- Good evening.
I'm Sylvia Bugg, Chief Programming Executive and General Manager for PBS.
Thank you so much for joining us for the second of our Conversations on Franklin virtual series, leading up to the PBS broadcast of Ken Burns' new film, Benjamin Franklin on April 4th and 5th.
My colleague Neal Shapiro from the WNET Group will tell you a little more about these events and the film in a moment.
Ben Franklin is often seen as a quintessential American, part of the fabric of the country.
Quintessential, of course, is a relative term and perhaps simplifies a hugely interesting and complicated man.
The film explores his accomplishments and his failings.
Franklin was perhaps America's greatest writer and scientist of his time, and arguably the greatest diplomat in our country's history, but he also owned human beings and profited from the business of slavery through his newspaper.
The country today is grappling with the meaning of equality.
We are questioning long-accepted interpretations about American history, including what constitutes our founding and founding fathers.
Ken's new film speaks to these larger questions, but tonight's conversation will focus on Franklin's legacy as an innovator.
With that, I'll hand it over to my friend and colleague Neal Shapiro, from the WNET Group, who will tell you a little more about tonight and set up the first clip.
- Thank you, Sylvia.
I'm Neal Shapiro, president and CEO of the WNET Group, home of Public Media Stations THIRTEEN, WLIW21, and NJ PBS.
It's my great pleasure to be here with you this evening to explore the life and legacy of Benjamin Franklin.
I want to offer our partners at Fast Company and Inc our gratitude for helping to make tonight's event possible.
And of course, a very warm thank you to our supporters and viewers in the audience this evening.
It's your dedication that helps the WNET Group bring impactful films like Benjamin Franklin to New Yorkers and to families across the country.
Tonight's event is part of PBS's Conversations on Franklin series, featuring Ken Burns and a host of experts discussing the many facets of Benjamin Franklin.
If you miss any of the other conversations, be sure to catch them online at pbs.org/benfranklin.
These events will culminate with a broadcast of Ken's terrific new film, Benjamin Franklin, coming to PBS stations nationwide, and online, on April 4th and 5th.
Franklin's long life spanned nearly the entirety of the 18th century, an era of revolutionary change in science, technology, literature, and government.
Change that Franklin himself helped to advance.
His boundless curiosity about the world around him led him to focus much of his life on science and innovation.
Well, tonight the filmmakers, along with our very special guests, bestselling authors Walter Isaacson and Stacy Schiff, will explore Franklin's legacy as one of America's most prolific innovators with moderator, Stephanie Mehta, Chief Content Officer at Mansueto, the publisher of both Inc and Fast Company.
Stacy and Walter are both featured in the film and both wrote excellent books about Franklin's complex life.
Of course, PBS fans will know Walter from his role as co-host on Amanpour and Company.
Now, before we welcome our panel, let's take a look at the introduction of Benjamin Franklin.
- [Franklin] 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, (thunder rumbles) Benjamin Franklin.
(colonial music) - Franklin is by far the most of 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 benefit 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 satires and words of wisdom that would endure forever.
(thunder rumbles) 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.
(rifle shot blasts) 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 government 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.
- [Franklin] 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.
- Good evening, everyone.
And thank you so much to Sylvia and to Neal for that introduction.
And thank you all for joining us for this very special conversation on Benjamin Franklin with filmmaker Ken Burns, Walter Isaacson, who's author of Ben Franklin an American Life and biographer Stacy Schiff, whose book, A Great Improvisation, Franklin, France, and the birth of America has just, has been announced it will be made into a film starring Michael Douglas as Ben Franklin.
So Ken, Stacy, Walter, thank you for being here.
- Thank you.
- Thanks, Stephanie Thank you.
- Ken, I'm going to start with you.
For those who weren't able to join the earlier virtual session on the film, tell us a little bit about why Franklin and why now.
- Well, the why now is complicated for us because we usually take four, five, six years to make a film.
And you, you know, four or five or six years ago was an awfully long time ago to be sort of thinking that it would come out at a, at a particular time.
The last films we did, last year, one was on Ernest Hemingway, who's arguably the greatest American writer of the 20th century, I told folks at our last virtual session, and the next film, released in September on Muhammad Ali, about, arguably, the greatest American personality of the 20th century.
Well, in Benjamin Franklin, you have somebody who is the greatest American writer of the 18th century and is the most compelling personality, character of the 18th century.
And so you have this extraordinary polymath in one person, and yet he comes down to us in a kind of an abbreviated form.
I mean, thanks to Stacy and Walter's extraordinary work, we know so much more about him, but as we delved into the subject, it was a daily surprise at what we didn't know.
There, he is an amazing human being that we need to know more about.
He's on the a hundred dollar bill.
He is that symbol of American striving, but he's also somebody who held all of his inventions, numerous inventions, without patent.
