Fake History

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Franklin and God’s Gift

Posted by sbh on Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Did Benjamin Franklin write

Freedom is not a gift bestowed upon us by other men but a right that belongs to us by the laws of God.

in his Maxims and Morals in 1789?

No.  Not in the least.

First of all, Maxims and Morals of Benjamin Franklin is a 1927 book by one William S. Pfaff (not a 1789 book by Benjamin Franklin). Not having seen a copy yet, I can’t say whether this quotation actually appears there or not, but it isn’t relevant. What we have here is a slight misquotation from an essay by John Webbe, a publisher contemporary with Benjamin Franklin, that originally appeared in Franklin’s paper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, on 1 April 1736. It probably became attributed to Franklin through confusion of author and publisher.  The original quotation ran:

Thank God! we are in the full enjoyment of all these privileges. But can we be taught to prize them too much? or how can we prize them equal to their value, if we do not know their intrinsic worth, and that they are not a gift bestowed upon us by other men, but a right that belongs to us by the laws of God and nature?

(There is no clear antecedent in the text for “these privileges,” but the privileges enjoyed under the constitution of Great Britain are clearly meant—in effect, the privileges of a representative government where the powers are held by the people, rather than by an aristocracy.)

Webbe’s essay was anonymous, though the paper later named him as author. Perhaps overlooking this, William Duane included it in his 1834 Memoirs of Benjamin Franklin (vol. 2, pp. 439-440), as did Jared Sparks in his 1882 Works of Benjamin Franklin (vol. 2, pp. 278-282). Sparks, however, included the following note with his essay:

What proof there is, that the two essays on Government were written by Franklin, except that they appeared in his Gazette, I have no means of determining. The internal evidence does not appear very strong. They are included in Duane’s edition. — Editor.

And by 1905, when Albert Henry Smyth’s The Writings of Benjamin Franklin started emerging from the press, the confusion had been cleared up.  Smyth wrote the following in the first volume (pp. 171-172):

“The Essays on Government” which were published by Sparks and Bigelow, are acknowledged in a later issue of the Gazette to have been written by John Webbe.

So the basic facts are: this is (1) a slight misquotation from (2) a 1736 essay (3) written not by Benjamin Franklin, but by John Webbe. There is nothing wrong with citing it correctly if attributing it to John Webbe; as a Benjamin Franklin quotation it is totally bogus.

Links

Freedom is a Gift Bestowed by God (sbh)

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