Benjamin Franklin / John & Abigail Adams (American Experience)

[7 February 2006]

By Leigh H. Edwards

Talkin' 'Bout a Revolution

PBS tries to invest Revolutionary Era America with some pizzazz in two American Experience episodes about beloved Founding Fathers. Both Benjamin Franklin and John & Abigail Adams, now available on DVD, are heavy on dramatic reenactments and au courant language: the Adams are “the original power couple,” and Franklin is “electric,” owing to that old kite-flying experiment.

The Adams documentary more successfully reframes its subjects for a 21st-century audience. Part of the American Experience series, the episode shows both national history and personal history. How to combine the two is a problem for the producers, as we learn in the DVD’s brief and not particularly helpful making-of the documentary. The producers note they put John Adams in actual historical locations, speaking his own words, and include private moments between him and his wife. By interspersing political events (in which Adams played key roles) with the actors reading excerpts from letters between husband and wife, the episode makes you care about the couple as well as John’s significance. As Simon Russell Beale, who plays John, says, “They were making a country, that’s an extraordinary thing.”

Founding Father Adams was a Boston lawyer who helped to shape a new nation, while Abigail experienced firsthand the need for a revolution in gender relations. Although Abigail did not attend formal school and was anxious about her own writing ability, her critical acumen is clear in her correspondence. In one exchange, she tells him to “Remember the Ladies” in one letter advocating legal rights for married women. John basically says she shouldn’t worry her about it. Such moments show the limits of revolutionary rhetoric and the problematic nature of a democracy founded on slavery and gender inequity. While the documentary frames her as his intellectual equal (and more skillful politician), and notes that she had to manage the household on her own for long periods of time, it does not move past the “behind every great man there’s a great woman” idea.

This approach can be dull and reductive. Fortunately, this episode avoids some of that hagiography by focusing on many of Adams’ own weaknesses and self-doubts, even while emphasizing how his genius and foresight led him to become the first Vice President, the second President, and, as the voiceover intones, the “premiere political thinker in Revolutionary America.” Angry and disaffected by the end of his life, Adams wrote an autobiography because he feared history wouldn’t remember him. Beale reads from this Adams’ concern, “Statues and monuments will never be erected to me, or flattery orations spoken to transmit me to posterity in brilliant colors.” Yet while Abigail begged him to burn her letters, he knew later generations would want to read about the birth of a nation, so he urged her to preserve all their writings. The documentary is rather too self-congratulatory when it points out that memorials such as itself help remember him anew.

The longer Franklin documentary (it runs several episodes) is similarly illuminating, though at times it is too dry and at others, engages in hero worship. The laundry list of his inventions and civic improvements is staggering. In addition to harnessing electricity, he improved everything from street sanitation to clocks to the postal service, and he founded a college (what became the University of Pennsylvania, where Ben Franklin reenactors still pound the pavement and freak people out), as well as the first lending library in the U.S., the Library Company in Philadelphia (still an important archive). He started the whole volunteer organizations idea. Plus, he might have been the first wind surfer (he pulled himself around a pond by holding onto a kite).

The voiceover narration focuses on how Franklin was brighter and more talented than almost anyone else at the time, and combined his wisdom with pragmatism, self-promotion, and an awareness of the importance of “image.” We learn, for example, that Franklin the Philly printer would make sure merchants saw him pushing paper through the streets in a wheelbarrow. Thinking him industrious, they wanted him to sell their books. But the link between Franklin’s legacy and today falls flat when Penn history professor Michael Zuckerman exclaims, “As the tennis player Andre Agassi said, image is everything.”

Better is the episode’s discussion of how Franklin’s personal philosophies, like the need to improve the living conditions of ordinary people and the importance of the self-made man, are rooted in the era’s Enlightenment rationalism as well as the vestiges of Puritanism. While the self-improvement rhetoric starts to sound a little too much like Dr. Phil, the program does convey the excitement of Franklin’s ideas, like his faith in a free press.

The series takes us through Franklin’s rocky adolescent apprenticeship to his printer brother, his bolt to Philly and his own career as a printer and publisher, his decision to support a revolution, and his travels in Europe as a diplomat. Franklin reenactments always risk hokiness (look at my glasses and my tri-cornered hat and my kite!), and the program’s versions of key scenes from his life are sometimes clunky. While the Adams video has the actors engaging in activities while reading excerpts from letters and documents in voiceover, the Franklin documentary has the actors deliver their historical lines directly to the camera, as if Franklin were sitting for an interview, much like the historians who talk about him.

But the attempt to make the words come to life is admirable. The Adams video is particularly useful in the sense that, it tells both the husband’s and the wife’s stories by reading from their letters, providing multiple perspectives on history.

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