The Late Show with Stephen Colbert's April 2, 2022 Ken Burns Was Watching "Homeland" When He Realized Mandy Patinkin Should Be His Ben Franklin begins with noted historian and documentarian Ken Burns summarizing what made Benjamin Franklin such a compelling figure to him.

From the notes on the video:

Ken Burns and Mandy Patinkin join Stephen for a two-part conversation about the flawed genius of the man who is the subject of Ken's new PBS documentary series, "Ben Franklin."

Burns begins (my transcription with help from closed captions):

He's the most accessible of the founding fathers. He's the oldest, the wisest... He's the only American known throughout the world for his scientific discoveries. He's the greatest diplomat in American history, securing the French support that wins the revolution. He's as important as Washington.

Know him, know us.

He's editor of Jefferson's prose in the declaration in the subtlest but most important ways. He forges compromises -- some of them tragic -- of the constitution.

He's an inventor, that he holds all this stuff without patents.

He's just irresistible, and he's filled with flaws and contradictions.

Question: What compromises were forged or brokered by Benjamin Franklin in the writing of the US constitution that would be considered "tragic" by noted US historian and documentarian Ken Burns?

Surely the process of creating the United States (or any) Constitution can be considered a political process. I had never heard the word "tragic" used by a US historian in connection to the genesis of the constitution, but based on the extent of Burns' depth and seriousness when explaining and documenting American history this must be something pretty specific and clear and not just a random person's opinion.

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    Being familiar with Burns as I am, the answer to this will certianly be provided in detail in his series (which airs Monday)
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Apr 2, 2022 at 21:19
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    T.E.D. is almost certainly correct, though it's not hard to guess the general line of how things can be seen as "tragic". Early US history is dominated by two concerns: slavery and the strength of the federal government. Compromises for either, especially the former, were all driven towards soothing egos and freezing existing power balances rather than being designed to create an actually healthy democracy and functional government. Commented Apr 2, 2022 at 22:28

1 Answer 1



Franklin was a notable early opponent of slavery, but was willing to compromise on the issue for the sake of unity among the 13 colonies and the creation of a United States.

Quoting The Bill of Rights Institute

Franklin was also an early opponent of slavery who feared that the institution would corrode the cords of friendship among the new American states. Despite his abhorrence of the slave system, however, Franklin was willing to compromise on the issue at the Constitutional Convention, and he remained optimistic about the young nation’s prospects.

Burns (and many others) would see the compromises made in the Constitutional Convention (no ban on slavery, to count slaves as 3/5 of a person, the prevention of a ban on the slave trade for at least 20 years, the fugitive slave clause) as "tragic". I hope I need not expand on why.

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    "I hope I need not expand on why." I think we can hold these truths to be self evident. +1
    – uhoh
    Commented Apr 3, 2022 at 21:40
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    Just read an interview with Burns about this project, and he specifically mentioned that Franklin changed his mind about the institution later in life (presumably after the 1787 convention? But he was pretty old already then...) Burns is typically no slouch, but let's say the exiting track record of people wanting to claim "founders" didn't like slavery makes me doubly skeptical whenever I hear anyone saying that.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Apr 4, 2022 at 3:40
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    @T.E.D. -There's little doubt that later in life, Franklin became an abolitionist. He joined several abolitionist societies and vociferated against slavery. Earlier in life, though, he was in fact a slaveholder himself, and held a number of enslaved people in bondage.
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Apr 4, 2022 at 3:49
  • Agree that there is a lot of "reinterpretation of the facts" when looking at the uncomfortable truths of who owned people in the Founders' Who's Who . But several things could happen: #1 this compromise. #2 a war to outlaw slavery #3 the South gives up slavery. #2 and 3 are unlikely. #4 most likely a split into the USA and CSA slaving states. Would #4 really have been better? How long would slavery have persisted in a fully independent polity until the South discovered human decency? Look at Southern behavior from 1865 to 1960. Would other nations have fought for abolition? Commented Apr 4, 2022 at 17:03

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