Franklin and William

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william Frank.gif

Loyalist vs. Patriot

Unlike his step-mother and sister, William was not replaced by a replica of him in London. William had the privilege to travel with his father and to matriculate in a law school in England.  Franklin and William shared many similarities such as, clubs and charities. There was a point in time when Franklin was proud of his son's ability and William proud of his father's political skills. So what happen?

            The common thread that seemed to interfere in all of Franklin's relationships is work and William was no different from being affected by it. Shelia Skemp states that "the formidable rival for his father's affection was Benjamin's voracious appetite for public affairs."[i] But was he really abandoned? Franklin took his son underneath his wings and travel with him everywhere. When Franklin travel to London in 1757 to perform his diplomatic duties, William was right by his side. When Franklin was making the preparations for his famous kite experiment, William was his confidant.  William was a man of charm, and polish, expensively dressed, and well-traveled[ii] thanks to his father. Like Sally, Franklin has a person in mind for William to marry--Polly Stevenson. However, like Sally that plan fell through and William married another young woman. When Franklin returns back to London, it was William who stepped up and filled in for his father and took care of the family. Franklin introduced William to the world of politics. It is believed that because Franklin loved England and loved the empire and he taught his son to do the same.  "He had always been proud of his English heritage." [iii] So does this mean Franklin raised his son to be a loyalist?  What this also implies is that Franklin deviated from the beliefs he instilled in his son?

            Another theory to this whole feud is that it is a result of "the trauma he [William] suffered as a result of his illegitimate birth. "[iv] In other words, William choice to be a loyalist was his way of lashing out about the circumstance of his birth and society's constant reminder of is illegitimacy.  Another theory is given by Skemp essay, William Franklin: His Father's Son,

There may well have been a competitive edge to William's relationship with his father, constantly driving him to find some means of achieving respect and standing in the community that would enable him to equal, or perhaps even rival, that already held by his father. Thus William's life was characterized by one long search for autonomy. His marriage represented an attempt to "wean himself from his father." His assumption of the governorship of New Jersey "in spired him to feel that he had come into his manhood and achieved independence at last." William's ultimate declaration of independence came, of course, when he refused to join his father in rebelling against the English crown. Ironically, Loyalism was William Franklin's method of achieving personal autonomy.[v]

Was William just simply acting out? As the years passed and Franklin and William became more and more fervent about the positions they decided to take, their relationship became more damaging.  By the time Franklin died, he left William nothing, giving his son, Temple, the majority of the wealth.  "William received the worthless claims to the Nova Scotia lands, whatever books and papers and of his father he already held in his possession, and the cancellation of his still outstanding debts to Franklin's estate."[vi] Sounds like a case of love and war.

            So are we to fully blame Franklin for the complete obliteration of his relationship with his son? It seems to me that they both let business engulf pleasure. They both allowed their political views and careers take precedence over their relationship. Out of every one in the family, (Sally and Deborah) William had the most access to Franklin. He learned and spent the most time with him. William had more of a control over the fate of their relationship than anyone else. So in the case of William and Franklin they are both guilty.


Was Franklin a Bad Man?

In light of all the facts and the in-depth look at each relationship Franklin had with each individual in his family, it would be negligent to say that Franklin is solely responsible for all the screw ups in his relationships. In each case, we are able to see technicalities and everyone's stake in the situation.  With all this information it is hard to say that Franklin is a saint or fiend. Of course he made bad decisions, everyone does and will. Some of these decision that he made, Franklin recognized that he was wrong and tried to correct them in the he was able to. So the most important thing that I can say about Franklin and his family is DON'T MAKE THE SAME MISTAKE! In the case of Benjamin Franklin of being accused as being an appalling family man, I find him...


It's your call!


Image: Portrait of William Franklin

[i] Skemp, Sheila L, 13.

[ii] Lopez, Claude-Anne, and Eugenia W. Herbert, 93.

[iii] Skemp, Shelia L. "William Franklin: His Father's Son." The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 109.02 (1985): 145-78. JSTOR. Web., 147

[iv] Skemp, Shelia L. "William Franklin: His Father's Son." The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 109.02 (1985): 145-78. JSTOR. Web, 150.

[v] ibid

[vi] Lopez, Claude-Anne, and Eugenia W. Herbert, 305.

            Franklin's tangible creations such the fire company, library, paved roads and his conceptual contributions created in order to improve the livelihood of each citizen are both applicable to each citizen's life today. Franklin's vision of the world was so beyond his time that people still study his brilliance in order to put it into practice. He is a true role model to be admired from his many attributions during his lifetime that remained to enforce his legacy but his civic contributions are down right outstanding. When questioning if a concept or institution is going to last they often say, will it last the test of it and for Franklin's civic contributions the answer is simply, yes.



As seen in any town, city, or state, the invention of streetlights, watchmen, fire companies, libraries, the right to a public education, The Philadelphia Contributorship, even Franklin's original invention of the stove paved the way for society to be able to create a better and safer tomorrow. His passion to protect the citizens of his area and create sustainable institution for his country by bringing people together for a good cause is something people still dream about accomplishing today. Franklin's dedication to his country is one of the many reasons he is one of the most revered Founding Fathers of all time. Furthermore, his values, and stance on how to leave a most rewarding life are something to be admired. However, are these values within our society today?

            Consider the fact that Franklin's proverbs from Poor Richard's Almanack are still passed on today such as,   


A penny saved is a penny earned


Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise


An apple a day keeps the doctor away


Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead


I was raised on such values as the first three throughout my childhood because it is wise advice. However, do I feel that my family or the people around me keep to such values today? No. Franklin's proverbs and lessons are certainly relevant yet few seem to listen to wise advice from a well-accredited role model. 

Franklin passed moralistic lessons about the dangers of drink in articles such as "Death of a Drunk" and "On Drunkenness."  Writing on Franklin's temperance pieces as a whole, Arner writes: "Like Franklin's writings on other subjects, they demonstrate a deep and abiding belief in the power of the press to educate the public on important topical issues, often employing humor but sometimes also resorting to sensationalism in order to make their messages more explicit and dramatic." Consider the university we attend and the reputation we have created. Franklin would be appalled by the actions of a large amount of students who claim to be here for the purpose of education, but turn to a night of wild parties instead. As Franklin said in his autobiography he thinks that drinking in moderation is acceptable but he does not see the need to go as far as students do. I shutter to think of his reaction if he were here to see that State College hospitals, an innovation from his promotion in his paper in Philadelphia, to help heal sick people, is now mostly cater to over inebriated students going to hard to even make their class in the morning. Franklin's value of the need for education and self-improvement daily seem to go right out the window in this scenario.



As for his other writings of wisdom such as On Simplicity, Silence Dogood, and An Economical Project, Franklin attempts to help people see the importance in maintain a simple life that is easy and enjoyable to sustain, yet few seem to follow through on this practice. It seems ironic that many people wonder why they are so often stressed when they are the ones responsible. Consider even finals as Franklin states "if you have something to do tomorrow, do it today" I am sure that students wait until the last possible 2 hours to study or work on their project in order to procrastinate hard work. Yet throughout Franklin's writings he seems to believe that hard work is necessity to succeed at anything in any lifetime.

