Ken Burns previews new Ben Franklin documentary

A new documentary by Ken Burns, “Benjamin Franklin” premieres Monday and Tuesday nights at 8/7c on PBS. Both parts last a total of four hours. I interviewed Burns from his farm in Walpole, NH.

“He’s on the hundred dollar bill for a reason,” Burns said. “It’s represented for almost every generation of Americans since our founding some kind of effort — to pull you up by your boots, some kind of libertarian view of how you move on in America, that poor kid from Boston doing it.”

  • “What is missing from this portrait [are] some significant flaws on his part, and his lifelong attempt to remedy those flaws.”

“He is the greatest American inventor of the 18th century, and he held no patents. He felt it was for the common good.”

  • “He created this collection of guys in leather aprons – kind of middle class, who he thinks is the backbone of America, and they get together for civil discourse on all sorts of issues. It launches the first free lending library. He founded the first philosophical society in the United States. He controls all the social media, right?
  • “He’s a printer, he is a publisher, he is a postmaster, he prints the currency and the acts of the government. … He’s our first comedian.”
  • “And everything is built on Socratic questions. First to yourself: how can I improve? And then to society: how can we improve it?”

“Decades before the revolution”, Burns continued, “he understands that there’s this new thing that he perceives – a unified United States. … Not him? Not us – not US”

  • “He is a bow. … And his greatest invention is himself. He is always in self-improvement. It is always measured.
  • “And at the end of his life, he realized that he was posting advertisements selling human beings. He realized that he had printed advertisements offering rewards to fleeing human beings. …and he wants to balance it. He wants to be a good person.”

And Burns tells this story without, of course, any footage or photographs of its subjects.

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