So it tells you that he's able to bestride these, these tendencies in America that don't seem to be reconcilable, between the individual desire for achievement and money and wealth and advancement, and just get out of my way, a kind of libertarian thing.
And he's been adopted by that kind of mentality, but also somebody who is committed to civic engagement.
Who's interested in binding us back to the whole.
So, exquisitely, I think bridging the gap between what I want and what we need.
And that to me is, is endlessly, endlessly fascinating.
And he is, as the introduction suggests, not without undertow, not without complications.
And how he addresses it and, and how his life unfolds over the course of almost the entire 18th century is just a magnificent American story.
And I think like because, Hamilton, who has enjoyed his own resurrection in the last decade, because he was not a president, he kind of sometimes sort of goes off to the side.
And I think it's time to really begin to understand that, my feeling particularly, I think that Stacy might agree given her work in the diplomatic area of Franklin's life, that know him, know us.
He's just that central to who we are.
- And as you pointed out, Ken, Americans know him in this abbreviated form.
We know him as an entrepreneur, as a publisher.
Thanks to Stacy, some people know him now as a diplomat.
But Walter, let me ask you, is he an innovator in your mind?
- Oh, absolutely.
He invented, you know, many things, including most famously the lightning rod and the clean burning stove, but more importantly, he invented in some ways an American character.
This notion of the aw shucks, folksy guy, poking fun at the pretensions of the elite.
It helps invent the American style of writing and the American style of humor.
He also did, helped innovate American diplomacy by doing a balance of power game when he's playing the Bourbon-pact nations off against England, but also as an idealist in foreign policy, when he's printing the great documents coming out of America at the press he builds near Paris, in his home.
So, so much of who we are can be attributed to the innovations of Benjamin Franklin.
And I think he's the founder we most need now, given our current situation.
- Let me just follow up very quickly, Walter.
You've chronicled other innovators, most notably Steve Jobs and Jennifer Doudna.
How does, how does Franklin stack up to modern innovators in your mind?
- Well, he had that curiosity that all great innovators do.
As he sails to England the first time as a teenager, trying to become a printer, he's lowering barrels into the water to find the temperature, because he's curious about the Gulf Stream and where it might flow.
He's curious about why leaves have certain veins.
He's curious about whether the storms come up the coast as Nor'easters, but he's also curious about how you create checks and balances in government.
And it's that curiosity that reminds me most of all of Leonard Vinci, of all the people I've written about because Leonard DaVinci and Ben Franklin are the two people in history who most tried and most succeeded in knowing everything you could possibly know about every subject that was knowable at the time, and then weaving them together to see the patterns that flow across nature.
- Stacy, you pointed out in the clip we just saw that Franklin was the most evidently human of our founding fathers.
I hear Walter talk about this list of accomplishments.
And I wonder if it is Franklin's humanity that enables all of us to aspire to be like Franklin in a way that we might not aspire to be one of the other founding fathers.
That he has that approachability and that humanity, and therefore, you know, it feels like we can aspire to be like Franklin.
- I think that's a good point.
I think the are two things there.
I think he's eminently limber.
He's not ever taken in by dogma or principal.
He's extremely expedient, both psychologically and creatively, but I also think that he's very aware of himself as an imperfect human being.
And doesn't really wanna go into that to any great extent at the end of his life.
When his friends are saying, you should really finish your autobiography, he's much happier experimenting with stoves and chimneys than he is finishing thinking about himself and the work in progress that is he.
But very much aware of the fact that we all have foibles and that he has as many foibles as everyone else.
And he's a master at writing an angry letter and sticking it in his top desk drawer and not sending it.
And I just think there's a creativity there.
I mean, he's a master psychologist and I think there's a creativity there in knowing how to manipulate people or to get what you want out of people.
I mean, he's a champion fundraiser and he would always say his formula was sort of equal parts, you know, shame and greed.
So, you know, he really knew how to do this, but it was, I mean that, there's a creativity as well there just in sense of, in the sense of understanding human nature so intimately.
- Ken, how do we square those differences that you pointed out in your opening remarks?
That you have somebody who is clearly a hustler, somebody who has been embraced in modern times by this sort of entrepreneurial class.
And yet he is somebody who is so civic minded.
How do we square those contradictions and what lessons are there for that modern entrepreneur who perhaps should take a page from the civic part of Franklin's biography?
- You know, that's a really great question.
I think you don't, you don't square the contradictions, you accept them and you tolerate them.
And you begin to understand that part of that seamless web of insight that Joe Ellis says is part of that.
Owning both sides of the argument, which Franklin was often really good at, is hugely important to understanding him and understanding ourselves.
There's a great psychological dimension to Franklin as Stacy and Walter have acknowledged.
And I think it permits us to go in deeper.
We live in a binary system right now, which only knows off or on, black or white, red state or blue state, gay or straight, whatever it is, and what we find that human life is much more complicated and much more interesting when and you don't sort of completely come to terms with that.
There's a lot of free electrons in the life of Benjamin Franklin.