            Society should also consider Franklin's forward thinking of the issues pertaining to the issue of wasting energy and the economy. It was as though he could almost see into the future complication and was trying to warn us that without awareness we slip down a slippery slope; which is what happen to many people after the recession. If all practiced the proverbs and advice that Benjamin Franklin made available through experience of going from nothing to a man known 300 years later, it may have saved a lot of people the loss of property and jobs.

            Benjamin Franklin's civic creations changed the way society lived back then and who knows what we would have had to combat the issues he foresaw back then now if he did not take the initiative he did. Since most of his creations and innovations are still in place it certainly shows that he is a man wise beyond his time, smart enough to utilize every opportunity given to him even when he was in a place of power. As for his civic virtue, he gave society someone to continue to look up to even centuries later for his awareness of how to live a fulfilling life without over doing the indulgences. Franklin's ideas about good citizens being ones who led a simple and virtuous life, of on going self improvement, aiming always to be honest and live within ones means and moderation is advice that we could all use, especially as former college students with the real world rapidly approaching. 



Rob Stutzman


Virtue Mathematics


Here will I hold: If there is a Pow'r above us, (And that there is, all Nature cries aloud Thro' all her Works) he must delight in Virtue, And that which he delights in must be happy." -Joseph Addison's Cato


As we all know, Benjamin Franklin was a man invested in numerous projects over his long industrious life. Franklin was a man perpetually curious regarding what "made things tick," and how to make them more efficient. So it comes as no surprise that when it came to project of attaining virtue {or rather, negating vice), Franklin tackled it with two of his strongest skill sets- Science and Reason. Naturally what followed was a list of "Names of Virtues with their Precepts" (Franklin 84) which came to be known as Franklin's 13 Virtues; and of course, the almost mathematical chart documenting his pursuit of these virtues, which some-including myself- have come to see as his "virtue calculus."


            Franklin uses his reason and his own version of cross-cancellation to tackle the arduous project of eliminating any and all vices from his life.


 "My intention being to acquire the Habitude of all these Virtues, I jusdg'd it would be well not to distract my Attentions by attempting the whole at once, but to fix it on one of them at a time, ... And as the previous Acquisition of some might facilitate the Acquisition of certain others, I arrang'd them with that View as they stand above" (Franklin 86).


As a result, Franklin saw the attaining of virtues as a simple calculation; an algebraic expression in which he could systematically tackle a seemingly impossible feat. Although this strategy seems rather simple, it is a perfect example of just how practical Franklin's reasoning was. Although some simply saw this attempt as "simply a complacent bookkeeper who tabulates his good and bad deeds the way a businessman keeps records of liabilities and assets (Anderson 26), I believe that Franklin's interest in virtue was considerably greater than that. For a man who directed his life so much on (what I consider) a rather strong moral compass, I find it hard to believe it be so cold nor simply for show. But that if anything, Franklin's pleasure was more in the chase than the attainment; "Vitrtue, as Benjamin Franklin understands it, is a means, not an end. Happiness is an end, the most desirable of life's good things." (Anderson 24).


            Franklin is in fact rather clear on this motivation behind his project. Obviously moral perfection is a task nothing short of daunting, and believing one is capable of this feat would be rather foolish- not to mention prideful. Much like his view on religion, Franklin seemed very adamant that the best way to find happiness with one's self, and with their God, is through the pursuit of leading a virtuous life. And further, that there is no blame in falling short of difficult tasks.


"As those who aim at perfect Writing by imitating the engraved Copies, tho' they never reach the wish'd Excellence of those Copies, their Hand is mended by the Endeavour, and is tolerable while it continues fair & legible." (Franklin 92).


            I believe this sentence perfectly sums up Franklin's view on Virtue. One does not need to be Jesus or Socrates to be virtuous, on simply needs to imitate him. That does not mean turning water into wine, it simply means patterning your actions in the right direction. As Aristotle states in his Nichomachean Ethics, virtue is simply temperance in regards to pursuing virtue. Or in other words, a balance must be attained in order to be truly virtuous, because once that balance is attained, one will be clear of mind to know what virtue is appropriate for different situations.


"both excessive and defective exercise destroys the strength and similarly drink or food which is above or below a certain amount destroys the health, while that which is proportionate both produces and increases and preserves it. So too is it then in the case of temperance and courage and the other virtues." (Aristotle 4).


Although this is most likely meant as an analogy (temper your temperance?), there remains a lot of truth in the matter. One cannot constantly strive to be as frugal, industrious, and temperate as possible. However it is wise to have these traits in mind as you go about your day. By patterning your actions this way, you then create a likelihood that this habit (or ethos) will stick. And whether you are the most orderly or moderate person will not matter as long as you simply make the effort. It was through this search you become at peace with one's self and maker. This process in itself is what leads to this Happiness end game that Franklin idealized.  "Happiness then is something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action." (Aristotle 2).



Franklin's 13 Virtues and the Outside World


Benjamin Franklin had a serious affect on a large amount of people. As a result these people have tried to affect his legacy. However, his legacy is fairly intact. I have never once come across one person. One man, who was so universally read and renowned that the could have such a broad impact on the world at hand.


Honestly the most surprising view came form within our own backyard. My man, George Bragues. Comin'out loud and proud sayin' Franklin was a selfish mercenary. "Franklin is not opposed to people internalizing moral principles, but he does not think that the inherent worth of virtuous conduct is more likely to be appreciated if the ultimate payoff is unmistakably emphasized." (Bragues 384). Well that's cool and all. New point of view for sure. But last I checked Franklin was constantly doin' things for the disenfranchised. Like every, single, day. Why do I see this? 1) Bragues is a joke if he sees Franklin in this light. Honestly, the man gave up a Steve Jobs-esque patent to benefit the common good. Go ahead and try to get him on that. Finally in respect to Bragues actually calling out Franklin on public works, please if there is one thing the man had in spades, it was social works programs (libraries, hospitals, schools, need I say more?).


(I don't know how to fix this.)

Another interesting insight to how Franklin's virtues were viewed- this time outside of the state- lies in 19th century Poland. Yes, apparently a bold man named Mendel Lefin was fed up with this particularly trending sect of Judaism known as Hasidism. Or more specifically, this offshoot of the religion that has more to do with mysticism and whatnot as opposed to actual, orthodox Judaism. His solution? Just straight up robbing Franklin's Virtues for the good of the Polish Jewry. He called it, Moral Accounting. "The creator of this "wonderful invention" was none other than Benjamin Franklin, whose "Rules of Conduct first appeared in 1791 in the second part of his English Autobiography" (Sinkoff 134). Well all I have to say is that if your "virtue calculus" is being used half-way around the world- you must be doing something right.


