.
(lively folk music) - [Narrator] In 1718, at age 12, Franklin began the work that would define the rest of his life.
He signed a nine-year apprenticeship, legally indenturing himself to his older brother, James, who had opened a printing shop in Boston.
- Printing was an amazing business if you were both clever with your hands and good at thinking.
Printers were setting type upside-down and backward, and you have to be really hyper-literate to understand how language works that way and to correct things as you go along and get it right.
- [Narrator] Handling the heavy sets of lead type strengthened and broadened his shoulders.
Having access to books strengthened and liberated his mind.
- [Ben] Often I sat up in my room reading the greatest part of the night when the book was borrowed in the evening and had to be returned early in the morning, less it should be missed.
And all the little money that came into my hands was ever laid out in books.
- Here was a kid who only had two years of formal education ever.
So what did he do?
He taught himself how to write.
- [Narrator] He composed poetry, including a ballad commemorating the recent killing of Blackbeard, the pirate.
He read articles from "The Spectator," a London periodical, and, on paper salvage from the print shop, attempted to reproduce them by memory.
He stayed up late at night and rose early each morning to continue his reading before the shop opened.
"I was," Franklin said, "extremely ambitious."
In 1721, his brother James decided to publish his own weekly newspaper, "The New England Courant."
From its inception, the paper courted controversy.
Its first issue attacked Cotton Mather, Boston's preeminent preacher, and the colonies strict and severe moral authority.
Mather called the newspaper, "Wicked, filled with immorality and lies."
- What James Franklin does is he creates the first real independent newspaper in America.
His paper in Boston is, quote, "Not published by authority."
All the others were given a stamp of authority.
- [Narrator] On April 2nd, 1722, an essay appeared over the name of Silence Dogood, who claimed to be a widowed woman from the countryside and who had lots of homespun wisdom and sharp social critiques to share.
It was an immediate hit.
No one, including James Franklin, had any idea that the real author was a teenage boy, James's 16 year old brother, Benjamin, who had secretly slipped the essay under the door.
More of Silence Dogood's articles began to appear.
She offered irreverent advice on funeral eulogies, advocated fiercely for women's education, and in one dispatch, poked fun at Harvard and the wealthy parents who dreamed of sending their children to the elite institution.
- [Ben] Most of them consulted their own purses instead of their children's capacities.
At Harvard, they learned little more than how to carry themselves handsomely and enter a room genteely.
And from whence they return, after abundance of trouble and charge, as great blockheads as ever, only more proud and self-conceited."
- [Narrator] In the summer of 1722, James would was jailed for three weeks without trial for questioning the competence of Cotton Mather and the colony's other leaders.
Quoting from an article he had read in a London newspaper, Benjamin, as Silence Dogood, came to his brother's defense.
- [Ben] Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom, and no such things as public liberty without freedom of speech.
Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.
- [Narrator] When James was released from jail and resumed putting out his newspaper, Benjamin confessed publicly that he, in fact, was writing Silence Dogood's essays.
Many cheered him for his artfulness, but James was jealous.
They would argue, and it sometimes came to blows.
- [Ben] I fancy his harsh and tyrannical treatment of me might be a means of impressing me with that aversion to arbitrary power that has stuck to me through my whole life.
- [Narrator] Franklin decided to run away, even if it meant breaking his legal obligation to his brother.
After selling some of his books to pay for his passage, he slipped out of town on a ship heading south, convincing the captain to keep quiet under the false pretense that he had gotten a girl pregnant and needed to leave.
He was 17 years old.
- So much interesting fodder there in that clip.
Jane, I feel like I should ask you whether Franklin's assessment of Harvard still rings true today, but I don't wanna put you on the spot.
(all laughing) I do wanna ask you about this idea of using pseudonyms, because, as a newspaper editor today, this is not something that we do.
It's very rare that we will publish anyone anonymously or use an anonymous source, even quoting in a piece.
And there are reasons for that.
