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Franklin and the Well-Informed Nation

Posted by sbh on Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Did Benjamin Franklin write

A nation of well informed men who have been taught to know the price of the rights which God has given them, cannot be enslaved

as claimed by the Forerunner website here?

No. There are actually three things wrong with this alleged quotation: first, it’s been taken out of context; second, the part that has been quoted has been carelessly altered, and third, it was written by Dr. Henry Stueber, not by Benjamin Franklin.

First, here’s the actual quotation, in context. Dr. Henry Stuber wrote, in consideration of the importance of public libraries:

Libraries were established in various places, and they are now become very numerous in the United States, and particularly in Pennsylvania. It is to be hoped that they will be still more widely extended, and that information will be every where increased. This will be the best security for maintaining our liberties. A nation of well-informed men, who have been taught to know and prize the rights which God has given them, cannot be enslaved. It is in the regions of ignorance that tyranny reigns. It flies before the light of science. Let the citizens of America, then, encourage institutions calculated to diffuse knowledge amongst the people; and amongst these, public libraries are not the least important.

Second, this quotation does in fact have a connection to Benjamin Franklin; it occurs as part of a biographical sketch Dr. Stuber wrote about him. At the time the sketch appeared (1790) Franklin’s autobiography was still unpublished, but Stuber had access to part of it, in an unrevised form, and partially based his sketch on it. In the concluding part of this section of the autobiography Franklin wrote about his difficulties in establishing a subscription library in Philadelphia:

And now I set on foot my first project of a public nature, that for a subscription library. I drew up the proposals, got them put into form by our great scrivener, Brockden, and, by the help of my friends in the Junto, procured fifty subscribers of forty shillings each to begin with, and ten shillings a year for fifty years, the term our company was to continue. We afterwards obtain’d a charter, the company being increased to one hundred: this was the mother of all the North American subscription libraries, now so numerous. It is become a great thing itself, and continually increasing. These libraries have improved the general conversation of the Americans, made the common tradesmen and farmers as intelligent as most gentlemen from other countries, and perhaps have contributed in some degree to the stand so generally made throughout the colonies in defence of their privileges.

When Franklin resumed work on his autobiography he gave a longer account:

… I propos’d to render the benefit from books more common, by commencing a public subscription library. I drew a sketch of the plan and rules that would be necessary, and got a skilful conveyancer, Mr. Charles Brockden, to put the whole in form of articles of agreement to be subscribed, by which each subscriber engag’d to pay a certain sum down for the first purchase of books, and an annual contribution for increasing them. So few were the readers at that time in Philadelphia, and the majority of us so poor, that I was not able, with great industry, to find more than fifty persons, mostly young tradesmen, willing to pay down for this purpose forty shillings each, and ten shillings per annum. On this little fund we began. The books were imported; the library was opened one day in the week for lending to the subscribers, on their promissory notes to pay double the value if not duly returned. The institution soon manifested its utility, was imitated by other towns, and in other provinces. The libraries were augmented by donations; reading became fashionable; and our people, having no publick amusements to divert their attention from study, became better acquainted with books, and in a few years were observ’d by strangers to be better instructed and more intelligent than people of the same rank generally are in other countries.

Dr. Stuber’s account looks like this:

The promotion of literature had been little attended to in Pensylvania. Most of the inhabitants were too much immersed in business to think of scientific pursuits; and those few, whose inclinations led them to study, found it difficult to gratify them, from the want of sufficiently large libraries. In such circumstances, the establishment of a public library was an important event. This was first set on foot by Franklin, about the year 1731. Fifty persons subscribed forty shillings each, and agreed to pay ten shillings annually. The number encreased; and in 1742, the company was incorporated by the name of “The Library Company of Philadelphia.”

Note the independence of Stuber’s account from Franklin’s—either the first, which he had seen, or the second, which he hadn’t. Further, while Franklin either breaks off (in the first account) or soon after goes on to discuss other matters (in the second), Stuber continues to discuss the library project, describing its present holdings, contributions by notable donors, and finally its influence. It is from this last section that the quoted sentence comes. None of this material has any counterpart in Franklin’s autobiography. To put it starkly, this line was not even suggested by something Franklin wrote; it is entirely Stuber’s own.

Although Franklin’s autobiography is a classic, for many years it was available only in a corrupt and unreliable form. Its four parts were written at widely separated times in Franklin’s life, and their publication was irregular. The first publication (of the first part only in 1791) was actually in a French translation, and the earliest English versions were not Franklin’s directly, but rather were retranslated from the French. Two of them appeared in 1793. As Franklin’s account (as then available) broke off so early, both editions provided a biography that told the rest of the story of his life, and in one of these editions (Works of the Late Doctor Benjamin Franklin, London) that biography was Stuber’s essay reprinted from the point where Franklin’s account broke off.

Although Franklin’s grandson printed a fuller version of the autobiography in 1818 (with, however, many editorial alterations and omissions), and a more accurate and complete version appeared in 1868, editions of the version with Stuber’s essay continued to appear for many years. It seems not unlikely that a careless researcher at some point, stumbling onto one of these, mistakenly quoted this passage from Stuber’s biography as a passage from Franklin’s autobiography, and so the incorrect attribution was born. But the words and the underlying concept are both Stuber’s, not Franklin’s, and they should be correctly attributed.

Editions of the Autobiography with Dr. Stuber’s Essay

Works of the Late Dr. Benjamin Franklin (London, 1793)

The Works of Dr. Benjamin Franklin with his Life (London, 1824)

The Autobiography and Essays of Dr. Benjamin Franklin (Philadelphia, 1864)

Other Significant Editions of the Autobiography Online

Mémoires de la Vie Privée de Benjamin Franklin (Paris, 1791)

The Private Life of the Late Benjamin Franklin (London, 1793)

Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Benjamin Franklin (William Temple Franklin edition, London, 1818)

Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin Edited from His Manuscript (Bigelow edition, London, 1868)


From Memoirs to Autobiography (The Library Company of Philadelphia)

Publishing the First Complete “Autobiography”: Paris, 1828 (The Library Company of Philadelphia)

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (Wikipedia article)

Fake Quotation Sources

America: Secular State or Christian Nation? (Forerunner Editorial Staff) [Note: this page is remarkable for the large number of fake quotations contained in a single short piece—the Patrick Henry “religionists” mistake, the George Washington “without God and the Bible” fabrication, the James Madison “ten commandments” invention, the John Quincy Adams “indissoluble bond” misattribution, along with many others. Even the historical notes are almost uniformly wrong.]

The False Separation of Church and State (Dennis Peacocke)

Christian? The ACLU Hates You (Right On!)

Benjamin Franklin – Know the Rights God Gave Us (First Amendment Religion Clauses; this author gives as his source Walker P. Whitman, A Christian History of the American Republic: A Textbook for Secondary Schools, [Boston: Green Leaf Press, 1939, 1948], 97.)

3 Responses to “Franklin and the Well-Informed Nation”

  1. rfh said

    Wow! A really fine explication, great rundown on the background of the falsely attributed quotation. Fun to read! rfh

  2. is there a good free french translation tool on the internet ?’,,

  3. Amy Morris said

    ::’ I am very thankful to this topic because it really gives useful information ,~”

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