            Our next fun insight to Franklin's widespread influence on the world lies just around the corner in Romania apparently. Thanks to Penn State's own Adrian Marino, we can see how Franklin somehow idealized a revolution in Romania 50 years after his death. Franklin's Way to Wealth evidently gave him much rapport with the aspiring middle-class of 19th century Romania. "Franklin's image was that of a "popular teacher," educator and philosopher of practical morals. The Way To Wealth was translated and assimilated as "the way to happiness." (Marino 132). Apparently this got Franklin through the threshold- even though his works were published in comparably tiny portions. But it was his methods of virtue that really captivated the crowd. "All its elements belong to a typical Enlightenment portrait, to the militant, civic, humanitarian and virtuous "model" characteristic of this doctrine. A strongly "idealized" image, to be sure, but in full agreement with the aspirations of the age." (Marino 134).


Finally, my man Toshio Watanabe gives us a peek into how the Japanese culture views Franklin's pursuit of virtue. "For better or worse, rightly or wrongly, Bejamin Franklin has been identified with the American national character. 

The perfect interlude for the rockin' roller coaster which is to ensue. "Nothing has ever given me a sense of dejection so strong as his Autobiography... I find myself disgusted with seeing one them (so-called great men) so proudly and exasperatingly holding up to us his paradigm of virtues...(after listing his 13 virtues) "all these are nothing but obscene words to us;... I must confess, in the first place that I detest Franklin and his autobiography... Franklin's brazen-faced self-assertion, his lack of concern for his reader's feelings, his obsessive fanaticism, in short what I cannot help detecting as ugliness lying behind his merits..." (Watanabe 37).


This is the warm sentiments of one students informative essay which I have so neatly paraphrased. I tried to break it down the best I can, but essentially- the whole thing runs like that song from How the Grinch Stole Christmas. 


No seriously. The whole time I was reading this thing I just kept hearing "you nauseate me Mr. Franklin" over and over in my head. The best apart about this is that apparently, he most neatly sums up the opinions of his generation. "Undoubtedly, Franklin's basic character and his way of life as revealed in his Autobiography run counter to the life-view or sense of values of the younger generation of Japan." (Watanabe 38). Never would have guessed that one. However, I think what confuses me even more is how Watanabe tried to make Franklin seem like a better guy to his students. Which he apparently attempted to do by telling him about his "intrigues with low women" and how "he has at least one illegitimate child". I will obviously never understand the Japanese.


(Apparently this is the picture that sums up their disdain for the Frankman)

In summation, of this blog, I have learned much of Franklin's influence across the world. He fueled a nationalistic revolution in Romania, and put out a religious one in Poland. He has been seen as a great virtuous man, and a mercenary (and probably something much worse that did not make it into Watanabe's piece).  All and all I guess it's a sort of love-hate worldwide relationship with Franklin. The one thing they all have in common is their respect for the man, which is predominately for the same reason (I really don't understand the Japanese).






            And now its time for what you have all been waiting for- WWBFD. And no, that does not stand for What Would Benjamin Forrest Do. It stands for What Would Benjamin Franklin Do; namely if he were literally here now, as opposed to the imposters ramblin' around Philly like The King in Vegas. After much thought on how Franklin would view and/or adjust to this entirely different culture-or more precisely- the college-aged-generation.


            My conclusion... I was looking at the situation the wrong way. Obviously, Franklin's virtues are timeless. Why? Because virtue isn't something that can be classified- it is what is. I tried to stick Franklin in a different time to gain insight into the man's virtuous thought process. When I should be doing what he did. Taking these virtues and interjecting them into my life; seeing how Franklin's 13 virtues can benefit our society today; as opposed to putting the focus on someone else.


            Franklin's 13 Virtues: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility. This is a solid base. However, I believe it to be almost watered down. Perhaps this is what some of the "nay-sayers" of Franklin are talking about. This sort of "doing-to-say-I-do, much like the argument regarding Franklin and his twilight slavery crusade; "...Franklin as having brought {antislavery} into the marketplace of ideas only to leave it there." (Werner 296). Perhaps this is why Franklin doubles up on certain morals as he does. moderation vs. temperance; resolution vs. industry; and whatever the hell sincerity and tranquility are getting at- that just sounds like a haiku.


After sitting here pondering for so long about how Benjamin Franklin would find our generation lazy, I wonder, why? According to his daily schedule he awakes at five. Possibly one hour earlier than us. Works an 8 to 5 as opposed to a 9 to 5. But as anyone will tell you, work never ends when you clock out. So if anything Franklin was a pro at leaving his work at the office. So here we are looking at a traffic jam straight up ahead, are "Franklin's words slyly [anticipating] the pained and prickly "Countenances" of friends who might be prone to take offense at conspicuous displays of benevolence."(Anderson 28). I have found this as a stark possibility. In literally any debate I could have found myself in, I would have argued on behalf of Franklin; and yet here I am, debating the sincerity in his writings. This is simply because I feel like Franklin would have easily recognized the similarity between those examples I laid out earlier; any deviance from that not only would be a waste of time, but would go in violation of silence and sincerity.


So this is how I find our situation. We have been pondering morality, and its validity in our lives. But apart from me criticizing a great American Hero's version (which I never thought would happen) someone needs to lay down the law. So here we are... WWRSD. And no, that doesn't stand for What Would Rob Stutzman Do. Oh wait, yes it does. I got 4. 4 virtues to live your life on. We don't need to pad the stats; just four simple virtues to act as a GPS through life. You know. Not everyone trust's it; but if its there I'm going to look at it. Moderation, Honesty, Resolution, oh wait that's it. Simple as that, Benny Frank's 13 Virtues cut into a fourth- and just as lethal.


Honestly? Honesty should be the most straightforward of the bunch. Why aren't we honest anymore? I feel like this is an area we can improve on. The interesting part is this solely addresses the justice virtue. Well I guess you could throw chastity in there, but I feel that is a topic that can be discussed elsewhere. So that should show you how efficient I am in my own "Virtuous Calculus". Next we move on to Resolution. This Virtue encompasses order and industry. By being resolved to one's actions, it is necessary to ORDER the feat in front of you, to be INDUSTRIOUS in accomplishing this feat through your own skill set, and finally having the RESOLUTION to do this every, single, day. Naturally now we move on to moderation.


Although I believe resolution to be the virtue most sorely missed in our generation, moderation is the most important. Without it we cannot truly achieve this state of virtuousness I have so cleanly laid out.  Moderation is, in effect, the key behind all 13 virtues. And for good reason. As I have said above, it is solely in the pursuit of virtue that leads one in the right path. Franklin without doubt subscribed to this belief in the many random Ancient Greek quotations I have supplied. All and all, our generation needs more moderation. Myself included. Without this attribute we are unable to properly get our stuff together.  Moderation it's a son-of-a-bitch; yet necessary. Without it, we cannot properly adjust our lives to get things done. Case and point, measures need to be set to prevent us from violating my four simple virtues.


The only road towards virtuousness today is through practicing these virtues. Without them we are left without motivation or drive to improve ourselves. It is necessary and proper for us to formulate our characters around a strong base. Without this base we are left hopeless. Which is why we need something to guide us through life. Without a north star we cannot acclimate ourselves to any time or any climate, we are left helpless- up shit's creek. Perhaps this is what sets so many people back today, we lack that simple judgment; seeing the world for what it is- and capitalizing on it. Without that drive, that motive, people would not be able to succeed, Benjamin Franklin could not exceed- we cannot exceed. Why? Because values are timeless.