Two things that Walter and Stacy brought up that I'd like to just sort of drill down on just very briefly.
One is, he does invent what it is to be an American.
He's the first person who gets to know physically the colonies.
And he begins to perceive, decades before the American Revolution, what it might mean to be, not just British citizens, but Americans as a one thing.
So he is conceiving decades before it happens a United States.
And when he proposes something early on it's thought too radical, but his slogan from that, join our die, and the image he drew of a segmented snake becomes a kind of image and rallying cry for the revolution.
The other thing is this, this extraordinary kind of conscious and good humored duplicity that is at the heart of the, of the diplomatic efforts.
He knows exactly how to play the bourbon court.
He knows when to put on the gas, when to take his foot off the gas, when to just do nothing and permit others to fill the vacuum with money and material and fleets and troops.
And then, you know, he pivots when the revolution is won because the French fleet is outside Yorktown and George Washington gets to accept the surrender of Cornwallis.
That fleet, and some of the soldiers there, they're there because of what Franklin has achieved.
It's his victory at Yorktown, as much as it is anybody else's, but then he pivots over and begins the negotiation what will become the treaty of Paris with Great Britain ending our revolution formally.
And he's hard as nails.
It is a one-sided, lopsided thing, in both instances using, you know, sweetness on one hand and cajolery and cajolery and just sort of absolute firmness on the other.
It's a model of those contradictions that you're talking about, and they're not reconcilable, in a way.
They just, you know, in a Whitmanesque sense, as, you know, a century later, he's gonna say I contain multitudes.
This guy, is that in every regard.
- Stacy you've written about this multitude.
Would you say that, you know, to use modern parlance, that Franklin knew how to read a room?
- I think that's, I think that's an understatement in Franklin's case.
And, and to Ken's point, I mean, not only does he figure out how to play the French, but when it comes to the peace, when he is hard as nails, as Ken just said, he also has to play a very difficult game because he, because the American diplomats in that room depart from their instructions.
They're not meant to decide a peace without the French court.
They go ahead and they make a peace with the British, without the French.
And it's up to Franklin, you know, who's almost 80 at this point to crawl his way back to Versailles and essentially say to the French foreign ministry, you know, what do you expect from us?
We're just babes in the woods.
And he could do that.
I mean, this is this, you know, immensely worldly experienced, man.
Who's able to make that kind of appeal and make it stick.
- And ask for more money and get it.
- And ask for more money during that conversation.
After he's just said, we've just thrown you under the bus.
- There's that entrepreneurial side coming out again.
I think we're gonna show another clip from the movie.
Ken, can I ask you to, - Well, I, yeah.
The, the scholar in our film, Joyce Chaplin, says that he may be his own greatest invention.
And we've been dancing around this idea that he is involved all his life with this curiosity, first about himself and as well as the natural world.
And I think this section I think is, is an interesting way to set up the next sort of journey of our conversation.
All of these clips this evening, the introduction that we've already seen, this clip and the following clip will be from the first of the two episodes.
(colonial music plays) - [Narrator] Franklin's exposure to the writings of Europe's Enlightenment thinkers had led him to reject most of the Puritan teachings of his family's church in Boston.
He no longer worshiped a God intimately connected with a person's daily life, who answered private prayers or sent down punishments.
But he still believed in a Supreme being who had created the world.
- [Franklin] I believe he is pleased and delights in the happiness of those he has created.
And since, without virtue, man can have no happiness in this world, I firmly believe he delights to see me virtuous.
A virtuous heretic shall be saved before a wicked Christian.
- [Narrator] No one feared for Benjamin's soul more than his pious parents back in Boston, whose Calvinist puritanism espoused that salvation came solely through God's grace rather than good works, and anyone who strayed from that doctrine would be eternally damned.
Benjamin for whom tolerance was becoming central to his evolving beliefs, tried to explain himself.
- [Franklin] Honored Father and Mother, I imagine a man must have a good deal of vanity who believes that all the doctrines he holds are true and all he rejects are false.
I think vital religion has always suffered when orthodoxy is more regarded than virtue.
And the scripture assures me that at the last day, we shall not be examined by what we thought, but what we did.
- He's a man of omnivorous curiosity, of endless invention, of endless self invention.
He's so bent on self improvement, on teaching himself how to write properly or cleansing himself of his moral sins.
He gives us this idea that human nature may be flawed in some ways, but anything can be improved.
- [Narrator] In his constant effort for self improvement, Franklin made a list of 12 virtues that could lead him to what he called moral perfection: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, and chastity.
Then he made a chart with seven columns for each day of the week and rows labeled with each virtue and went work on his progress, marking any infraction with a black spot.
"I was surprised," he said, "to find myself much fuller of faults than I had imagined."
- Every week Franklin would make a chart and check did he master the virtue.
At one point, he said, I mastered all the 12 virtues I had and I showed it around with great pride, and one of my friends said, Franklin, you're missing a virtue you might want to try.