We wanna be able to trace back what people say.
Can you help us understand, was this a common practice at the time that Franklin was writing under these pseudonyms?
And what was the role of these alter egos, and what does that tell us about him and his writing?
- Sure, it's absolutely a common practice.
I think it's a vision of authorship that is collective and welcomes borrowing.
Much of what he wrote, especially early in his life, was sort of pastiche drawn from other places.
It connects the author to a long chain of thinking, and many pseudonyms come from Latin or Greek heroic figures.
Franklin's are playful and homespun.
And I think that too is a pretty common pose, right?
The intellectual posing as a farmer.
The masquerade as a woman is less typical, but also not unheard of, so all parts of the conventions of authorship that he's seeing run through his print shop.
I think he's unusually inventive and unusually playful with that form, certainly not, at that point in his life, doing it to hide himself for political reasons.
- You usually hear about the inverse, the women writing under a male pseudonym in order to be published.
And that's why I found that so striking.
Christopher, I wanna bring you in to ask you about this because, at one point in this film, not in the clip we just saw, you talk about Franklin, not just as a writer, but as an editor.
And one of the famous edits that we know that Franklin made was to the "Declaration of Independence" and to Jefferson's words, "These truths we hold sacred and undeniable."
Franklin made, maybe not a red line at the time, but made the edit, "These truths we hold self-evident."
And I know that this is something that you find worth remarking on and I just wonder if you would help us understand why that edit is important and what it tells us about Franklin, what it tells us about "The Declaration" itself.
- Yeah, sure.
So the first thing to understand is that here's somebody who, at the time of the "Declaration of Independence," I think it's important to remember he's 70 years old at this point.
He has lived a much longer life than even the wealthy, comfortable men and women of his generation.
He's been printing and then editing and then writing for 60 years, and so he's a wordsmith.
He's an experienced wordsmith.
Thomas Jefferson and some of the others are really quite young.
And so one thing to understand about Franklin is he's very aware of how words will land, how they will be received, how they will resonate.
And I there's a certain deference, I think, to Franklin's wisdom and experience.
And this actually runs throughout the Revolutionary period, that here's somebody who had spent many years in England, who had spent many years conversing with the people who make decisions.
He knew these words were for posterity.
For all he'd wrote, he was actually very careful about what he wrote down 'cause he knew that those words would be there forever, as they have been.
So I think people have different ideas about the shift from sacred to self-evident.
I think part of it has to do with not wanting to get into religious disputes, but to simply say that this is nature.
This is how human society is, how the world is.
So rather than getting into questions about what is sacred, some people thought that rights came from God.
Some people understood rights as being inherent in human nature.
The self-evident, in an important way, it kind of gets them around that and out of theological disputes and into the basic political points they wanna make.
- So an important edit.
And it's almost hard to imagine the "Declaration of Independence" without that term now, now that we know it this way.
(all laughing) It's strange to look back.
Ken, I wanna ask you a question, we have an audience question that I wanna ask you, and I'm gonna come to my question that arises from this clip, but Abhijeet from Schaumburg, Illinois is asking, "What do you think Franklin would say about cancel culture and a society that labels inconvenient and nonconforming speech as offensive?"
And I think, probably, the other panelists are gonna have views on this too.
It's a really interesting question.
- Yeah, I think no doubt he would err on the side of tolerance, that he would be concerned with lots of voices.
I mean, he inherited and brought to the scene a lot of his own prejudices and deep, deep moral failings, including enslaving human beings in his household.
But I think that he would be shocked, because he was such a great compromiser.
He was always looking for a way to parse things.
In fact, as our film gets into the very depths of the second episode of forging the compromises that create the United States of America and a working government, at the heart of it is a compromise he helped to forge, which, essentially, threw a lot of stuff to the South, knowing full well they'd depart without this, and made their enslaved peoples 3/5 of a person without any other rights for the purposes of apportionment, which created, for decades, the dominance of the South in our larger national politics, and, of course, disregarding the question of slavery.