Franklin and Sarah

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Sarah Franklin

Sarah Franklin, also known as Sally, was known as the fatherless daughter, but also the only child of Deborah and Franklin (since the death of Francis). Like her mother, Deborah, Sally's relationship was interrupted by the presence of another women. This woman was Polly Stevenson. Name sound familiar? Yes indeed! Polly Stevenson is the daughter of Franklin's landlady Margaret. Before we get into the London account let's look back at Sally and Franklin's relationship Pre-London.


Rock-a-bye, Sally...

Eleven years after the death of Francis Franklin (died of smallpox at age four), on September 11, 1743, Sally Franklin was born.  Less than two months after her birth, Franklin and Deborah made sure Sarah was inoculated.[i] Sally was Franklin's little princess and he was very impressed with her at such a young age. In a letter to his mother, Franklin wrote "your granddaughter is the greatest lover of her book and school of any child I ever knew."  Like a proud father he continually wrote letters about his little Sally. "Sally grows a fine girl, and is extremely industrious with her needle and delights in her books. She is of most affectionate temper, and perfectly dutiful and obliging, to her parents and to all. Perhaps I flatter myself too, much but I have hopes that she will prove an ingenious sensible, notable and worthy woman." Franklin made sure that his daughter gained the proper skills he expected her to have. When Sally was a little girl, learning how to sew a "good button hole", she was having so much trouble with it that Franklin decided to send her to learn from his tailor every day to learn how to sew button holes.[ii] When she was at a young age, Franklin began to look for a good future spouse for her.  When Sally grew much older, Franklin enjoyed playing duets together, she on the harpsichord and he on his instrument.[iii] Franklin cared for Sally greatly and wanted what was best for her. So why do many believe that this was a problem? It is commonly perceived that instead of developing Sally's intellect, he raised a dutifully woman. "In The private Franklin: The Man and His Family, it is expressed that "He did not intend to open up to her the full Pandora's Box of knowledge, but mainly the useful, the functional skills: reading and writing."[iv]


When the Bough Breaks, the Cradle Will Fall?

The situation gets even more controversial in London--of course.  During Franklin's stay in Margaret Stevenson's lodging, he was intrigued by her 18-year-old daughter, Polly Stevenson. Many have viewed Polly as the London counterpart of his daughter, much like her mother played the same to Deborah. Polly was said to be smart and eager to learn. Franklin took a likening to her and out of that grew an exceptional relationship. Some scholars believe that Franklin and Polly's relationship was also romantic; however there is not enough evidence to support that notion. Franklin wrote poems for her and sent her little notes of "tenderness." He said that she was "the most logical head of any woman he ever knew," and "a mind thirsty after knowledge and capable of receiving it."[v] He shared his ideas and new inventions with Polly, "It was a measure of their intellectual bonding that Polly would indulge this linguistic [new phonetic alphabet] as faithfully as she did."[vi] Meanwhile his contact with his own daughter became less and less. It was not like Sally was imprudent; while her father was away she wrote to him letters containing political news and descriptions of social and family life.[vii] To Franklin's defense he did not forget his daughter; he sent her many elegant gifts from London. Moreover, Franklin did ask for Sally, but Deborah chose not send her to him.  Finally, when Sally became of age" he took her on his tour--served as her coming-out party."[viii] So was Franklin simply admiring in Polly a young person full of potential?

            Whether it was tensional or unintentional, Sally received the short end of the stick in this situation. Her father left her to lead a fatherless lifestyle, while he enveloped another young girl and played her father.  The enigma of this situation is that everything that Franklin loved and appreciated about Polly is the very opposite of what he instilled in his daughter, Sally. He loved that Polly was smart and intellectually stimulating, but he cultivated Sally to be this literate-domestic figure.  Were these values even important to Franklin? Some argue that when Franklin wrote "I promise myself much comfort in her [Sally] when I grow old" that he was foreseeing her as a woman who would take care of him.[ix] This statement articulates that Franklin was prepping Sally to eventually cater and take care of him in his old age. Is this true? This statement is quite an argument, but if we were to consider it, we must also consider the milieu of the time.  In the time of Franklin there was no woman suffrage or any wave of feminism. It was the norm and culturally encouraged for women to take on the domestic role (there are still remnants of this ideology today--the 21st century) Franklin could have been prepping his daughter to be an upright and valuable woman and most importantly (for the time) to be someone's wife.  Franklin tried relentlessly to arrange the marriage of Sarah and Billy Stranhan (son of William Stranhan), but that was an unsuccessful mission.  His passion for Polly could have been because she was different. Franklin certainly did stand by his "domestication of women belief." We are able to see this when Polly seemed to be taking her studies too seriously; he lectured her about the "duty of a woman to raise a family." [x] For that reason, we can reason that Franklin did not hold different opinions on the manner when it came to Polly.

            However, the situation gets even stickier. When word gets to Franklin that his daughter had fallen in love and wanted to get married, he asked William to look into this guy's character and financial security. Shortly after, Franklin found some disturbing news about Richard Bache (her fiancé).  Franklin had found out that Bache faced some financial difficulties and because of this Franklin expressed his disapproval of the pending marriage. He suggests that Sally comes to England instead, where she could meet other men. But Sally loved Bache.  In Shelia Skemp book, Benjamin Franklin and William Franklin: Father and son, patriot and loyalist, she actually credits Williams "special attentions" of the interest of Sally and Deborah.[xi] This supports the idea that Franklin was very detached from his family by "distance" and "emotionally". In regards to the wedding, Franklin sent Deborah a letter about saving money and not having an "expensive feasting wedding." In Isaacson's  Benjamin Franklin biography, he conveys this idea that instead of Franklin going home to deal with the crisis of his daughters pending marriage, he decides to go on vacation in France. Franklin ultimately misses his only daughter's wedding. There are no signs that Franklin ever expressed regret for missing the wedding, but he later replied to a letter from his sister about the new union of his daughter saying, "she has pleased herself and her mother, and I hope she will do well; but I think they should have seen some better prospect than they have, before they married, how the family was to be maintained." However, when it was time for Polly to get married to William Hewson, he gave his blessing and walk Polly down the aisle. Fascinatingly enough, Polly got married in the midsummer, which is said to be a time when Franklin "usually traveled abroad."[xii]

On That Note...