And Franklin says, what's that?
And the friend says humility.
You might wanna add that one to your list.
- [Franklin] In reality, there is perhaps no one of our natural passions, so hard to subdue as pride.
Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive and will every now and then peep out and show itself.
Even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.
- It's a wonderful clip.
Walter, those charts that you describe in the segment of the film we just saw the charts and the record keeping, it has really earned Franklin this title as sort of the, America's first productivity guru.
But oftentimes we don't associate that level of orderliness with innovation.
Do you think that Franklin's orderliness and his quest for self improvement fed his innovation or was, was competing with his creativity?
- Oh, I think he always had a quest for self improvement.
And I think that was at the core of innovation because he felt he could make things easier, whether it was a way, I mean, I'm looking at you and Stacy with your wonderful bookshelves and you got a top shelf up there.
When he had that problem, he figured out a way to make a gizmo that would take books down from the top of the shelf.
So he was always trying to perfect things.
He also had a sensibility that we need to regain, or much of America has, but I think the rest need to regain, which is let the experiments be made.
When he saw something like electricity.
He was playing with electricity almost like a parlor game and seeing the sparks.
But then he makes in his journal, a comparison of sparks of electricity with bolts of lightning and says that they're very similar so perhaps lightning is a form of electricity, and then he writes, let the experiment be made.
So not only was he innovative, he was very good at the scientific method of deciding how to make an experiment and then revising his theories if they didn't fit the results of the experiments.
- What I think is so interesting about Franklin and why I think he is an innovator in addition to being an inventor, is that these innovations, as you note, Walter, have found their way into the world.
He's really changed- He's introduced ideas that actually found roots in the marketplace.
And I compare that to someone like a Jefferson, Ken, who's someone else that you've studied extensively, who was an inventor and a tinkerer, but often those inventions never made their way out of Monticello.
What do you think it was about Franklin that allowed his inventions and his ideas to find their place into that broader marketplace?
- Well, I think it's, what Walter says many times in our film.
And what I tried to say in my first comment is that you marry this curiosity, this entrepreneurship, this upward mobility, this striving with this sort of sense of civic obligation.
You know, this is an amazing person who from the earliest age is beginning to form alliances, is seeing the possibility of greater connections between people.
And so there's libraries and there's philosophical society and a discussion group in Philadelphia of which he's the youngest member, but he's the most active.
There's civic improvements to be done with streetlights and with volunteer fire departments and police forces.
There's a free circulating library to start, a college that eventually becomes the University of Pennsylvania.
All of the entrepreneur stuff is directed both inward, who am I, how do I improve myself better?
And then that gets translated into this curiosity that Walter just described so well, but also how do we bind ourselves back to the whole?
How do we figure out?
And it's so interesting that he, he wrote out in late 1720s, 1729 I think, he wrote out an epitaph, it's really, really long, but he talks about in a new and more perfect edition, the ability to correct the mistakes, to see what he'd done.
So he is beginning to, literally decades and decades before our defining qualifications, a more perfect union, pursuit of happiness.
All of this gets worked into an America that, that initiates, you know, two and a half centuries of striving in a way come from him.
Come from his restlessness, come from this ability to say, you know, we can always do it better.
We can look and make a further experiment, I think Walter was saying.
We can just be better at it.
- And even as he's striving, it's so interesting that he leaves room in that schedule that he spells out, for moments of self-reflection and quietude.
Fast Company, which is one of the publications my company publishes had a writer spend a month following Ben Franklin's schedule to experiment with how it would affect her productivity.
And her conclusion was that the thing she liked best about Ben Franklin's schedule was the moments of self-reflection he built in.
You know, Stacy, I think, you know, again, there's this image of Franklin as this very garrulous, very affable, avuncular figure, but, you know, he was also, he did, he did leave time in his life for self-reflection, which you've talked about.
How do you feel that the, you know, how does that play into the Franklin biography?
- I think there's a lot of that.
I think we think of him as a man who had a great deal to say, because we have so much of him on paper.
We have so many quotes, there's a Ben Franklin quote for every occasion you could possibly think of, but when you look carefully, what people said in his presence, he turns out to be a man of relatively few words.
He tends to listen, he's a listener and a student of other people's behavior.
And he will be that kind of dinner guest who comes to the table and is very, almost, almost irritatingly quiet for long periods of time.
And then a perfect epigram just sort of drops out of his mouth.
So there is that sense of kind of retreating and observing in many ways.
But to your earlier point, he doesn't, there's a skepticism always with Franklin, which is a very healthy thing.
There's no, he's not bound by dogma.
He's liberated by the skepticism.
And he realizes, and I'm thinking here, even of the Mesmer commission, he gets put on this commission in France to investigate sort of an early form of hypnosis.
And as much as he's ready to discredit it, he does so very gently, because he realizes that delusion can come in handy sometimes.