But Franklin will take it up.
So I just have a feeling that he's always trying to work out some compromises.
This is part of the Leather Apron group, the Junto Club, in which you're just trying to make, as Walter Isaacson says in our film, "A kind of good joint."
And in order to make a joint that lasts for centuries, you need to shave a little bit off here and a little bit off there.
And so I think he'd be looking with the kind of humility and desire to self improve that he spent his whole life doing to every sort of situation.
And part of that is forgiveness.
And so I think he'd be, I think, right on all of that, Bina.
- Jane, what do you think about this?
Do you agree you with that assessment of how Franklin would look at these debates around freedom of expression and when is something being censored by the culture, cancel culture, versus when is something beyond the pale of our moral values?
- So, first, he lived in a time when a relatively limited part of the population could speak.
And that's important to remember in drawing any kind of analogy.
It's no accident that the words that the film so artfully hovered over in the first clip were words about free speech that he borrows from the English Commonwealth tradition coming out of Adam Milton's day.
I think he is a man who believed in a cacophony of voices and thought that good things came from debate.
It's true also that he published people's private letters, published Thomas Hutchinson's private letters, betraying a really important political friendship.
He canceled somebody.
So I think Franklin was on many sides of that table, but the tolerance for open debate is one of the ways that the country got made.
I think he would stand for that.
- So he canceled someone for being too ardent and militant of a Loyalist in that sense.
So that's a really interesting connection.
Christopher, do you- - Yeah, can I quickly just add one thing.
Really quickly, I think this is where his sense of humor is just so important, because his way of dealing with ideas that he thought were outrageous or nonsensical or offensive was to mock them, was to satirize them, was to do parodies of people that he disagreed with.
I mean, I think his response to words that he found troubling was to come up with better words that exposed the irrationality or the prejudice or the emotion.
And to be clear, I mean, their values in the 18th century are not our values.
And so what is regarded as, you know, and the politics are different and the issues are different, but I think there's something to learn about responding to things that one finds outrageous by exposing its out outrageousness.
- Is there an example of that that comes to mind?
- Yeah, there's the best example of all is, of course, when he later, after the "Constitution" has come into place, the United States has started up, and he has evolved.
He's become the head of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery.
And he presents to Congress a proposal to eliminate slavery.
And the backlash, particularly from Southern representatives, was tremendous.
And, and one of them was basically saying, "Our climate's too hot.
Who's gonna do this work?
What happens if they're out of a job as a slave?"
And he just lists some just absolutely preposterous things, but what Franklin does, he goes back and you write something in the voice, in the personage of a North African Muslim who owns white slaves and uses exactly the same arguments that Representative Jackson of Georgia had used in arguing against Franklin's proposal.
And it's just brilliant.
But let us also say nothing happened.
The Senate didn't even take it up and the House defeated it roundly.
And as we know, it's going to be several decades before this accounting is coming.
I think what's interesting is that all of this choice of words, and Franklin is very much, as Chris said, all about the careful choice of words, that even those Southern planters during the Revolution and the hyperbole of the war-speak, begin to speak in the terms of slavery, that they are being enslaved.
And so a topic that wasn't really discussed except in smaller circles, and obviously developing in Pennsylvania, as Bernard Bailyn says in our film, the late, great historian, "Before the Revolution, there are a few people who talked about it, but once the Revolution happened, nobody wasn't talking about slavery as an issue."
It became an issue because of the horrific hypocrisy of it.
And that brilliant essay by Franklin, I think exposes all of the idiocies and hypocrisies of the arguments in favor of perpetuating that institution.
- Ken, I wanna ask you a question kind of more about you and reflecting on Franklin and whether you've taken any inspiration from him.
He was obviously such a prolific, he was a prolific inventor, a prolific writer, prolific with almost everything he did, including with his virtues, trying to hone his virtues over time.