Although Franklin relationship seemed strenuous, Franklin is famous for seeking redemption for his past errata's. Despite his reservations of Bache, Franklin became more accepting and started to refer to him in his letters as "loving son" and sending him best wishes. Moreover, once Franklin finally returned to permanently live in Philadelphia, he decided to add additional rooms in the house to accommodate his daughters growing family.  After Franklin died he left Sally and Bache, "The Houses built on Market Street, the printing office, a goodly number of lots and buildings here and there in Philadelphia, all the silver plate, pictures, and household goods."[xiii] Also, for Sally only, he left "one-half of whatever funds were deposited with Franklin's bankers in Paris and London, in income of some shares in the Bank of North America, ....the miniature of Louis XIV, and the a lesion in frugality."[xiv] On the portrait, he stipulated that the 408 diamonds that surrounded it were not to be made into ornaments either for herself or her daughters, in order not to introduce the 'expensive, vain, and useless fashion of wearing jewels in this country."[xv]Although, Sally experienced the absence of her father growing up, Franklin made sure that they lived underneath the same roof when he retired in Philadelphia and entrusted all of the things he earn while being incognito in her life to her.  Whether it made up for his absence or not, in the end Franklin did not forget about his beloved Sally.


Image: Sarah Franklin

[i] Lemay, 314.

[ii] Lemay, 314.

[iii] Lopez, Claude-Anne, and Eugenia W. Herbert, 97.

[iv] Lopez, Claude-Anne, and Eugenia W. Herbert, 71.

[v] Lopez, Claude-Anne, and Eugenia W. Herbert, 83.

[vi] Isaacson,220.

[vii] Baetjer, Katherine. "Benjamin Franklin's Daughter." Metropolitan Museum Journal 38 (2003).JSTOR. Web, 169.

[viii] Isaacson, 208.

[ix] Lopez, Claude-Anne, and Eugenia W. Herbert, 71.

[x] Isaacson, 178

[xi] Skemp, Sheila L. Benjamin and William Franklin: Father and Son, Patriot and Loyalist. Boston: Bedford of St. Martin's, 1994. Print. 66.

[xii] Isaacson, 241.

[xiii] Lopez, Claude-Anne, and Eugenia W. Herbert, 306.

[xiv] ibid

[xv] Baetjer, Katherine. "Benjamin Franklin's Daughter." Metropolitan Museum Journal 38 (2003).JSTOR. Web,171.

Benjamin Franklin's Civic Stance

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Benjamin Franklin as visionary in civic improvement also had a vision of a good citizen. As he took the dirty streets of Philadelphia and aimed to improve the quality, he also aimed to improve the quality of each citizen. Franklin as a person tried to maintain a filled with virtue. As stated by PBS "A role model still today, Ben Franklin helped define "good citizenship."" 

            Franklin hoped to share his knowledge and beliefs on virtue, especially civic virtue through many of his works. For example, the publishing of the Poor Richard's Almanack was certainly created to enlighten the public. This book served as a contribution to society to show the importance of moderation. The concepts are definitely geared toward the practical mind. It also included the Gregorian calendar, weather forecast apart from many stories, jokes and proverbs for amusement. The proverbs depicted his sentiments in living a balanced life. Here are a few examples:



Have you something to do tomorrow? Do it today.


You may think, perhaps, that a little tea, or a little punch now and then, diet a little more costly, clothes a little finer, and a little more entertainment now and then can be no great matter but remember what Poor Richard says "Many a little makes a mickle; beware of little expense for a small leak will sink a great ship."


A friend in need is a friend indeed!


Love your Enemies, for they tell you your Faults


If you would not be forgotten, as soon as you're dead and rotten, either do things worth the writing, or write things worth the reading.




The proverbs that he wrote to enlighten others were indeed the proverbs he followed himself. As seen in Franklin's autobiography he was never interested making money off of his brilliance just becoming a success from helping others. Even with all the improvements he made to Philadelphia and the experiments he conducted he was never one to need the credit or patent his idea. He wanted to learn whichever topic he was focused on, so he could share that knowledge with the people.

Benjamin Franklin also valued the civic virtue he believed every citizen needed to keep within them and depicted that in his chart for betterment within his autobiography. Furthermore, his writings beside the almanac such Silence Dogood and his piece On Simplicity demonstrate his focus on living a life in order to maintain yourself yet focus also on giving back to others. As stated by Benjamin Franklin in On Simplicity "...I could wish my reader would be ashamed to live in the world by such a wretched method, yet I would warn him to be well aware of those that do; and to be sure to arm against them, not with the same weapons, but those which are of much better Proof, the integrity of a wise Man, and the Wisdom of an honest one."  Franklin's goal in all his pieces is to arm society with the ability to attain a better life through virtue rather than greed or any other motivators that are not honest. He truly believes and demonstrates that by living a life of virtue, one creates a life for himself from the ground up. As said by Simon Newman,

            "Franklin sought not to hide his poor origins but rather to celebrate them as a             virtue. As an extremely successful printer, Franklin had risen from working-class             obscurity to the highest ranks of Philadelphia society, yet unlike other self-made             men of the era Franklin embraced and celebrated his artisanal roots, and he made             deliberate use of his working-class identity during the Seven Years War and the             subsequent imperial crisis, thereby consolidating his own reputation and firming             up the support of urban workers who considered him one of their own."

                                                                                                            (Newman 161)


Franklin was proud of his poor roots because it kept him honest. He became a self made man, from the son of a candle maker to Founding Father and as such he wants to share with his "children" the lessons he has learn so that they can create their own path of virtue as well.

Franklin's idea of a good citizen is one that values truth, simplicity and the self-search for improvement in day-to-day life. Benjamin Franklin embarked on that inner search through reflection; writing and publishing pieces on the importance of maintain self worth in all actions and by being a leader in the community.

Benjamin Franklin was an exceptional leader of his community through his efforts to create a better living situation for Philadelphia. Franklin utilized every avenue he created for himself in order to innovate the city surrounding him as seen in the example of the library from the previous entry. He also harnessed his ability to communicate to a mass number of citizens through his printing press by raising funds for a hospital through promotion in his paper.  Additionally, Franklin had a passion for citizen safety and created through taxes a service of watchmen and the first volunteer fire company. To push the stay of the people even further he created the Fire Insurance policy. As stated by Billy Smith "From this initial plan eventually resulted the nation's first successful property insurance company, the Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from the Loss by Fire, today America's oldest fire assurance company, founded in 1752." To think that a plan created from his company members began so solid that it is still in practice today is remarkable.

Franklin also pushed for streetlights and clean streets, and initiated pavement for the streets, in order to get rid of the sludge he saw when he first came to Philadelphia.  He also saw the need for a postal system and he even marked each mile on the way by milestone. Plus, he was determined to save energy by creating day light savings time aware that even when electricity was first coming about it could create a problem by taking away too many resources, an issue still pertaining to society today. 

Franklin and Deborah

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Franklin has received a great deal of criticism about his relationship to his wife Deborah. Many have brought into question if he even really loved her. Isaacson states that Franklin set out to find a wife because "bachelorhood was frowned on in the colonial America and Franklin had a sexual desire that required appetite." [i] So what was she exactly to him? In his biography of Benjamin Franklin, he paints Franklin and Deborah's relationship as Franklin's solution to a problematic situation.  He calls Franklin "a man of the head rather than the heart".[ii]  The notion that Franklin did not love his wife or that she was simply a "good and faithful helpmate" is ludicrous. Especially since Franklin states "my engagement with Miss Read, to whom I never wrote more than one letter, and that was to let her know I was not likely soon return. This was another of the great Errata of my life." Franklin wrote this in regard to his first engagement to Deborah before he left for London. This situation led Deborah to move on and marry another man (who letter disappeared and died).  I bring this up to show that one would not say his greatest Errata was causing a "frivolous" relationship to end and then seeks to correct this by finally marrying the woman. In 1780's Franklin wrote a song for a song to celebrate Deborah as his wife. J.A. Leo Lemay refers to the song as "The wedding Song."[iii] So now that we put this idea of Franklin not ever loving Deborah, let's look at what really happen in their relationship.