And that the supernatural is a really, the supernatural runs a better race than does skepticism.
That sometimes we really want desperately to buy into these things.
And if it doesn't really hurt anybody, what's the problem with a deck of tarot cards kind of thing.
So is that, there is that greater sense as well, as well as a sense, I think of marrying opposites.
I mean, this is a man who indeed founded so many institutions we can name, but he also happens to found both a fire company and a fire insurance company.
And that does seem to me to speak right to the heart of Franklin going in all creative directions simultaneously.
- We have so many wonderful questions from the participants, and I know we were going to wait until the end to get to them, but the, some of these are great.
And I wanna start bringing our participants into the conversation.
Lisa U. asks, did Ben Franklin ever address his philosophy of innovation without patents?
What was his aim?
- I could do that if you don't mind, which is he did address that, he does not patent the lightning rod.
He doesn't patent the Franklin stove, even though the Franklin stove needed some improvements after he first invented it.
But he, you know, he said that you do this in service to others.
That said, and sometimes people who are anti intellectual property, anti patents they, hold Franklin up and they say that the people who invented the mRNA vaccine for COVID, shouldn't have a patent, that it should be in the public domain.
And even though he was, had just died right before the patent acts of 1790, he was very much in favor of protecting people's intellectual property.
I think he just felt that there were certain things like lightning rods, that were so necessary and useful, and that he had benefited from so much of the wisdom of others that he did not try to protect that type of invention of intellectual property.
Jerry A. asks, how do you think Franklin would mentor innovators today?
Walter, do you want to take a stab at that?
And then I'll ask Ken to weigh in.
One of the things he did that was so delightful at the end of his life is that he created a revolving fund for innovators, entrepreneurs, and, you know, basically the struggling young people of Boston and Philadelphia.
And it was a revolving loan fund that lasted, in some ways to today, it's still in Philadelphia, being used to build in west Philadelphia, you know some kids from a west Philadelphia high school building a solar car.
So I think what he would do is he would understand the relationship of innovation to entrepreneurship.
And I know you know what that means, Stephanie, because your magazines do it so well, but it means that you have to do well by doing good to pick his phrase.
In other words, you have to have a business model.
You have to be self-sustainable.
You have to find a way to say, not only is this a cool invention, but I know how to market it and know how to make a profit off of it.
- I can, I could just riff a little bit on what Walter said.
It's definitely going in Philadelphia and it's definitely going in Boston.
The Benjamin Franklin Cummings Institute is a huge technical college.
It turns out degrees for kids from lower income brackets.
It's all based on this inheritance that Franklin divided between his hometown of Boston and his adopted hometown of Philadelphia.
And it really makes a difference.
And it is part of that understanding that if, if his life is an example to all of us and he's born into a kind of strict, severe Boston place, very little money, runs away and becomes Benjamin Franklin, the most important person of the 18th century in America, then anybody, he's dealt with potentiality in every aspect of these experiments, including his own.
As we've talked about, obviously in the clip we're gonna show in a second on electricity, but potentiality in human beings.
That's the essence of the enlightenment and that's what those two endowments are still operating today.
Andrew Carnegie gave it a little kick with some money, but it was in the spirit of Benjamin Franklin.
And one of the best times I have had in the last few weeks was last week speaking to about a dozen kids from the Boston's Benjamin Franklin Institute and seeing on their faces, their determination and their desire to get ahead, but also their wonder at being connected back to the very beginnings of this country, a country in which their parents weren't here when it began their grandparents, obviously, I mean, they, these are recent, most of them, recent immigrants and the way they felt an ownership of this country was as inspiring as any experience I've had over the last few weeks.
They were just bright and curious, and they're all Benjamin Franklins.
And that was a, a really wonderful revelation to me.
And it's all him.
At the end of his life, £1000 to Boston, £1000 to Philadelphia.
And they're still doing good things, you know, 200 and you do the math 32 years later.
- And I love this idea that they're, they're all Benjamin Franklins and future Benjamin Franklins.
One more question for Stacy.
And then I think we'll go to that clip.
Sue from Charlestown West Virginia asks, Franklin's efforts, amid all Franklin's efforts for self-improvement, did he study and master any foreign languages?
Stacy, did he learn French?
- Depends on your definition of learn.
He's sent to France originally because it is the understanding of most people in Congress that he speaks French.
That is a misunderstanding.
And he arrives in France and begins to sign contracts immediately in a language that he admits later, he didn't really read.
But his French obviously gets quite a bit better in part because he tends to send love letters to women in French, which he asks them to correct.
And he does spend an enormous amount of time in drawing rooms and with other people who are inventors and familiarizes himself very well with the language.
In the end of the day, written French, not so good, oral comprehension, excellent, ability to express himself, the kind of French, I think most of us aspire to, which will make us understood, but if not necessarily in the most graceful of fashions.
But the, he didn't, it didn't matter because he was Benjamin Franklin, the world famous tamer of lightning.
