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Fake Quotations: Franklin and Primitive Christianity

Posted by sbh on Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Did Benjamin Franklin say:

He who shall introduce into public affairs the principles of primitive Christianity will change the face of the world.

to his disciples in Paris?


This is a translation of a summary of views attributed to Franklin by a political opponent. It does not pretend to be a direct quotation.  Here’s the passage from a 1793 English translation:

Franklin often told his disciples in Paris, that whoever would introduce the principles of primitive Christianity, into the political state, would change the whole order of society. An absolute equality of condition; a community of goods; a Republic of the poor and of brethren; associations without a Government; enthusiasm for dogmas, and submission to chiefs to be elected from their equals,—this is the state to which the Presbyterian of Philadelphia reduced the Christian Religion.

The author of the passage is Jacques Mallet du Pan, royalist propagandist, journalist, and pamphleteer. Here is the same passage in the original French:

Francklin repéta plus d’une fois à ses éleves de Paris, que celui qui transporterait dans l’état politique les principes du christianismê primitif, changerait la face de la société. Egalité absolue des conditions, communauté des biens, République de pauvres et de frères, association sans Gouvernement, enthousiasme pour les dogmes et soumission à des chefs électifs, choisis entre des Pairs; voilà sans doute à quoi le presbytérien de Philadelphie réduisait la religion chrétienne…

Please note, neither in the original French nor in the English translation is this presented as a quotation of Franklin’s. It is rather a hostile paraphrase of his (alleged) views.  In 1866 historian Henri Martin, however, turned it (perhaps inadvertently) into a direct quotation:

La présence de Franklin à Paris, personnifiant la République sous une forme si respectable, exerça une grande influence morale. Nos philosophes, en discutant avec lui dans Paris la constitution américaine, se préparaient à discuter les lois futures de la Révolution française. Un publiciste royaliste, Mallet-Dupan, nous a conservé un grand mot que Franklin, dit-il, répéta plus d’une fois à ses élèves de Paris: “Celui qui transporterait dans l’état politique les principes du christianisme primitif changerait la face du monde.” [Henri Martin, Histoire de France depuis les temps les plus reculés jusqu’en 1789 (4th edition, 1862), volume 16, p. 489]

[The presence of Franklin at Paris, personifying the republic under a form so worthy of respect, exercised a great moral influence. Our philosophers, in discussing with him at Paris the American Constitution, prepared themselves to discuss the future laws of the French Revolution. A royalist publicist, Mallet-Dupan, has preserved for us a great saying, which Franklin, he says, repeated more than once to his pupils at Paris: “He who shall carry into politics the principles of primitive Christianity will change the face of the world.”] [Henri Martin, Martin’s history of France: The decline of the French monarchy.  Trans. Mary Louise Booth.  Boston: Walker, Fuller, and Co., 1866, vol. 2, p. 442]

Martin’s wording here is ambiguous; the quotation marks correctly show the material is quoted, but Martin’s words imply that he is quoting Franklin rather than Mallet du Pan.

The next stage in the transmission of this item comes when historian George Bancroft, in volume 3 of The American Revolution (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1866, volume 3, p. 492), observed of Franklin:

He remarked to those in Paris who learned of him the secret of statesmanship: “He who shall introduce into public affairs the principles of primitive Christianity will change the face of the world;”…

The translation is different. Bancroft doesn’t give any sources, but he certainly was aware of Henri Martin’s work. (The publisher of the English translation went so far as to note that “The eminent historian, Hon. George Bancroft, has generously volunteered his highly prized aid to the translator, and will enrich the edition by valuable annotations”, though no such annotations actually appeared.) The simplest explanation is that Bancroft got the quotation from Martin’s work directly and translated it himself. The wording is identical to that of the commonly-circulated version, making George Bancroft the most likely source for it. Certainly it is obvious that Samuel Arthur Bent had Bancroft in mind when he quoted Franklin as saying this in Short Sayings of Great Men (p. 227); the very next saying of Franklin he quotes likewise followed immediately in Bancroft. Of course such a collection of sayings is the ideal medium to allow a fake quotation to propagate.

As this is a paraphrase, and quite distant from the alleged source (third-hand at least), there is relatively little point in trying to go any further with it. Do equality of conditions, community of goods, or enthusiasm for dogmas sound like doctrines of Benjamin Franklin? This material really stands or falls with how these elements are evaluated. If these ideals are in fact those of Franklin, then perhaps Mallet du Pan’s paraphrase is accurate. Otherwise—and I’m definitely on the otherwise side myself—this sounds like the kind of misrepresentation often spread by a man’s opponents.  And Jacques Mallet du Pan was beyond doubt an opponent of Benjamin Franklin.

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