Schoolbooks like to make myths of men like Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin.
Franklin, in particular, can come off like a brainy Paul Bunyan: He secretly penned shrewd proverbs as Poor Richard, he flew a kite in a lightning storm to harness electricity, he signed the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson was the third president, responsible for the Lewis and Clark expedition and the Louisiana Purchase, not to mention the founder of the University of Virginia.
Two major exhibitions just blocks apart present the Founding Fathers in very different tenors, each attempting to paint a portrait more nuanced than the one taught in history class. While one show focuses on Thomas Jefferson’s conflicted stance toward slavery, the other looks at the rosy side of Benjamin Franklin’s legacy.
“Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World,” opening Friday at the National Archives, restores some humanity to the legend. For all of his scientific noodling, Franklin held the unglamorous profession of printer; he had a son, William, out of wedlock. And like his friend Jefferson, he owned slaves.
Yet the touring show, organized by the Minnesota Historical Society and featuring several original documents from the National Archives, glances over some of these details, perhaps so it can squeeze in a few more kid-friendly bells and whistles. (There are more than 40 hands-on “interactives.”)
Two scant walls, for example, explore the contradiction of Franklin as a slaveholder; in that regard, he gets off easier than Jefferson does down the street.
Franklin had at least four slaves: Peter, Jemima, King and George. Yet “In Search of a Better World” notes that Franklin turned a corner later in life: In a 1763 letter, he detailed observing black schoolchildren; finding their abilities just as strong as that of white students, he questioned his previous prejudices.
Franklin also occasionally printed abolitionist material for Quaker groups but was careful that his name not appear on the material — no small omission, considering that many of the print shop’s wares included in the exhibit bear his name in large type. In his newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, he also printed ads listing the purchases and losses of slaves.
In 1787, three years before his death at age 84, Franklin began serving as president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, and he wrote frequently in favor of abolishing slavery in his remaining years. Included in the exhibition is his 1790 petition to Congress to consider ending slavery to “promote mercy and justice toward this distressed Race.”
But for his own slaves he made provisions to free them only after his death. (He outlived them all.) And the matter of abolition, though on the minds of many in that day, also was not addressed in any of the founding documents — all of which Franklin signed with a memorable flourish.
Although Franklin is shown to be nothing less than a man of science and letters, the greatest success of “In Search of a Better World” is its spotlight on a statesman who frequently took a tempered approach to politics: Indecisive about independence initially and loyal to Britain, where he had lived for a long period as a representative of the colonies, he strained to hold together the British-colonial relationship.
Franklin, it seems, was a Founding Father who wasn’t much of a revolutionary. In fact, the exhibit suggests it may have been ego that ultimately swayed Franklin: In a nifty interactive, visitors can stand, as Franklin might have, and hear a reenactment of a tongue-lashing Franklin received in 1774 from British solicitor-general Lord Wedderburn, who accused him of treason. Franklin left Britain shortly afterward with a new outlook on independence.
Friday-May 6. Constitution Avenue and Ninth Street NW. 202-357-5000. www. archives.gov. Free.
The American History Museum’s show “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty” offers a text- and artifact-based look at an important if less sterling side of the third president than many are accustomed to. The exhibit, a collaboration between the National Museum of African American History and Culture (slated to open on the Mall in 2015) and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, scrutinizes Jefferson’s ambivalent views of slavery.
The show announces its intentions right away. After passing through the exhibit entrance, which is flanked by a painting of Jefferson on the right and the image of one of his slaves on the left, visitors are greeted by a statue of the Founding Father. But the usually stately display is dwarfed by the red wall behind it, which lists more than 600 names of those enslaved at Monticello during Jefferson’s lifetime. While he sporadically advocated for abolition, he remained a slaveholder until his death in 1826.
Jefferson was a dogged intellectual, constantly reading and writing on a path toward enlightenment. But the evidence of his lifelong education only further emphasizes his hypocrisy. He mulled over plans for emancipation, calling slavery an “abominable crime,” yet a newspaper ad shows that he also reported slaves missing when they escaped. He insisted that his servants not be subjected to violence, yet he wasn’t around enough to enforce this demand. While he fought for — and won — colonial liberty, his fight for abolition was more words than action.
Franklin was similarly ambivalent in the earlier years of his life, though the Archives exhibition focuses more on his later revelation.
Upon Jefferson’s death, only a handful of slaves were freed, including Sally Hemings, who many historians believe was the mother of four of Jefferson’s children. The remaining 130 were auctioned off to pay his extensive debts.
These exhibitions are not the first time that Franklin has come out on top. It was Jefferson who penned “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable, that all men are created equal . . .” in the Declaration of Independence, but it was Franklin who slashed through Jefferson’s adjectives to economize with the simpler and more iconic: “self-evident.”
Through Oct. 14. National Museum of American History, 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW. 202-633-1000. www.slaveryatmonticello.org. Free.