You are also quite prolific.
You have made a number of films.
And I was struck at this moment in this film where it sort of points out that Franklin had written his own epitaph.
And in the original draft, he had some colorful language, "Food for worms," compares himself to the content of a book.
And then by the time it gets to the actual epitaph that appears on his tombstone, it is very simple.
And I won't give away the visual that appears in your film.
I'm just curious, from your perspective, as a filmmaker, as a creative person, have you taken any inspiration from, or how would you compare yourself to Franklin in terms of your process of editing?
What ends up on the cutting room floor?
What you see, in terms of when you parse your legacy, what do you look at?
- Well, I don't think it has anything to do with legacy, Bina, but I think that there is a sense of sympathy that occurs again and again and again in the work that we, and this is not a royal we, this is a gloriously collaborative process and I've listed some people there, researchers and editors who just did an enormous job collecting the visual materials, cinematographers going out and collecting live cinematography, but the analogy that I always use, living in New Hampshire is maple syrup.
You know, it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup.
And that's basically what we have, is about a 40, sometimes a 50, 60-to-one ratio.
Probably a little bit less in this film because of the lack of full photographs or footage or things like that.
But it's always, to me, it has struck me, I'm drawn to that courage of decision, of being able to say, "No, this is what works."
And you can imagine a sculptress bringing a big block of stone to her studio and chipping away.
And what the rest of us see, in the gallery or the museum, is that work.
But she and she alone is painfully conscious sometimes of what I've called the negative space of creation, what's not there, what's rubble on the floor.
And it seemed to me, what was so galvanic for my love of Franklin or my interest in him, because we clearly hold his feet to the fire for his many, many failings, was just what makes me enthusiastic, excited about him, is just the kind of courage of that.
The being able to edit, to knowing what it is.
And you're absolutely right.
You know, he begins his will, and I think it's appropriate to the subject of tonight's conversation, "I, Benjamin Franklin, of Philadelphia, a printer."
Now, he was just a printer 50-plus years before that.
He has become a Nobel caliber, as Joe Ellis says, scientist.
He has become one of the great stylists and writers.
He is obviously an inventor.
He's a revolutionary and a public figure.
He's the greatest diplomat in American history.
And he helps write the "Declaration" and steer it in the right direction, as you've already pointed out with self-evident.
And he's helped craft the "Constitution's" compromises, good and bad.
But he's back to that place where it is involved in the editing, the distilling, maybe a better and more apt metaphor, of materials into something that then is translatable and palatable.
And I'm exulted by that because our own process, which is, you know, most of what we do is unseen by anyone else, is getting rid of all of that other stuff.
And yet, we still remember what's not in there.
The cutting room floor doesn't have bad stuff.
It's always wonderful stuff, which I, if I showed you tonight, you'd go, "You idiot!
Why isn't that there?"
And I could reassemble it and show you it's not there for a really valid reason.
But I just, I'm thrilled by his exercise of a kind of continuous attention to making things still better, himself, the work that he's writing, the country that he has grown to love.
Even when he was trying to forge, you know, rapprochement between the leading colonies, the upset colonies and Great Britain, he's really doing it wholeheartedly.
And I think that's where we can all take inspiration.
You know, he's not on the $100 bill for nothing.
He represents a certain kind of American striving.
But we've forgotten the other side of that.
We see the side, the kind of libertarian thing.
He's self-made, up by his own bootstraps, all of this sort of stuff, and rich and powerful, but he always connected this to a kind of civic obligation.
And, you know, the great inventor held no patents.
This is an anathema to that tension in American freedom between what I want and what we need.
He seemed to be able to bridge that.
And that's something I've been exploring all of my professional life.
And it just, it thrills me to meet someone who has dealt with that for decades and decades, in another place that is, as Chris suggested, both remote and he makes it familiar and approachable.
So I feel a little bit better.
