History

Benjamin Franklin

Ken Burns’s two-part, four-hour documentary, "Benjamin Franklin," explores the revolutionary life of one of the18th century's most consequential and compelling personalities, whose work and words unlocked the mystery of electricity and helped create the United States.

“An American” (1775-1790)

1h 54m

Benjamin Franklin leaves London and returns to wartime Philadelphia where he joins Congress and helps Thomas Jefferson craft the Declaration of Independence. In Paris, he wins French support for the American Revolution then negotiates a peace treaty with Britain. He spends his last years in the new United States, working on the Constitution and unsuccessfully promoting the abolition of slavery.

Episodes

  • “An American” (1775-1790): asset-mezzanine-16x9

    “An American” (1775-1790)

    S1 E2 - 1h 54m

    Benjamin Franklin leaves London and returns to wartime Philadelphia where he joins Congress and helps Thomas Jefferson craft the Declaration of Independence. In Paris, he wins French support for the American Revolution then negotiates a peace treaty with Britain. He spends his last years in the new United States, working on the Constitution and unsuccessfully promoting the abolition of slavery.

  • “Join or Die” (1706-1774): asset-mezzanine-16x9

    “Join or Die” (1706-1774)

    S1 E1 - 1h 55m

    Leaving behind his Boston childhood, Benjamin Franklin reinvents himself in Philadelphia where he builds a printing empire and a new life with his wife, Deborah. Turning to science, Franklin's lightning rod and experiments in electricity earn him worldwide fame. After entering politics, he spends years in London trying to keep Britain and America together as his own family starts to come apart.

  • Spanish Version | “An American” (1775-1790): asset-mezzanine-16x9

    Spanish Version | “An American” (1775-1790)

    S1 E4 - 1h 54m

    Benjamin Franklin leaves London and returns to wartime Philadelphia where he joins Congress and helps Thomas Jefferson craft the Declaration of Independence. In Paris, he wins French support for the American Revolution then negotiates a peace treaty with Britain. He spends his last years in the new United States, working on the Constitution and unsuccessfully promoting the abolition of slavery.

  • Spanish Version | “Join or Die” (1706-1774): asset-mezzanine-16x9

    Spanish Version | “Join or Die” (1706-1774)

    S1 E3 - 1h 55m

    Leaving behind his Boston childhood, Benjamin Franklin reinvents himself in Philadelphia where he builds a printing empire and a new life with his wife, Deborah. Turning to science, Franklin's lightning rod and experiments in electricity earn him worldwide fame. After entering politics, he spends years in London trying to keep Britain and America together as his own family starts to come apart.

Extras + Features

  • Franklin’s Observations and Experiments on Electricity: asset-mezzanine-16x9

    Franklin’s Observations and Experiments on Electricity

    5m 31s

    Franklin made groundbreaking discoveries in his study of electricity. He wrote up his observations and experiments, which were published abroad and made him world-famous. He coined new terms—like “positive,” “negative,” “charge,” “conductor” and “battery.” And he proved that lightning was electrical in nature with his famous experiment in 1752 with a kite and a key.

  • An American Celebrity in France: asset-mezzanine-16x9

    An American Celebrity in France

    4m 37s

    In 1776, people in France had never heard of any American, except for Benjamin Franklin. Congress sent Franklin to Paris to win foreign support for the American Revolution, and the French people treated him like a celebrity when he arrived. But Franklin had serious business to attend to. Without aid from the French monarchy, America’s fight for independence might be lost quickly.

  • Franklin and Slave Labor: asset-mezzanine-16x9

    Franklin and Slave Labor

    1m 49s

    Slavery was legal in all thirteen colonies that eventually formed the United States. In the middle of the 18th Century, nearly a tenth of Philadelphia’s residents were enslaved—working in businesses and homes, including Franklin’s. Many Philadelphians, including Franklin’s friends and colleagues, were vocally antislavery. But Franklin, committed to slave labor, did not join them.

  • Franklin Hears About Washington’s Victory at Yorktown: asset-mezzanine-16x9

    Franklin Hears About Washington’s Victory at Yorktown

    2m 39s

    In November 1781, Franklin heard news of the victory at Yorktown, the decisive battle of the American Revolution that was won by the combined forces of the French military and George Washington’s Continental Army. Back in 1778, Franklin had secured the alliance that brought France into the war, and without the French Army and Navy, the outcome at Yorktown would not have been possible.

