Ken Burns on Ben Franklin
The American technological genius
So Ken Burns recently came out with another documentary—I reviewed it for Law&Libery, to defend the man of genius from the mediocrity of our times.
Burns’ latest four-hour, two-episode documentary is on Benjamin Franklin, the likeliest of the founders to fit his ideal. Here is a man who might persuade liberals to dedicate themselves to knowledge in a practical way, to the life of entrepreneurship in a philanthropic way, even in a political way, given the various offices he sought & accepted, & to personal improvement in an Enlightenment way. Franklin is Burns’s vision of a Renaissance man: Enlightenment man—he mocks his parents’ piety, but is somehow in favor of divine providence; he makes music & musical instruments, but merely for fun; he has a mind for science, but rejects the scientific way of life; he is very involved in improving public life through inventions & institutions, but likes to keep to himself; & he aspires to aristocracy, but is rejected. Franklin is constantly reinventing himself, as the vulgar modern phrase has it—liberating himself from habit, prejudice, or constraint.
Most of us simply do not have Franklin’s talents or his natural superiority of mind which turned to many questions of commerce & science without ever losing sight of the changing political demands made in America & in Britain, so we might not enjoy or even survive much reinvention. Burns would nevertheless like us to learn to reform some things about America in light of Franklin’s ideas. First, Franklin never took patents, out of philanthropy. He made money & had to work so hard for it that it’s embarrassing, given his amazing gifts, but he was free from love of gain. He helped the life of commerce from a healthy distance. Secondly, Franklin was a master of the art of association, the most fitting & needful American art, according to Tocqueville, which keeps us free because we can solve our problems together. Burns’s Franklin reminds us that a healthier society would get intelligent men together to fix problems through institutions. Thirdly, Franklin was unique for tact among the Founders, a master diplomatist, to say no more, & a man from whom we might learn a healthy reluctance to ruffle feathers.
If you don’t know much about Franklin’s life, the documentary is a useful introduction, but of course, it doesn’t have anything in common with Franklin’s own autobiography, which I highly recommend. No comparison between Ben & Ken! One has to put aside all sentimentality & give some thought to the reasons for Franklin’s humor to understand how daring he was as an innovator, as well as how indifferent to the sort of liberal pieties Burns now peddles.