An 1870 engraving of Benjamin Franklin

An 1870 engraving of Benjamin Franklin Credit: Getty Images/benoitb

When the documentary “Benjamin Franklin” aired on PBS earlier this year, it brought many of the usual pleasures of Ken Burns’ work. 

My introduction to his documentaries came in 1990, when my father called to ask, “Are you watching this Civil War thing on PBS? It’s the best television show ever!”

That man loved a documentary, but … it was. Burns redefined documentary filmmaking 30 years ago and continues to entertain, educate and astonish.

Franklin was his perfect subject: You think you know the tale and then Burns says, “Did you know he was 37 years older than Thomas Jefferson, illegally ran away from an apprenticeship under his brother to begin anew in Philadelphia, opposed secession from England until the last minute, and could have won multiple Nobel Prizes for science?”

Fine, Ken, we know nothing. Continue.

But of all the anecdotes and accomplishments unveiled in the Franklin biopic, what stuck was Franklin’s ability, having lost a debate or seen his opinion disproved … to change his mind. 

It sometimes seems we’ve lost touch with this concept: The side that loses a fair debate is supposed to alter its opinion and actions.

With Franklin, the clearest example is his views of Black people, which were execrable in his youth, and for much of his life. The broad issue of Franklin and race is too complex to take on here, but briefly: He was a slave owner who detested Black people for decades, considering them patently inferior. His earliest opposition to slavery centered not on its cruelty but that it weakened whites by making them lazy.

Of Blacks themselves, Franklin said in a 1751 essay, “Almost every slave by nature [was] a thief.” But of slavery, he wrote that “slaves also pejorate the Families that use them; the White children become proud, disgusted with Labour, and being educated in Idleness, are unfit to get a Living by Industry.”

The change in his opinion came in fits and spurts, but one event sticks out.   

In 1763, Franklin visited a school for Black children in Philadelphia where his wife had enrolled a family slave, Othello. Afterward, Franklin wrote, “I was in the whole much pleased, and from what I then saw have conceived a higher opinion of the natural capacities of the Black race than I had ever before entertained. Their apprehension is as quick, their memory as strong and their docility in every respect the equal of white children.”

Another Franklin quote gets right at it: “The hardest thing for a man to do is to change longstanding prejudices of belief, but to succeed in doing it is a test of one’s humanity.”

Franklin acted on this change of heart and mind in many ways, over time. His last public act, in 1790, was to petition the nation’s first sitting Congress to abolish slavery.

Proper debates are won and lost on truth. When we cannot accept the outcome of a fair debate, the defeat of our ideas, it’s because we are putting emotions above fairness and fact.

Fear can make us ignore truth. So can self-interest, when it rises to selfishness. So, too, can tribalism, hatred, greed, malice, love and tradition.

When our argument loses the debate, we’re supposed to change our minds. That’s the only way even a genius like Benjamin Franklin gets better, and it’s not something we’ve improved at in modern life. 

Columnist Lane Filler's opinions are his own.

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