Yesterday, we spent some time with kids from the Benjamin Franklin Institute in Boston who are fantastic, but you could see on their faces this exultant discovery that, suddenly, they had ownership in the beginning of this country.
It was just palpable.
And it just blew my mind and makes me think, as I have felt for the last almost 50 years, that I've got the best job in the country.
- Well, I have to say, as an author, that not everything that ends up on my cutting room floor, metaphorically, is good.
(laughs) So that's actually saying quite a lot.
- Kill the little darlings?
- Yes, there are darlings that deserve murder.
- No, they do.
They do indeed.
And we come across them.
But at the end, it's that terrible, terrible triage of who gets saved and who doesn't.
- I wanna ask a question that comes from Libby from Pensacola, and then I wanna transition.
I want Ken to take us into the next clip of the film that we're gonna see, the last clip of the evening.
And the question she asked, it was directed at you, Ken, which is, "What most surprised you about Franklin that you learned in the process of making this film?"
But I would love to actually widen her question because I would love to know, in Christopher and Jane's experience, in studying Franklin and studying his work, whether his writing or beyond, what most surprised you.
- Let me yield, Bina, to everyone else, because we are not in the process of making films where we tell you what we know.
We're in the process of discovery and then sharing that process of discovery that comes from scholars like Chris Brown and Jane Kamensky and people like you who've spent their life deep in a particular subject or in some process.
So let me yield the floor to my distinguished colleagues and let them answer that.
- Let me ask Chris to jump in first.
- I mean, I guess my answer to that would be he's endlessly surprising.
He contains multitudes.
That's something of a cliche, but in his case, it really is true depending on where you enter his work and what sorts of things you're interested in.
You know, in thinking about our discussion tonight, I went back and was reading some of his very early essays where you have, essentially, a teenage boy disguising himself as a widowed woman, you know, irreverently, precociously doing a kind of take down of the religious and civil authorities in his town.
In some ways you can kind of imagine a teenage boy doing this, but there's also just a way that he's just so, a smart aleck, and a confident one at that.
But, you know, you go 10 years later, you find something else that's remarkable.
So I guess what I would say is that everything is surprising about him.
Sometimes he's described as the quintessential American, but I think in some ways he's really one of the most exceptional Americans too.
- Jane, how about you?
- So Chris went high, I'll go low.
It's his bawdiness and the way that he's able to still make the filthy joke land two and a half centuries later.
You know, he pulls a lot from Swift and Cleland and the sort of blue literature of the time.
He's very conscious with the way words land on the ear.
I was thinking about that when Chris read, "We held these truths to be self evident," right?
And that the earthiness of him, the fleshiness of his prose I think is continually surprising and alive in ways that, say, the marmoreal Washington whose role was about being made of marble, is not.
They're kind of fire and ice that way.
- I think that's a good cue for Ken to take us to the clip.
- Yeah, so let's go.
Let's stay a little low and have fun.
So he's lied to the ship captain.
He's headed to, ends up in Philadelphia and goes into the printing business, becomes successful at that, has his own print shop, starts publishing the Act of the Assembly, starts his own newspaper, starts subsidiary publications, prints currency, all sorts of stuff and is into publishing.
And that's all I really need to say.
We can roll the final clip.
(press rattling) - [Narrator] Franklin's publishing empire was expanding and making more money.
He was named Clerk of Pennsylvania's Colonial Assembly, which didn't pay well, but had won the contract to print their proceedings, which did.
He made even more profits printing the paper currency for Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey.
With former employees, he would establish printing partnerships in Newport, Rhode Island, New York City, and Antigua in the West Indies, as well as the one in Charleston, South Carolina.
He published Bibles and Samuel Richardson's "Pamela," the first novel printed in America, along with treaties with native peoples that were used to systematically dispossess them of their lands.
In 1737, he was appointed Philadelphia's postmaster, giving him access to news from Europe and the rest of the colonies before his competitors.
- One of the advantages of being a printer is that he is totally tuned into the news.
