Saturday, January 17, 2015

A review of PBS’s “Benjamin Franklin” movie



He is one of the most respected Founding Fathers in America, but spent most of his life patriotic to Great Britain. He spent his later years warring against Great Britain, but had a son that was loyal to the Empire. He wrote an autobiography that is a classic of American literature, but did not discuss his Founding Father accomplishments in it at all.


The man is Benjamin Franklin, and he is still today one of the most respected men in our history. His autobiography was one of the first American books to be taken seriously by Europeans as literature; yet he does not discuss in it his role in the Declaration of Independence, the treaty of alliance with France, the peace treaty with Britain, or the United States Constitution. Why is this? Quite simply, it's because these were in the later portion of his life; and his autobiography deals mainly with the early portion. He didn't finish his autobiography, because old age caught up with him before he could; but his later years are well-covered in his own diary, and allow modern storytellers to finish the biography for him. One of those modern storytellers is a team at PBS, which made a documentary about his life - the film that I will review now.




Early life

The documentary does not ignore his early life, quoting from his autobiography in its depiction of it. And what an interesting autobiography it is! I won't spend too much time going into it here, as I go into it more in one of my other blog posts; but suffice it to say it's a masterpiece. He was born into a poor family; the fifth son of a fifth son for many generations back, in a society where the firstborn had the privilege. He was apprenticed to his older brother, but badly mistreated by him - enough so that the younger Franklin ran away from home, and made his way into England - then the center of an empire that his Pennsylvania was a part of. He had reason to be patriotic to England - she was the freest country in the world, and the American colonies were treated well by her in these days. It was not until later that he would take up the sword against his country, figuratively speaking. (He didn't literally take up the sword.)


The range of his accomplishments

He was a man with notable success in many fields, including science - where he won the eighteenth-century equivalent of the Nobel Prize for science. He was also an inventor, a journalist, and a businessman; and his rags-to-riches story is a prototype for many another. This documentary covers his life in much detail, devoting much time to his early life. They even interview a modern scientist who won the Nobel Prize, in talking about his scientific accomplishments. But the documentary's main focus is on his political career, which is the reason that he is famous today.


Thomas Hutchinson

The beginning of the Revolution

He was living in England when the British began to crack down on Boston, and Franklin tried to ease the tensions back home by sending the colonists a letter he'd intercepted, in which Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson encouraged the king to crack down on Boston. He was hoping that it would cause the colonies to blame Governor Hutchinson rather than the king, and thus allow the tensions to smooth over. But it had the opposite effect, angering the colonists back home to a degree not seen before; and Parliament severely reprimanded him for his actions. They insulted him with every name they could think of, making him persona non grata with Parliament. In the words of a talking head here, this was the moment Benjamin Franklin became a revolutionary; and Parliament had made a dangerous enemy.


John Trumbull's Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence through the Alliance with France

Benjamin Franklin was elected to the Continental Congress, where he played an important role in getting the Declaration of Independence passed - performing important diplomacy behind the scenes that created support for it. This documentary spends very little time on this, but makes up for it in their coverage of his overseas work. Benjamin Franklin was appointed ambassador to France during the war years, and had the important task of getting the French on America's side. America could not have won without French support, and badly needed her help to win the war. Thus, Benjamin Franklin was sent to get an alliance - a treaty that was partly about commerce and economic assistance, but which was - most importantly - a military alliance; putting the French navy and army behind the American cause. He was unable to do this at first, but he kept trying; laying important groundwork for the eventual treaty, until the American victory at Saratoga convinced the French that the Americans could win, and produced Benjamin Franklin's great triumph in 1778.


British surrender at Saratoga


Franklin as diplomat in France,
dressed the way French expected Americans to be

Obstacles to the diplomacy in France

But after the treaty was made, Franklin faced a new obstacle from his own side - the appointment of John Adams as fellow ambassador. Whatever Adams' other virtues, he was ill-suited to diplomacy with France; possessing both mistrust of the French, and the tactlessness to express it to them, and Franklin eventually asked Congress to send Adams elsewhere. Franklin, by contrast, was a perfect diplomat; and had the ability to play the French like a violin - charming and seducing them the way he often charmed women, and convincing them to mount an expensive war of revenge against their mutual enemy, Great Britain. "Diplomacy is seduction in another guise," said Franklin; and he was the undisputed master of it - the greatest in our history, and the American victory in the war is largely due to his success with France.


Young John Adams

The Treaty of Paris: Cozying back up to the British

Because he had a great love of French society, he was reluctant to make a peace with Britain that cut the French out of the negotiations - the Treaty of Alliance with France forbade America from doing so, and he did not want to offend the most important ally of his country. But when the French expressed a willingness to negotiate away American independence at the bargaining table, to get what they wanted from the British in other areas; the French defaulted on their own end of the bargain, and allowed America to break her end without dishonor - a course John Adams convinced Benjamin Franklin to take. Adams had a realism about the French that manifested in suspicion of their motives (rightfully so), and so the Americans made a separate peace with Great Britain, cutting the French out of the negotiations. The French were furious at first, but Franklin managed to smooth things over by saying this was done out of love for America, not lack of admiration for King Louis; and that allowing their two nations to be divided would give the British exactly what they wanted, and play into their hands. The strategy paid off, and good relations between the two were temporarily resumed - a diplomatic miracle which is largely due to Franklin. No one else could have pulled it off.


The Constitutional Convention

The Constitutional Convention (and his opposition to slavery)

The documentary does not talk much about the Constitutional Convention, or Franklin's role in it; but does mention the important speech Franklin made in getting support for it, as an example of the crucial diplomacy Franklin performed. The documentary also ends with his opposition to slavery, something not done by other Founders to the degree that Franklin did; and it is to Franklin's credit that he did so.


Conclusion: This documentary belongs on the shelf of the history buff

What an amazing life Franklin led, and what a wonderful documentary about it! This is one of PBS's best, and it's one that belongs on the shelf of anyone interested in the American Revolution; or anyone interested in colorful or brilliant individuals, who are quite interesting in their own right.

DVD at Amazon

Benjamin Franklin: Renaissance Man

Constitutional Convention movie


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