Hello London!

In the summer of 1757, Franklin went to London on diplomatic mission. His stay in London was supposed to be for five months , but ended up staying for five years, and then ,after he went home briefly , and then return to stay another ten years. While in London, Franklin stayed at a lodging.  Of course we cannot talk about London without talking about his landlady Margaret Stevenson. Stevenson is significant in this story because she was the widowed landlady that was accused by many to play Franklin's replica wife while in London. She is often described as being everything Deborah was and more. Deborah was seen to have "plain tastes, willingness to work, and a desire to please her spouse"[iv]; whereas Stevenson is seen to be elegant and intellectual in comparison to Deborah. This woman was accredited for Franklin's development for a taste for fine crystal, china, and silver.[v] Deborah was aware of her presence in Franklin's life, it was not a secret. Stevenson even went as far to "undertake the long-distance redecorating of Franklin household, but she also shopped for Debbie [Deborah] herself."[vi] Franklin's Friend Strahan sent Deborah a letter warning her about this new "friendship" and encouraged her to go to London and accompany her husband but Deborah refused. Whether Franklin and Stevenson were more than friends is possible, but there is not evidence to support that notion. However, the problem that was starting to take root with Franklins new found life in London was that his contact with Deborah became fewer and fewer.  When Franklin did write to Deborah, he wrote little of his mission and the political climate. "Neither did he say one word about the plays he saw, the concerts he attended, nor the interesting people he was meeting."[vii] Their communication began to deteriorate slowly. When he sent letters to his friends, he wrote about scientific topic, to William (his son) he sent lengthy letters of political musing, but to his wife it was kept simple. He sent mechanical messages like "all's well..." or "no time to write more..."But was it his entire fault? While he was in London a lot of people believe that he packed his bags and never looked back, but that's not completely true. Franklin did ask Deborah and Sarah (his daughter) to come and join him in London, but she refused because she was afraid to sail at sea. When Strahan sent her letters warning about Franklins alleged relationship with Stevenson she refused, giving the same reason. Also when Franklin fell ill just shortly arriving to London, he asked her once again, she refused, which left Stevenson to take the role as the wife--once again.  In a letter to her he wrote: "There is a great difference in the sickness between being nursed with that tender attention which proceeds from sincere love". [viii] If we look at this in retrospect, Franklin had to work overseas in London and Deborah did not really have to stay in Philadelphia. So who is at fault?  Is Franklin guilty for making a potentially lonely situation into a bearable situation? Was Deborah being stubborn about leaving her comfort zone? In light of the facts, the beginning of the fall of their relationship is mutual. They both have fault in the manner.

From Bad to Worst

Unfortunately the plot thickens! While Deborah is home having such "Christian Spirits,"[ix]the strain on her marriage continued. The gravity of the state of their marriage becomes apparent when Deborah's mother dies in a kitchen fire in 1760. Shortly after Deborah emotional state shifted and began writing Franklin letters about her loneliness, he did not see fit return to the states to console his wife. In The Private Franklin: Man and His Family, the question is poses whether "he was simply incapable of feeling strongly for people from whom he was separated?"[x]  It is even believed that Franklin could of sailed home early as 1760, but he tarried in England for two years more.  In the spring of 1769, Deborah experienced a stroke and her doctors wrote to Franklin that her symptoms were bad and dangerous; Deborah said that it was due to "dissatisfied distress" brought on by his absence.  It was said that she could not eat, sleep, and lost "resolution".[xi]  Meanwhile, Franklin continued to make promises of his return, but did not.  As her health exacerbate she wrote less. It's unsure if she purposely chooses not to write back to Franklin or she was not lucid enough to responded.  By the 1774, she began to lose her memory and was no longer able to walk--Franklin still did not come back.  In May of 1774 he wrote her a letter saying: "It's is now a very long time indeed since I have had the pleasure of a line from you. I hope that you are as well as I am, thanks to God"[xii]  Finally, Deborah died and Franklin never got to see her. Franklin received word about his wife's death a month later, February 1775. Was Franklin selfish in his marriage? In all fairness, we must keep in mind that a trip to London from Pennsylvania in the 1770's would have taken months of traveling. But could have Franklin taken the time off to see his wife? I could argue that when she was alive he should have gone to see her? Or I could argue that it would be useless to go to Pennsylvania after learning about her death a month later? But would the situation change if we assume by judging from the whole situation that Franklin fell out of love with Deborah? In this case, I don't think absence makes the heart grow founder, but detached.

Image: Portrait of Deborah Franklin

[i] Isaacson, Walter. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003. Print. 72.

[ii] Isaacson, 75.

[iii] Lemay, J. A. Leo. The Life of Benjamin Franklin, Volume 2: Printer and Publisher, 1730-1747. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2005. Print. 272.

[iv] Isaacson, 81.

[v] Lopez, Claude-Anne, and Eugenia W. Herbert. The Private Franklin: The Man and His Family. New York: Norton, 1975. Print. 84.

[vi] Lopez, Claude-Anne, and Eugenia W. Herbert, 86.

[vii] Lopez, Claude-Anne, and Eugenia W. Herbert, 87.

[viii] Isaacson, 180.

[ix] Lopez, Claude-Anne, and Eugenia W. Herbert, 91.

[x] Lopez, Claude-Anne, and Eugenia W. Herbert, 91.

[xi] Lopez, Claude-Anne, and Eugenia W. Herbert, 169.

[xii] Lopez, Claude-Anne, and Eugenia W. Herbert, 171.

Benjamin Franklin: Family vs. Politics?

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Benjamin Franklin is known and celebrated for many different things. He is known as the man on the hundred dollar bill, a founding father, scientist, diplomat, and a lover of virtues.  However, when we talk about Franklin and his family values, the conversations start to polarize. Some people believe that when it came to the treatment of his family, he was neglectful. Some believe,  he was all he could be given the job he had. And there are others who believe that he was a great politician and family man. But is it that simple? Can you make a fair judgment without looking at all of the facts? Should we not take into considerations the technicalities of the situation?  In a series of t blog posts, I will dissect and explore the Franklin's family situation by looking at each relationship Franklin had with each individual in his immediate family. In my post, I will introduce and challenge the many notions that have accumulated surrounding Franklin and his family.  

Part Three: Comparisons and Contrasts

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 Fig. 1.

