Brand New Ken Burns’ Documentary Examines the Life and Legacy of Benjamin Franklin

Brand New Ken Burns’ Documentary Examines the Life and Legacy of Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin, a new two-part four-hour documentary directed and executive produced by Ken Burns, is coming to CET and ThinkTV16 this April! The film, written by Dayton Duncan (Country Music, The National Parks) and produced by David Schmidt (The Vietnam War) with Ken Burns, explores the life and work of one of the most consequential figures in American history — a prolific writer and publisher, a groundbreaking scientist and inventor, a world-renowned diplomat and a signer of both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.

Benjamin Franklin, whose life has been celebrated as a quintessential American story, was anything but ordinary. His lifetime spanned nearly the entirety of the 18th century, an epoch of revolutionary change in science, technology, literature, politics and government — change that Franklin himself helped to advance. He launched the first public library in America, organized a volunteer fire company and founded an academy that eventually became the University of Pennsylvania. His annual publication, Poor Richard’s Almanack, set a model for future humorists such as Mark Twain and contained maxims that are still part of our language today. And his famous experiments with electricity led to one of his most important inventions — the lightning rod.

While Franklin was committed to the ideals of the Enlightenment — always looking to improve himself, his community, and humanity at large — he was also full of contradictions. He could be whimsical yet philosophical, folksy yet unforgiving, generous yet shrewdly calculating, and broadminded yet deeply prejudiced. Critically, especially for a man so associated with independence and individual liberty, Franklin enslaved people and did not become an abolitionist until very late in life. The Franklin household had at least six enslaved individuals, including Peter, Jemima, Othello, George, John and King. Franklin’s newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, also advertised the sale of enslaved people and published notices of runaways. And while he publicly denounced white settlers who indiscriminately killed Indigenous people, he also championed the expansion of white settlements onto Indigenous lands.

“Benjamin Franklin was a fascinating and complicated individual who helped shape our contemporary world,” Ken Burns said in a press release. “If we see him for more than his long list of accomplishments, we recognize an imperfect man challenging himself and his contemporaries as he tries to understand and improve the world around him. One of the best and most prolific writers of the 18th century, Franklin both embodies and documents the dynamic social, scientific and political changes of this revolutionary age. His story is one of hope, with a faith in the common man. But his shortcomings are also a reminder of this country’s failure to address slavery at the time of its founding and the racial divisions that continue to impact our country today.” 

The actor Mandy Patinkin provides the voice of Franklin. Burns called the Patinkin’s reading “distinctive and transcendent,” noting that Patinkin’s voice and timing seem to capture Franklin perfectly, finding just the right sense of humor and curiosity for life that Franklin presented in his many writings.

Benjamin Franklin includes interviews with some of the country’s leading scholars of early American history, including Franklin biographer Walter Isaacson, who also served as a senior advisor to the project, as well as the late Bernard Bailyn (Harvard); H.W. Brands (Texas-Austin); Christopher Leslie Brown (Columbia); Joyce Chaplin (Harvard); Ellen R. Cohn (Yale); Philip Dray (New School); Erica Armstrong Dunbar (Rutgers); Joseph J. Ellis (Mt. Holyoke); Clay Jenkinson; William E. Leuchtenburg (UNC); Stacy Schiff; Sheila L. Skemp (Mississippi); and Gordon S. Wood (Brown).

Benjamin Franklin, will air on Monday, April 4, and Tuesday, April 5, from 8pm to 10pm on CET, ThinkTV16, the stations’ livestreams and on the PBS Video App. It will also encore on air and on the livestream both nights at 10pm.