Ellen Cohn watched the April 4 premiere of “Benjamin Franklin,” a new documentary from filmmaker Ken Burns about the 18-year-old’s consecutive life.andAmerican polymath of the last century, with his family and a bowl of popcorn.
But his involvement in the project dates back several years. Cohn is editor of The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, a Yale project that publishes the definitive edition of Franklin’s writings and correspondence. In this role, she consulted with the film’s producers and appears in the two-part, four-hour documentary with other Franklin experts, offering insights and commentary on aspects of the Founding Father’s life and career.
“Of course I cringe seeing myself on TV,” Cohn said. “But it’s fascinating to see the end product. I’m impressed with the medium – the storytelling power of the film – and that millions of people will learn something about Franklin that they didn’t know before.
The documentary also demonstrates the broad reach of Yale’s Franklin Project, which to date has published 43 annotated volumes of its papers through Yale University Press. A 44and volume, covering the final months of Franklin’s diplomatic mission to France, was recently submitted for publication. In all, 47 volumes are planned. The collection is an unrivaled and essential resource for Franklin scholars.
“I see the documentary as an expression of the success of our Definitive Edition,” Cohn said. “Our volumes are the foundation for all who write about Franklin in any field: literature, science, diplomacy, history, political science, etc., and Franklin has participated in them. Every biographer, every scholar writing an article, the consults, as did the producers of the new documentary and all the historians interviewed for the film.The influence of our volumes permeates the film.
It’s easy to see why Yale offers an indispensable resource for Franklin scholars. The Yale University Library houses the world’s largest collection of materials on the great statesman, diplomat, scientist, printer, and writer. This assemblage was collected during the first decades of the 20and century by Yale graduate William Smith Mason, who kept it at his home in Evanston, Illinois. Yale acquired the entire collection in 1935. It comprises approximately 15,000 volumes, from rare books and pamphlets to 18th-century newspapers and periodicals from America, England and France, as well as an array of manuscripts and original maps, prints, busts, oil paintings and other works of art.
In 1954, the university partnered with the American Philosophical Society to create a comprehensive edition of Franklin’s papers containing everything he wrote and all the letters he received from others. Before publishing the first volume, the project’s editors spent five years finding and copying all of Franklin’s papers, which were scattered around the world. Eventually they amassed over 30,000 articles, all known papers written by or for Franklin that are known to exist. All are accessible online.
Each volume includes introductory essays and scholarly footnotes providing context on the materials presented. Completing a volume requires significant scientific research: the handwriting must be deciphered, the correspondents and the subject must be identified and put into context, the dates must be determined for the many undated letters, etc.
“Generations of editors worked on this material, much of which had never been reviewed,” Cohn said. “With each volume, we discovered amazing new details and often corrected the history file. During his mission in France during the American Revolution, who occupied my whole career at Yale, Franklin did more to help the war effort and to launch this country that we had never known.
David Schmidt, who co-produced the documentary with Burns, first contacted Cohn about four years ago. During work on the film, its producers consulted with Cohn, peppering her with questions about specific aspects of Franklin’s life.
“I kept in mind that it was their project, not mine,” she said. “I told them that I would help them in any way I could and that I was very interested in what they would do with Franklin’s life because it is so rich and contains so many facets that no film could. tell it all.”
Cohn answered questions from the filmmakers, checked out their draft script, and made suggestions on what visual mediums from the collection they might consider using.
“I realized that making a documentary about an 18andThe figure of the century is particularly difficult because you need visuals, but there were no photographs at the time,” she said. “It makes it difficult to keep things visually interesting.”
She visited Burns’ home in Walpole, New Hampshire, where she spent half a day being interviewed on camera in a barn on the property that has been converted into a studio. During the pandemic, she viewed a rough cut of the film and participated in a day-long Zoom session in which historians and consultants who helped with the project offered the filmmakers reviews and suggestions.
“Everything was broadcast and discussed,” she said.
She turned down the opportunity to watch a final version of the documentary, preferring to watch when it aired. She happened to be visiting family outside of Seattle when the movie premiered, and they watched the first episode together. It was their first visit together since the pandemic, she said.
When asked, Cohn can rattle off a long list of reasons why Franklin — the inventor of the lightning rod, editor of the Declaration of Independence, founder of the nation’s first public library — remains relevant to 21staudience of the -century.
“He was probably a genius,” she said. “A lot of people use that word, and I don’t think it’s incorrect. Growing up in a family with little money, he was almost entirely self-taught. He had an insatiable curiosity about the world around him and developed an exceptional understanding of human nature. Combine that with intense ambition and a desire to better the world, and you have a man who has become one of the most influential figures in 18and century. He was one of the best writers and one of the most revered scientists, especially for his work on electricity. He was an extraordinary diplomat. And it goes on and on and on.
“His sense of personal responsibility was extraordinary. He believed that the highest calling of a human being was to do good in the world. He had high ideals and, despite some setbacks, always tried to stick to them,” she said.
“Benjamin Franklin” premiered April 4-5 on PBS. It is available to watch online.