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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 At the time the sketch appeared (1790) Franklin’s autobiography was still unpublished, but Stuber had access to part of it, in an unrevised form, and partially based his sketch on it.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.)


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Benjamin Franklin, Lighthouses, and Churches

Posted by sbh on Monday, 23 August 2010

Did Benjamin Franklin write

Lighthouses are more useful than churches

in Poor Richard’s Almanack, as claimed in the 1997 book Texas iconoclast, Maury Maverick Jr. (pp.110-111)?


This (pseudo-)quotation has been circulating since at least 1997, and possibly since the 1960s or 1970s, but it is not found in Franklin’s works. Sometimes it is given as “Lighthouses are more helpful than churches” or “A lighthouse is more useful than a church,” but no form is authentic.

This is probably intended as a summary of something Franklin is said to have written to his wife on 17 July 1757 after a narrow escape from shipwreck off the English coast. This letter appears to have been lost, but an excerpt appears in a footnote on p. 133 of the 1818 edition of Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Benjamin Franklin:

The bell ringing for church, we went thither immediately, and with hearts full of gratitude, returned sincere thanks to God for the mercies we had received: were I a Roman Catholic, perhaps I should on this occasion vow to build a chapel to some saint, but as I am not, if I were to vow at all, it should be to build a light-house.

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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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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.


Freedom is a Gift Bestowed by God (sbh)

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