And that was in a way, that added to his charm in many ways.
If he had spoken French better, it might have been a detriment to who he was.
- Wait, Stacy, remind me of that line, where he compares him the way he learned French to the way John Adams did.
Do you remember that?
- You mean my, just because John Adams was a grind and he basically, John Adams came to France and he holed himself up in his room with all the great books.
He asked for a list of the 10 most important books.
And then he set out to learn French grammar, but he didn't talk to anyone.
And at the end of the day, oh, you're thinking of the thing where the servant says, you both speak French badly.
John Adams is fishing for a compliment.
He wants the servant to say, you speak much better French than does Mr. Franklin.
He errors all the time.
His grammar is miserable.
And instead the servant basically says you both speak French very badly, just in different ways.
- I think- - And Adams learned French from trying to memorize funeral orations.
And, and as Stacy said, he's becoming, Ben is becoming, more proficient in French writing love letters.
And I think that may just put the finest point on, on that.
- It's the time-honored way to learn a foreign language.
- Not funeral orations, no.
- Well, since Stacy mentioned that Franklin arrives, as you know, the inventor of electricity, maybe this is a good time, Ken, for you to bring in the next clip.
- Yeah, I do wanna talk, just one more thing about potentiality.
There's a wonderful moment just before he's about to leave France to come back to the United States, to see what he's helped create and to go to the constitutional convention.
There's a, he's looking at a hot air balloon that is all the rage and somebody standing next to him says, what is its use?
And he turns to the man, he says, "What's the use of a newborn baby?"
So Franklin is looking, like Leonardo would and at birds or at something.
And they're imagining, they can see, Stuart Udall told me that Teddy Roosevelt had distance in his eyes.
Like he could see around the curves of the earth and also ahead in time.
And I think Benjamin Franklin, as Leonardo did, had that ability to sort of look at things and understand, I don't know whether he saw aviation in the sense that I'm implying, but he understood potentiality.
So let let's just share another relatively short clip from our first episode, that details something we're, we've been talking about, which is this experimentation with electricity.
(thunder rumbles) (lightning sizzles) - Franklin is convinced that lightning bears a similarity to an electrical spark.
He's looking at electric sparks, he's looking at lightning and he puts in his notebook all the similarities.
And at the end of the page, he says, "Let the experiment be made."
- [Narrator] Franklin detailed his theory that lightning was electricity and that metal objects could draw off a charge.
He proposed an experiment that involved placing a person in what he called a sentry box on a high tower or hilltop and raising a sharply pointed iron rod when storm clouds approached.
He shared his observations with a London scientist, Peter Collinson, who had supplied him with equipment for his electrical studies.
Franklin was planning to conduct the experiment on the new steeple of Christ Church off Market Street as soon as its construction was completed.
But the work went slowly and Franklin grew impatient.
He then came up with an alternative way to test his theory.
He was less confident in this method and decided to do it in secret, trusting only his son, William, to take part.
In June of 1752, with storm clouds threatening, he and William went to a field with a silk kite to which Franklin had attached a sharp pointed wire.
Dangling at the end of the kite's long twined string was a metal key.
They got the kite aloft and Franklin maneuvered it toward the approaching clouds.
- What he was showing was that the atmosphere became electrified.
Not that the kite had to be struck by a lightning bolt, which is often the way it's depicted in illustrations.
- [Narrator] Franklin suddenly noticed the individual strands of hemp along the kite string stiffening and standing on end.
He moved his free hand toward the key and felt a mild shock on his knuckle.
When the rain began and water started streaming down the twine, sparks flew off the key.
Franklin was exultant.
Thereby, he wrote of his experiment, the sameness of electrical matter with that of lightning has been completely demonstrated.
(thunder crashes) - Ken, as Stacy pointed out, Franklin arrives in France celebrated for being a scientist.
What do we know about how scientists were perceived in the United States and in the world at the time that Franklin was doing his experiments?
Was it something that, you know, Americans exalted or was he de greeted with skepticism in his home country?
- I think, you know, for the most part and I'll let Walter and Stacy add to that too.
I think that they were very proud of this, you know, wealthy man who had made a living as a printer and a publisher, who retired in his forties to conduct scientific experiments, who makes improvements to stoves, and eventually creates the bifocals.
But in the case of electricity does a kind of Sir Isaac Newton kind of caliber study.
And he is the most famous American on earth.
Nobody knows anybody from America except Benjamin Franklin, around the world.
The scientists are amazed.
He is, he's exalted.
When he comes to France, he sort of wants to slip into the city relatively unnoticed and every stop along the way they're exalting him, he's on you know, his image is on, on these things.
He is celebrated for that.
And he's revered in the United States, too.
He's a successful person who's also added immeasurably to our scientific knowledge.
And I think that, the key that Walter brought up before about he needs these things to be useful.