As I foreshadowed in the last post, one of the most important aspects of documentary film making is the aesthetic quality. Michael Isenberg writes, "Historians have long valued the aesthetic approach to the study of culture. If it be true that the most precious values of a culture are displayed in the arts, then the study of these arts becomes proper for the historian" (Isenberg 553). His claim that part of being a historian in film is to study the arts is quite a forward-thinking one, and it surprised me at first to read it. I consider this a very high bar to set for a historian, but possibly not for a filmmaker. Keeping this in mind, I shall compare and contrast briefly Benjamin Franklin with two other shorter documentaries on Franklin.


The first one we will look at is aptly called, Ben Franklin: Man of Firsts. The first minute of the film is enough to make the biggest Franklin buff turn it off. Backgrounded by ethereal, electronic music, a Power-Point-like slideshow runs while a stereotypical male announcer's voice plays over top of the atrocity. The images are grainy and often to not correspond to what the announcer is saying. He calls Franklin an inventor, and an image of a political document shows in screen. Unfortunately, I cannot show clips of this film due to copyright reasons, but I hope my description of this ten-minute disaster will provide a good understanding of the kind of films that are being made.


There is very little actual film footage compared to the still photographs shown. The segment does have interviews with a few scholars who are subjected to very poor lighting which makes them look blotchy and orange, and a shaky cameraman. I realize that this film was most likely written on a budget, but surely they could have afforded a tripod.



Fig. 2. 

This poor film quality and blatant disregard for the aesthetic value is exactly what Hovde and Meyer did not want to do when they produced Benjamin Franklin. By visually and auditorily pleasing their audience, these filmmakers created a professional and respectful image of Franklin. If a film such as Ben Franklin: Man of Firsts were to be shown in a high school history class, not a single student would pay attention. Even though it is only ten minutes long, the slow pace and monotonous tone of the narrator seem to drag on for hours. Because of the quick changes and use of three main elements in Benjamin Franklin which we have already talked about, that wonderful film, although many times as long, moves along much more quickly and could easily hold the interest of anyone as young as a middle-schooler.


The second film I would like to compare Benjamin Franklin to is, Ben Franklin's Pirate Fleet. This forty-four minute film focuses on a team of divers investigating a sunken ship which they believe to have been one of Franklin's privateering ships during the war. Between the rock music, shaky nerve-jostling filmography, and constant repetitions of what just happened before the commercial break, this film does its best job at making this theory sound like a historical scandal. Of course, it was not that at all. Franklin, in efforts to aid the war for Independence, hired a few privateers to help defend his country against the British naval fleet.



                                                                    Fig. 3. 

It is almost humorous to watch the dramatized story unfold from the off-screen narrator's deep, exciting voice only to be combatted by interviews with scholars who very calmly and collectedly discuss Franklin's business. I cannot attempt to understand why the directors of this film would have wanted to make Franklin seem like a dirty trickster with his secret fleet. The only possible reason seems to be that they thought Franklin's life was boring, and needed more "kick" to it. If this is the case, then these filmmakers certainly did not do their research. Between the women, the inventions, the diplomatic disputes, and family rumors, Franklin's life has enough adventure and drama to make an action movie.


Despite these weird and in nearly inaccurate depictions of Franklin's life, the two films each have their perks. Ben Franklin: Man of Firsts provides a short and sweet fact list about Franklin's life. Ben Franklin's Pirate Fleet, while odd, certainly keeps its audience interested, and the interviews with the historians and scholars provide sound, factual information. Perhaps Isenberg was onto something when he wrote of the importance of the aesthetic in historical films. Not only is the subject more well-represented, but the audience has less difficulty keeping up with the information, and enjoying the film. The directors of PBS's documentary do a phenomenal job at this, and I am glad to have studied Franklin using this different, but effective medium.

Works Cited:
Isenberg, Michael. "A Relationship of Constrained Anxiety: Historians and Film." The History Teacher, 6:4, August 1973. 553-568.

Fig. 1: Google Images (

Part Two: The Documentary Contract

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Seek Truth.jpg

Fig. 1.

Keith Beattie in his book, Documentary Screens: Non-Fiction Film and Television, describes a very important relationship that documentary producers have with their audiences. He calls it "the documentary contract;" it is, in its simplest form, an unspoken, unwritten agreement that documentary producers will represent the world accurately and truthfully so that the audience might not be misled or misinformed (Beattie 11). Beattie is quick to clarify that this does not mean a viewer should accept everything in a documentary as a truth claim, in fact he says, "The generalized truth claim of documentary representation may encompass a number of individual truth claims" (Beattie 10). The generalized truth claim that the film portrays should be one that is founded in facts of the real world.


When a documentary is on a historical figure, however, it becomes hard to distinguish sometimes what is truth and what is opinion. Disagreements about the truth of this documentary necessarily arise. We can see this very clearly by simply comparing how another historian deals with a bit of heated content.


John Adams.gifWalter Isaacson.jpg
Fig. 2. John Adams                                                                       Fig. 3. Walter Isaacson

The third portion of the film spends a great deal of time devoted to Franklin's political work in France. In a section about John Adams coming over to France in order to help Franklin with the diplomacy, the agenda of the film really begins to ring out. The film portrays Adams as a bumbling idiot, unaware of the French manner of accomplishing business, and certainly a fool in comparison to Franklin. The historians portrayed in this section of the film actually laugh at the idea of Congress thinking that Adams could possibly be equipped with the social skills for this tricky task. Walter Isaacson has been occasionally been shown in the film up until this point, but in this section he is completely cut out. It only takes one look at Isaacson's chapter on this relationship to understand why the film did not include him. Isaacson says:

Some have found the relationship baffling: Did Adams resent or respect Franklin? Did Franklin find Adams maddening or solid? Did they like or dislike each other? The answer, which is not all that baffling because it is often true of the relationship between two great and strong people, is that they felt all of these conflicting emotions about each other, and more. (Isaacson 350-351)

Isaacson is not only lenient on the relationship between Adams and Franklin at this time, but he borders on saying that the two got along quite well. Quite the opposite from the documentary, this disjunction between Isaacson's point of view and that of the film is punctuated when both mediums utilize the same quote. Isaacson writes:

After a few years, Franklin would tire of Adams and declare that he was "sometimes, and in some thing, absolutely out of his senses." But for the time being, he found Adams tolerable, at times even admirable. And he was happy to make him part of his social set, despite Adams's minimal enthusiasm for such frivolities. (Isaacson 353)

Observe this section of the film below. Note the tone in the Franklin actor's voice. His facial expressions and way in which he delivers this quote carry an entirely different feeling than the kind words of Isaacson.

Adam's Senses Quote.m4v (Benjamin Franklin)

In this portrayal of Franklin, he is clearly not just "tired" of Adams, as Isaacson suggests, rather he is outraged at Adams's stupidity, and clearly frustrated that Adams is ruining Franklin's years of diplomacy in France.


It might be too strong of a point to say that this film violates the documentary contract, or to also put that judgment on Isaacson in his book. However, it is important to keep the different mediums in mind. The film has the opportunity to introduce tone and facial expression into the delivery of the quotes. Often, seeing an actor recite a quote can incite stronger feelings than the written word can. Hovde and Meyer, the directors of the film, also have the freedom to interpret Franklin's tone as they wish. The actor too even has some poetic license in his delivery of the quotes.