He's totally tuned into everything that's going on in North America.
His vision is broader than most of his neighbors.
He had a kind of public opinion embedded in his brain.
And he knew that opinion, in the end, was what would decide where power resided.
(lively folk music) - [Ben] Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.
- [Narrator] By now, thousands of readers from South Carolina to New York were buying Franklin's "Poor Richard's Almanack," which he had launched in 1733.
Many printers published almanacs.
They outsold everything in the colonies, except Bibles, and had the advantage of requiring people to buy a new one each year.
But Franklin's stood out.
In addition to weather predictions, astronomical, astrological, and other observations, he included aphorisms that combined wisdom with humor, philosophy with wordplay.
All of it was ostensibly written by the hapless Richard Saunders, who claimed he was writing his almanac simply because his wife threatened to burn his books if he didn't earn something of them.
- Franklin got this from his reading of Jonathan Swift.
Swift had produced "The Bickerstaff Papers," which was a parody of the almanac.
And Franklin decides to incorporate this style into Richard Saunders.
And it was genius.
People go to almanacs for all sorts of important things, when to plant potatoes or peas, what's the best time to harvest, but they stayed because these fillers were funny, witty, and useful.
- [Narrator] "Fish and visitors," Poor Richard wrote, "stink in three days.
He that lies down with dogs shall rise up with fleas.
God helps them that help themselves.
Haste," he said, "Makes waste.
And lost time is never found again."
- [Ben] God heals, and the doctor takes the fees.
A countryman between two lawyers is like a fish between two cats.
The greatest monarch on the proudest throne is obliged to sit upon his own arse."
- Franklin is endlessly quotable.
You could live your life, I think, in Franklin aphorisms, most of which, we should say, are stolen from other people, but slightly reworked.
So in Franklin's version, they're in a better form.
"Three can keep a secret if two of of them are dead."
- [Man] I think one of Franklin's great inventions is that American style of homespun humor, somebody who's pricking at the pretensions of the elite, somebody who had sort of a cracker barrel sensibility, this new style of humor where people are poking fun at themselves indirectly.
You see it in Mark Twain and Will Rogers and others.
But I think it started with Franklin.
- So we have a question, an audience question that I think, maybe we'll start with you, Jane, because what you pointed out about his humor was so exemplified in that clip.
Brian W. is asking, "What do you think is the most underappreciated piece of writing that Franklin produced?"
I'm wondering if you have a view on that, Jane.
- Okay, so it's not funny, but I love teaching his 1751 "Observations on the Increase of Mankind," which is this sort of Malthusian tract about population.
And 1751 is three years before the Albany Plan of Union, before the French and Indian War.
It's a generation before those upstart Revolutionaries who would join him at the continental Congress.
And he has a sense of America cohering as a place that is different because property is held so widely, because people have so many children, because so many different kinds of people are together, and because white people, people of European descent, can have extraordinary freedom because people of African descent are unfree.
So in a very short tract, I teach probably a seven-page excerpt from it, he sees 100 years or more of the American future.
Interestingly, at the time, the argument he makes is about the contribution of this dynamic place to the Empire.
So it's very much an imperial tract, not a separation argument, but its far-seeing quality and its simplicity have a kind of the ring almost of Thomas Paine before the fact.
- So one of the things that viewers will learn about if they watch this film, which of course we all recommend enthusiastically, is the transition that Franklin makes from being a Loyalist to the crown to being a Revolutionary and how that wasn't just an obvious turn, that he really tried to find a middle ground before he became part of the Revolutionary camp.
I wanna ask Christopher, because we've talked a lot about and alluded to this change and shift that happened in Franklin's life, from, you know, he did publish abolitionist, anti-slavery tracts, but he also enslaved people in his own home, in his own household, brought them with him when he moved to Paris.
And then, later in life becomes an abolitionist and has writing on abolitionism.
And, Christopher, I just know that you're an expert in this area on abolitionist writing, both of that time, but that followed.
