[originally posted 9 June 2009]
oday, I took it into my head, for whatever reason, to run down the source (if possible) of a fake Benjamin Franklin quotation: “He who shall introduce into the public affairs the principles of a primitive Christianity, will change the face of the world.” At least that was the first version of it that I found. A more usual form is “He who shall introduce into public affairs the principles of primitive Christianity will change the face of the world,” or “He who shall carry into politics the principles of primitive Christianity will change the face of the world.” In any case the Franklin doppelganger proposes to use the principles of primitive Christianity to change the face of the world somehow.
Now this time I started off with what proved to be a completely false hypothesis. While the words didn’t sound much like Benjamin Franklin, it crossed my mind that they might have come from Dr. Benjamin Rush. Perhaps the less familiar Benjamin had somehow become confused with his more famous contemporary.
I don’t usually write about the dead ends and wild goose chases I end up following in pursuit of one of these things, but this time it seemed like it might be interesting. At least it gives a picture of the irritating things that can send you off on a wrong direction in the search for information.
I quickly found the same quotation actually attributed to Dr. Benjamin Rush in a 1907 book by Rev. Wilbur F. Crafts, Ph.D., called Practical Christian Sociology. Well, that was promising—but the hypothesis failed quite quickly on the delivery front. If Rush had said it, I couldn’t find it.
My next approach was more fruitful. I went back to the Franklin hypothesis and tried to strike out on a new trail. One of the place I’ve seen the alleged quotation before is in the first volume of the Ante-Nicene Christian Fathers, page 552, towards the end of Irenaeus Against Heresies. The editor there gives his source as “Bancroft, Hist. U.S., vol. ix, p. 492.” And sure enough, there it is, in the 1866 edition of George Bancroft’s History on the United States, exactly as promised.
All right, that gets us a bit further back, but not nearly far enough. What next? In real life I took a break somewhere in here to see whether—armed with this new information—I could now find somebody in the vastness of the world wide web who had already run this quotation down to its lair. I had no more luck this time then on previous attempts, unless you define luck as the absence of success.
I next chanced upon a variation of the quotation in a footnote in an 1866 edition of Martin’s History of France, as translated by Mary Louise Booth, volume ii, page 442. Here’s what Henri Martin had to say:
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.”
Now I have to say that the name "Mallet-Dupan" meant nothing to me—less than nothing, actually. But good old Google came to my rescue here; a search on Mallet Dupan immediately brought up several items about Jacques Mallet du Pan, French royalist, journalist, and pamphleteer. A visit to the online Britannica Eleventh edition filled me in a bit on my quarry and I was off again.
The next step: a quick search of any available works by Jacques Mallet Du Pan. Even back when I still had my library I am quite positive that it didn’t include anything by this royalist propagandist, but fortunately several of his books have been posted online, either in the original French or in English translation. And in one of the latter, Considerations on the Nature of the French Revolution, I found the following passage:
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.
Now this is from a 1793 English translation of a French original, and the French original doesn’t seem to be posted anywhere online. (But the Web is huge, and my French is small, and I may have managed to miss it all.) There are several things worth noting here—
· This passage is not a quotation; it is somebody’s summary or paraphrase of something Franklin is alleged to have said.
· The saying is at least third-hand. As Mallet du Pan was not one of Franklin’s “disciples in Paris” it follows that he either has to have received the alleged statement from a disciple, or from somebody even further down the transmission chain.
· The material in question cannot be separated from the rest of the mishmash attributed to Franklin—the ranting about “absolute equality of condition; a community of goods” and so on. This stuff doesn’t sound like Franklin, and does sound like a hostile caricature of the movement he represented. Similar sorts of stuff turned up in the Anti-Jacobin.
· The passage is a translation.
In other words, this is not even as good as one of those quotations attributed to a man long dead by an anonymous gentleman in a letter written many decades after the alleged event. This is a translation of a paraphrase of something Franklin is supposed to have told somebody else as alleged by an opponent of his views.
Historical scholarship has adopted rules to keep the process honest. One of these is that you don’t put words into somebody else’s mouth. If you quote somebody as having said something, you need to be able to show exactly where and when he said it. (And by the way, this is not some new standard, as I saw David Barton claim in a video. It could be considered a “new” standard only if you think the bicycle and electricity are new-fangled inventions.) Sometimes it is appropriate to use material that comes from further afield. When a popular story about a historical figure is especially striking, and the views that figure allegedly expressed in it are congruent with his known speeches or writing, it may be appropriate to use it for color, with an appropriate caveat. If a particular author has left us nothing in her own words on a topic of interest in her day, what her family or friends or colleagues say she said about it may be our best source of information—though again, such data must be used with caution. But something like this, so far removed from Franklin himself, is really only suitable as evidence for what his opponents said about him. It can tell us nothing, by itself, about the man, or his beliefs.
So to sum up:
1. This passage was written by Jacques Mallet du Pan, not by Benjamin Franklin.
2. It is a hostile paraphrase of something other people allege that Franklin said.
3. It first appeared after Franklin had died and so was no longer in a position to dispute it.
4. This passage should not be cited as a Franklin quotation (which it is not) ever, and probably should not be used as a representation of his views—certainly not without additional support.
[For more information see “Fake Quotations: Franklin and Primitive Christianity” at Fake History.]