And if you think about his work in electricity, all of the stuff that just the ordinary folks among us know, like positive and negative and battery and charge and conductor, are all Franklin's phrases.
He thinks of this.
He understands it in a kind of simple way that cuts through what we would call scientific jargon, and he makes it accessible to everybody else.
So we are all using these phrases that he has come up with and used to put his stamp on this- I mean, we cannot diminish what a useful invention the lightning rod, thousands of people are being killed.
Thousands of buildings are being destroyed by lightning, and he is saving those lives and saving those buildings with this invention.
- Stacy, paint a picture for what Ken described, you know, the fame and the accolades with which Franklin arrives in France.
He mentioned that, you know, Franklin's picture is everywhere.
It's on china, it's on wallpaper.
I think it's hard for us in modern life to imagine someone that famous for science.
Can you talk a little bit about what transpired during Franklin's time in France?
I mean, he'd been in France twice.
He's been in France during the 1760s twice and is welcomed there as the world famous inventor, the man who tamed the lightning.
And as Ken has pointed out, that is a, a very remarkable achievement at the time.
And it's got a little bit of a magic whiff to it as well.
He arrives in France with this very famous, as we know it, fur hat, which I'm pretty sure he's only wearing cause his head was cold.
But in any event, he play- he gets the most out of that hat that anyone has ever got out of a piece of headgear and he looks like he's something out of the pages of Rousseau.
He looks like he's this backwoods philosopher.
This is a man who's never lived anywhere but a city, mind you, but he's this backwoods philosopher who has tamed the lightnings.
There's something almost supernatural about him.
And France, which always loves an underdog and which particularly loves a winning underdog, flocks out to see him.
His scientific contacts have sort of paved the way as he arrives.
In fact, the scientific, the friend, the scientific friend who first greets him is someone who had written to Franklin earlier to say, can you possibly tenderize meat using electricity?
And Franklin had written him back to say, actually, I'm not really sure about tenderizing meat, but I know you can kill a turkey from one side of the river to the other.
And so there's this correspondence that's already in place though there's this coterie of scientists who are able to welcome him.
The news that he has arrived spreads like wildfire and indeed his face blooms on candy dishes and walking sticks and wallpaper.
As he writes to his daughter, his face is a as well known as is the moon.
And he can't go anywhere without a crowd chasing after him, applauding him in stairwells.
He goes to the theater and he notices everyone's applauding.
So he applauds along and he realizes he's just applauded himself.
It's an extraordinary kind of celebrity.
And it's a problem, because it he's there on a, on an undercover mission of a sort.
And he needs, somehow, to escape that kind of public notice, which to the best of his abilities he does, but he uses that celebrity to create America, or for America's cause in any event.
And I think we've been talking a lot about his inventions and his self invention, but he does invent this idea of America abroad, which is among, surely, his greatest inventions.
And part of that is toward the end of the French years when he writes a treatise, which he, which he shouldn't publish because it's very, it's definitely something no one in France wants to read about what America stands for.
And it's very much the kind of young Franklins that Ken spoke to, which is to say, a country where no one asks who you are, but they ask what you do.
- We have so many great questions from the audience.
I'm going to go to a couple more.
Nancy V. asks, I'm sorry, I'm gonna go to this one from Robert J., who says, was Franklin an innovator of business practices?
Do any examples come to mind?
Walter, can you think of a way where Franklin innovated or reinvented business?
- Well, yeah, he very much, and you even talked a little bit about what we now call the Franklin Covey method, because it was a self improvement method for business, of a ledger mentality.
You know, a how you balance pros and the cons of things, strengths and weaknesses, or even morally the errata you made and how you rectified it.
And I think it comes a little bit from the balances he sees in Newtonian science.
I mean, he was very practical, as Ken said, about his science.
He said of Newton's theory of gravity.
What good is the theory if we don't know some used to put to it?
We know that our crockery will fall if we let go of it without knowing the theory.
So he said, what am I gonna put my electricity knowledge to?
I will add to Stacy's bit about shocking the turkey, he did, at the end of that letter, say it was uncommonly tender.
So we southerners like to think he invented the first fried turkey too.
But he was always looking for that practical way to put science to use.
And even whether it was creating the postal system for the dissemination of knowledge, I go back to that phrase in Poor Richard "Doing well by doing good."
There was always a business and bookkeeper's, even, mentality to everything he did, except his civic improvement projects, which as Ken said, were his passion for giving back to his community.
- Walter, I'm a little surprised that the southerners would allow a Bostonian and Philadelphian to claim credit for fried turkey, but that's a conversation for another time.
There's a really great question from Patricia that I'm gonna direct to Ken.
She asks, do you believe it was Franklin's lack of a formal education that allowed his curiosity to flourish?
And here I'll just completely quote one of the scholars that comments in our film, H.W.
Brands, you know, he didn't know what he was supposed to know.
So he decided, as Walter had said earlier, to know everything.
