Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Another Fake Quote Tracked Down

SBH has tracked down yet another fake quote from a founding father, this time from Ben Franklin. I’m sure you’ve heard this one a time or two:

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

And it turns out, unsurprisingly, that the quote was a paraphrase that has transformed magically into a quote over two centuries of repeating without proper attribution.

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.

He then traces the history of the statement. It was apparently first turned in to a direct Franklin quote by Henri Martin in 1866. sbh concludes:

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.

Sounds reasonable to me.