And I'm wondering if you could just tell us about Franklin's role.
Did he influence later abolitionist writers who we know more familiarly from the 19th century as we got closer to actual emancipation?
- I think the most important thing that he did was to lend his authority to the movement in the United States in the decade after independence.
I mean, Franklin, I think importantly, never really wrote much on the issue of slavery, and certainly outside of his correspondence.
You know, Jane just mentioned the sort of brief reference in the "Observations on the Increase of Mankind."
He's an interesting figure because he expresses his distaste for slavery frequently in private, but he is a slaveholder.
He's been actually engaged in the promotion of selling slaves in Pennsylvania, advertising for runaways.
And so he's an 18th century figure, which is to say that he takes the institution of slavery largely for granted.
As Ken was saying earlier, it doesn't really begin to trouble people, white people in North America and other places, in a sustained way until the era of the American Revolution.
And I think, at the end of his life, he's really looking at, "What do I want my legacy to be?"
And I think one of the legacies he wants to leave is to make a clear marker that this is a issue that the nation will need to deal with, as many recognized.
But it meant something important coming from Franklin.
And keep in mind too, to the national government was in Philadelphia.
And so there's a way that his presence there, in the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, is very important.
I wouldn't describe him as a major figure in the anti-slavery movement.
I wouldn't describe him as unusually influential.
What I think he is is somewhat representative of a shift that's happening among elite men and women who go from a place of thinking, "This is an issue that can be dismissed and neglected," to one that, one way or another, is gonna have to be dealt with.
- We're getting close to the end of our time together this evening.
But I wanna pose this question beautifully asked by Sue from Charles Town, West Virginia.
And she's asking this of Ken, but if others would like to chime in, I would love to hear your thoughts as well.
She asks, "What quote or saying from Franklin would you expect he could apply to the state of the world today?"
- Oh, that's so interesting.
There's so many from the film, Bina, that I'm just so drawn to.
Near the very, very end, he tries to give, and I think he does a pretty good job of giving a defense of the "Constitution," which he's helped to hammer out and he's given the privilege of sort of proposing the motion for its passage.
And he gives quite eloquent voice to that.
He speaks throughout his life, there's an important component about his spiritual journey, while a lot is made as sort of moving away from the strict sort of dogma of Cotton Mather and the Massachusetts Bay Colony's sort of religious figures, he's actually embracing something that has a familiarity to us today in terms of leading a good life, but also being connected and helping others.
And so he has a very definitive statement that we put very near the end of the film, which, "This is my creed," you know?
And it's interesting in that way.
So everywhere I go, I am sort of brought up by the beauty of the words, the economy, as people have spoken this evening, sometime, as Jane says, even the bawdiness, the blueness of it, there's something really appealing.
I don't think, having done this, I could pick one thing.
I'm sort of looking over here because all of my scripts, and I wanna just go and start reading lots of Franklin back to you.
- Well, it's apt that there's so much voluminous material that you had to actually make a film about it and it didn't reduce itself to a single tweet.
And I think with where we are in our democracy and the reflections that we're having about democracy around the world today, there's no better time, as I mentioned at the beginning, to reflect on Franklin and what he's contributed.
I just wanna thank you all, Jane, Christopher, Ken, for a wonderful conversation.
I wanna thank Chester, Ken's dog, for being the perfect mascot for our conversation.
(laughs) Just perfectly placed there in the shot.
And I think he's been widely admired by the viewers tonight.
- He's the executive producer, Bina, and it was important for him to just keep an eye on me.
(Bina laughs) - That's good to know that all you have to do is take a nap to get a credit.
I think I can do that.
(all laughing) Well, and I wanna thank everyone for being part of this Thank you to all the sponsors who supported of this and to all the people who are here tonight and being part of this conversation and part of our ongoing project to keep this republic, as Benjamin Franklin would say.
Thank you all and have a wonderful evening.
- [Ken] Thank you.