And he came about as close as anybody could at a time when knowledge was relatively finite.
Like you could get your hands on almost all the important books written in Greek and Latin and French and English and digest them and know pretty much what, what could be known that human beings had discovered.
And he set about doing that.
And I think there's this wonderful energy that develops with him very, very quickly because he can, he can read.
The literacy in Boston is really high and he is an omnivorous reader and he's reading all night and he's borrowing books that he has to get back.
And so he's learning about everything and because he is an autodidact, he doesn't know that it fits together in the way that you think it should.
The way the traditional pedagogies would insist that it has to be organized.
And so what you have in the relative, he says he's just gonna try to carry it all, is he's able to synthesize things and understand things in ways that no one else could do.
And that, it informs his writing.
It informs his humor.
It informs his business.
It informs his, his views about America and the colonies coming together.
Obviously it informs a scientific approach.
And so, you know, he's, he just is omnivorous about it.
And he gives us that hunger, and you see it in the faces of these kids.
You see it in entrepreneurs that we celebrate.
This idea of, of looking at it backwards.
I made a film on the history of jazz and a friend of Walters and mine, Wynton Marsalis said at one point, sometimes a thing and the opposite of a thing are true at the same time.
And most of what our traditional ways of learning don't allow us to tolerate that kind of contradiction.
Franklin got it all the time.
And that's what put him ahead in these, in this way.
I mean, there's a wonderful comment by Joy Chaplin in our, in our film again, where, you know, he goes to London triumphantly, this modern Prometheus, as he was called, the tamer of lightning from some place called Philadelphia, wherever the hell that was.
So literally you didn't even know that the American colonies existed.
Really the West Indies is where the real profit center was.
It wasn't it wasn't New Hampshire, where I am right now, down to penal colony Georgia.
That was, they were already troublesome, right.
There was great natural wealth to be gotten out of it and things to be exploited, but it wasn't like the West Indies.
So the idea that somebody could be, as Joe Ellis says in the film, a Nobel caliber scientist, obviously before there are Nobel prizes and come from the wilds of Pennsylvania, this is just unheard of because nobody knows where Pennsylvania is.
- We have time for one more question from our audience members.
And I'm gonna go to a question from M.J., from South Carolina.
M.J. asks, did Franklin ever entertain the idea of running for president?
And, Ken, you set that up in your, your opening comments where you said, you know, here's a person who was never U.S. president.
It is interesting that Franklin does not pursue public office as a way of achieving his civic goals.
- He does, he's is an early member of the Pennsylvania assembly.
But you also have to understand he's older than everybody else.
His son is older than Thomas Jefferson.
His son is older than Madison.
His son is older than Patrick Henry.
So, you know, he's, he comes into this very, very late and he dies, you know, one year into the American experiment.
The government is launched in 1789, and he dies on April 17th, 1790.
This is, you know, he knows that he's not destined to be a Washington.
In fact, he is the equal of Washington in the eyes of his countrymen and the world in terms of the revolution.
But he's willing to cede that all to the general and to the hero of the revolution and kind of step back in the shadows, because his life is over.
Had he been a younger man?
You know, he certainly had the tools for it.
- Stacy, I think I heard in one of your interviews that you spent six years researching and writing your book.
- It felt like six, but I think it was actually five.
- And Walter, how much time did you spend on your Franklin works?
- I don't know.
It's probably five or so, but I'm sure, like Stacy and like Ken you're gathering string for years on, for me on Benjamin Franklin.
You know, you talk about what advice would he give to young people?
I should have said this.
That's what his whole autobiography is about.
It's advice to how to be a self-made person.
And I remember reading that as a kid.
So between him and Leonardo, for my whole life, I've been trying to gather string.
- Stacy, what was it like to spend that time with Franklin?
- You know, I don't think there's a more charismatic figure, certainly in the 18th century, but it he's endlessly captivating and endlessly charming.
And a lot of it is the nuance.
I mean, we were just talking about it's the ability to hold two opposite ideas in the mind at the same time.
It's the nuance and the flexibility.
I mean, he's so eminently nimble.
And you know, to, to that point, here he is in his 80s still doing experiments.
I mean, he's still just completely, you know, blown away by ideas with which he can experience firsthand, never set in his ways, still trying to perfect his thoughts.
When he goes to see the balloon ascension in the Tuileries, that Ken referred to earlier, he comes home and he he notices that the image on his ticket doesn't conform to what he saw.
So he corrects the image.
It's that kind of detail.
- Well, we are very lucky that Stacy, Walter, and Ken have put in the years of work so that we can enjoy Ben Franklin's life in four hours on PBS next month.
Thank you so much to Stacy, Walter, and Ken, and to PBS and to all of you for joining us this evening.
Please tune in for Benjamin Franklin.
And we hope to see you at the next virtual event.
- [Ken] Thank you.
- [Stacy] Thank you, Stephanie.
- [Walter] Thanks, Steph.