Talking People.jpg

Beattie's claim does not mean to say that audiences will accept and believe everything they watch, though. He is careful to qualify this contract and allow for viewer discretion. He says, "Studies of reception point to the fact that viewers interpret or decode the documentary text in complex and sophisticated ways and frequently balance and validate the information and interpretations provided in a documentary against their own experiences and sources of information" (Beattie 12). The balancing of information of which he speaks is exactly what I am attempting to do in this blog. Through understanding how documentaries are produced and what they can potentially claim about a historical figure, audiences can more accurately validate and process the information they are given.

Works Cited:

Beattie, Keith. Documentary Screens: Non-Fiction Film and Television. New York: Palgrave        MacMillan, 2004. Print.

Isaacson, Walter. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. New York: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 2003. Print.

Fig. 4: Microsoft Word Clip Art

Part One: Of Documentaries

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In the following three blog posts, I would like to explore Benjamin Franklin and his representation in documentary films. Specifically, the PBS three part documentary simply entitled, Benjamin Franklin. This Middlemarch film was produced and directed by Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer in 2002, written by Ronald Blumer. This team of filmmakers has worked together on other very successful projects such as Liberty! and Alexander Hamilton (Bernard and Rabin 126). Both were received as excellent contributions to historic filmography.


Benjamin Franklin is no exception from this legacy, so my first post will delve into some of the details about the structure of the film and specific information about historical documentary filmmaking. My second post shall explore the idea of "the documentary contract" between filmmakers and audiences. The third post will serve as a bookend, wrapping up the ideas I have put forth, and briefly comparing this documentary to a few other, shorter films.


Iris Barry, in her article, "The Documentary Film: Prospect and Retrospect" writes about the beginning of the first documentary films. They started in the early 40s as war propaganda, mixing non-fiction footage with compelling messages about the war. This was groundbreaking history, as far as the public was concerned. Barry writes, "A Nazi general declared, early in the conflict, that the side with the best cameras, rather than the side with the best armaments, would win" (Barry 2).


Dueling Cameras.jpg

                                                                  Fig. 1

This prediction could not have been more true. As we will see later on, the truth of what a documentary portrays often goes undisputed, and is held sometimes above the truth even of the written word. Benjamin Franklin is a documentary steeped in truth and authentic fact. The film uses three main elements to convey its message. Sheila Bernard says these elements are, "the primary source material, scholars whom they interview, and the narration, written by Blumer as a last step during the editing" (Bernard and Rabin 128). The primary source material in this case comes from Franklin's Autobiography and letters of correspondence between the persons involved. Often, the letters and other materials are quoted directly by actors who hold direct eye contact with the camera. It is the actors' job to convey the written material as if they themselves were holding a conversation.


Ben Franky Actor.jpg

 Fig. 2.

Blumer says, "When I'm watching other historical films, I'm very uncomfortable hearing people mouth stuff that's obviously just doesn't seem real, and the important thing is that the audience has to believe that the people are experiencing and feeling what you're hearing. If it sounds as if they're reading something, it just doesn't work" (Bernard and Rabin 129). Blumer takes the original material and sometimes replaces out-of-date vocabulary with words that a modern audience would understand. He uses Samuel Johnson's 18th century dictionary to find the best translations and says that he can always cite his word replacements with a source (Bernard and Rabin 129).


Interestingly, a large motivator in the direction of the film tends to be the scholars that the filmmakers interview. Blumer says the team will often change the direction of a film to fit in with what the scholars are saying (Bernard and Rabin 128). When he writes a script, he is not simply trying to assert his own opinion, or give a dry summation of the facts. He wants to create something engaging and tangible to modern audiences while holding true to what the experts are saying. Blumer is an expert at piecing together several different scholars' opinions into a cohesive whole. He complements their work with the on-screen actors and a small amount of off-screen narration, usually voiced in over period photographs or reenactments. The footage below provides a good example of how he pieces these opinions together in a quick-paced, but informative manner.

Scholars Example.m4v  (Benjamin Franklin)

A website dedicated to Ronald Blumer offers many well-written reviews about his work. A critic, John Levesque raves about the tasteful style seen in this film. Historical documentaries have a long-standing negative opinion attached to them that they are hokey and tacky, filled with bad reenactments, a cheesy narrator, and funny-looking historians. Levesque writes eloquently about Benjamin Franklin when he says:

Some of the re-creations offer the standard docu-scenes: carriages pulling up in front of buildings, people walking along cobblestone streets, Redcoats marching shoulder to shoulder. But they're rendered nearly superfluous by actors in period costume functioning like the scholars and other experts who popular most historical documentaries. In the style of today's modern Chautauqua's, in which performers mimic the garb  and gad of figured from the past, Franklin comes to life in his own documentary. (Levesque)

Levesque is just scratching the surface of what I think is the aesthetic value of a film of this caliber. Film is an art form, and must be treated as such. If a film is produced merely for its information value and the artistic elements of the film are ignored, it will fall apart. We will explore this in the last post when I compare a few other films to this one.


Film Reel.jpg

Fig. 3.

Benjamin Franklin is set up as many biographical films are: chronologically. Part one of the film, "Let the Experiment Be Made" deals with the years 1706-1753, Franklin's youth. This section covers the largest number of years, but is also the shortest section of the film. Part two, "The Marking of a Revolutionary" details Franklin's time in England, and his conversion from trying to patch up relations with England, to becoming an advocate of the United States' independence in the years 1755-1776. Part three, "The Chess Master" is the longest part of the documentary, almost twice as long as the prior sections and tackles the years 1776-1790.


In another one of her books, Bernard talks about manipulating time in films. She says that moving a story through often involves "the interweaving of chronological and nonchronological elements outside of apart from the chronology" (Bernard 63). Benjamin Franklin also accomplishes this task mostly by way of the off-screen narrator. His job is to allude to the future, comment on how Franklin's actions in the past might have affected the currently discussed moment, and compare experiences to others at different points in his life. While the film mostly follows chronology, the narrative voice helps guide the viewer through so that they feel like they are watching an interesting story with plot twists and foreshadowing rather than staring at a timeline.


In the next post, we will look at the importance of the believability of a historic film and see just how easily what we consider "fact" can be called into question.


Works Cited:

Barry, Iris. "The Documentary Film: Prospect and Retrospect." The Bulletin of the Museum of Modern Art. 13:2, Dec 1945. 2-27. Print.

Benjamin Franklin. Dir. Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer. PBS DVD, Twin Cities Public Television in association with Middlemarch Films, 2002. DVD.

Bernard, Sheila. Documentary Storytelling for Video and Filmmakers. Burlington, MA: Focal Press, 2004. Print.

Bernard, Sheila and Rabin, Kenn. Archival Storytelling: A Filmmaker's Guide to Finding, Using, and Licensing Third-Party Visuals and Music. Burlington, MA: Focal Press, 2009. Print.

Levesque, John. "PBS's Benjamin Franklin is a Lesson in Great Television." Ronald Blumer: Reviews of Benjamin Franklin. November 15, 2002. Web.

 Fig. 1: Google Images. (

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