  • Franklin Faces His Racial Prejudices: asset-mezzanine-16x9

    Franklin Faces His Racial Prejudices

    1m 58s

    Deborah Franklin encouraged her husband to visit a new school for enslaved and free Black children in Philadelphia. After his visit, Benjamin Franklin admitted that he had previously held a low opinion of the “natural Capacities of the black Race,” but observing the children at school had proven his prejudices wrong. He now knew they were “in every Respect equal to that of white Children.”

  • Franklin’s Endlessly Quotable Poor Richard’s Almanack: asset-mezzanine-16x9

    Franklin’s Endlessly Quotable Poor Richard’s Almanack

    4m 37s

    From 1733 to 1757, Franklin published Poor Richard’s Almanack, an annual bestseller in the colonies. In addition to weather predictions and astronomical observations, his almanac was notable for including aphorisms that combined wisdom with humor, philosophy with word play—an early example of a homespun American writing style that has continued through the generations.

  • Benjamin Franklin Invents the Glass Armonica: asset-mezzanine-16x9

    Benjamin Franklin Invents the Glass Armonica

    1m 55s

    Franklin developed a musical instrument that he called the armonica (after the Italian word for harmony). To play the armonica, a musician powered a foot pedal to rotate 36 concentric glass bowls and produced notes by putting wet fingers to the spinning glass. In Austria, the glass armonica provided the music for a royal wedding. Mozart and Beethoven would compose chamber pieces for it.

  • Franklin Makes a Name for Himself as a Printer: asset-mezzanine-16x9

    Franklin Makes a Name for Himself as a Printer

    3m 53s

    Franklin, who had only two years of formal education, largely taught himself through reading and on the job. At age 12, he joined his older brother James’s print shop as an apprentice printer. Later, when an essay appeared in James’s newspaper over the name Silence Dogood, no one, including James, knew the real author was 16-year-old Benjamin.

  • The Franklins Choose Opposing Sides in the Revolution: asset-mezzanine-16x9

    The Franklins Choose Opposing Sides in the Revolution

    2m 26s

    In the decades before the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin and his son William collaborated intimately to promote the British Empire in America. But when war broke out, their family, like countless others, was torn apart. Benjamin Franklin supported George Washington’s army and sided with the rebels—the Patriots. William Franklin, the Royal Governor of New Jersey, remained loyal to the King.

  • Official Trailer: asset-mezzanine-16x9

    Official Trailer

    31s

    Ken Burns’s four-hour documentary, Benjamin Franklin, explores the revolutionary life of one of the 18th century’s most consequential figures, whose work and words unlocked the mystery of electricity and helped create the United States.

  • The Declaration of Independence: asset-mezzanine-16x9

    The Declaration of Independence

    3m 17s

    After reading Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence, Franklin offered only a few edits, but one of them was pivotal. In his draft, Jefferson’s most important sentence began, “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable, that all men are created equal…” Franklin crossed out “sacred and undeniable” and wrote in “self-evident.”

Schedule

  • Image
    Benjamin Franklin: TVSS: Iconic

    Benjamin Franklin

    Join or Die (1706-1774)

    Saturday
    Jun 11

    2 Hours 30 Minutes

    Following his success as a printer in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin earns worldwide fame from electricity experiments and then turns to politics.
  • Image
    Benjamin Franklin: TVSS: Iconic

    Benjamin Franklin

    Saturday
    Jun 11

    5 Hours

    The life and work of scientist, inventor and writer Benjamin Franklin.
  • Image
    Benjamin Franklin: TVSS: Iconic

    Benjamin Franklin

    An American (1775-1790)

    Saturday
    Jun 11

    2 Hours 30 Minutes

    Benjamin Franklin helps Thomas Jefferson craft the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia; in Paris, Franklin wins French support for the American Revolution; Franklin works on the U.S. Constitution.

WETA Passport

Stream tens of thousands of hours of your PBS and local favorites with WETA Passport whenever and wherever you want. Catch up on a single episode or binge-watch full seasons before they air on TV.