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How Ben Franklin Was Turned Into an Antisemite

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Shai Afsai discusses how the American Founding Father has been used to spread hate.

The myth that American founding father Benjamin Franklin (January 17, 1706 – April 17, 1790) was antisemitic first emerged 87 years ago – 144 years after his passing – with the publication of a fraudulent and since then repeatedly discredited text commonly known as the ‘Franklin Prophecy’.

William Dudley Pelley and members of the Silver Legion of America. Pelley was a vocal anti-Semite who proposed to round up Jews and place them on reservations. He was imprisoned during WWII for treason. Photo: Crosscut

On 3 February 1934, William Dudley Pelley, the occultist head of the pro-Nazi Silver Legion of America and publisher of the fascist Liberation, ran an article in his newspaper titled ‘Did Benjamin Franklin say this about the Hebrews?’ The article contained a supposed excerpt from the previously unknown diary of Charles Coatesworth Pinckney, South Carolina’s delegate to the Constitutional Convention.

As presented by Pelley, ‘Charles Pinckney’s Diary’ contained the record of a diatribe (or ‘prophecy’) against Jews during the Convention, with Franklin describing them as ‘a great danger for the United States of America’ and as ‘vampires’ and calling for the Constitution to bar and expel them from the country, lest in the future they adversely change its form of government.

By August 1934 Pelley’s ‘Franklin Prophecy’ was already being republished in Nazi Germany. Nazi leaders and sympathizers helped disseminate the fraud in German, French, and English, and in Germany, Switzerland, and the United States.

In September 1934, the ‘Franklin Prophecy’ reached American historian Charles A. Beard, best known for his 1913 work An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. Beard began searching for an original source for the ‘Franklin Prophecy,’ in the process consulting with other scholars such as John Franklin Jameson, who was chief of the Library of Congress Manuscript Division.

Six months later, in March of 1935, Beard’s conclusions were published in The Jewish Frontier, which then reprinted his essay as a pamphlet titled Charles Beard Exposes Anti-Semitic Forgery about Benjamin Franklin. Summing up the results of his investigations, Beard wrote:

All these searches have produced negative results. I cannot find a single original source that gives the slightest justification for believing that the ‘Prophecy’ is anything more than a bare-faced forgery. Not a word have I discovered in Franklin’s letters and papers expressing any such sentiments against the Jews as ascribed to him by the Nazis—American and German. His well-known liberality in matters of religious opinions would, in fact, have precluded the kind of utterances put in his mouth by this palpable forgery.

Games Slayter, Vice president in Charge of Research of Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corporation, Toledo and newark, Ohio, is shown above (at right) receiving an Edward longstreth medal from Dr. Henry B. Allen, secretary and director of The Franklin Institute by transforming glass into thread-like fibers with countless important uses in the home and industry, received the Medal on May 15th during the annual Medal Day exercises of the Franklin Institute. The Medal I given, “in recognition of meritorious work in science and in the industrial arts.”

Henry Butler Allen, director of the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, also weighed in on the fanciful ‘Charles Pinckney’s Diary’, stating: ‘Historians and librarians have not been able to find it or any record of it having existed.’ The responses of Beard, Allen, and several other scholars were collected into the pamphlet Benjamin Franklin Vindicated: An Exposure of the Franklin ‘Prophecy’ by American Scholars, issued jointly in 1938 by the International Benjamin Franklin Society, the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, and the Jewish Labor Committee.

A more recent discussion of the emergence and debunking of the ‘Franklin Prophecy’ is found in Nian-Sheng Huang’s Benjamin Franklin in American Thought and Culture, 1790-1990, published in 1994 by the American Philosophical Society. Huang shows the ‘Franklin Prophecy’ to be an extreme case of exploiting, vulgarizing, and distorting Franklin’s image. The ease with which the ‘prophecy’ has spread and its staying power among antisemites and anti-Zionists demonstrate how successful bigots worldwide have been in misappropriating the American founding father’s good name and fame for their abhorrent purposes.

“WE MUST ALL HANG TOGETHER…” poster for Office of War Information, between 1941 and 1945. 

During his life, Franklin saw a positive societal role for faith and public worship and generally advocated religious tolerance and inclusivity. In his posthumously-published autobiography, he professed a life-long interest in projects ‘serviceable to People in all Religions’. Despite his famous liberality in matters of religious opinions, on a few occasions, he did use offensive language about Jews in his private correspondence, though this language does not come close to the antisemitic vitriol he is purported to have publicly uttered in the ‘Prophecy’. Franklin, who also owned slaves and featured slaves for sale in his newspaper before becoming an abolitionist, was not at all times free of prejudice.

In much of today’s popular culture, there often seems to be room only for saints or villains. Franklin was neither. He was a complex person whose ideas and actions evolved as he matured, as he confronted new situations, and as he grew older. One example of this seems especially relevant during the present pandemic: initially sceptical of smallpox inoculation, Franklin was an ‘anti-vaxxer’, in the current parlance. After his four-year-old son, whom he had not inoculated, died of small the disease in 1736, Franklin reversed his position and encouraged other parents to inoculate their children.

Woodcut illustration of the interior of Kehillah Kadosh Mikveh Israel at the dedication of the new building on Cherry Street in 1825

Later in life, Franklin became an anti-slavery activist, and he accepted the ceremonial presidency of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society in 1787. In 1788, after synagogue construction and difficult economic conditions plunged Philadelphia’s Congregation Mikveh Israel into debt, its members turned to their neighbours — ‘worthy fellow Citizens of every religious Denomination’ — for assistance. Franklin, who had never been hostile to Jews, led by example in the city and donated five pounds to help ensure the continued presence of Philadelphia’s oldest formal Jewish congregation.

As was fitting for a man who tried hard to be ‘serviceable to People in all Religions’, when Franklin passed away two years later, the press was able to report that his funeral procession in Philadelphia was led by ‘All the Clergy of the city, including the Ministers of the Hebrew congregation’.

Remarkably, Franklin eventually influenced Jewish thought and practice. This occurred primarily through his autobiography, which reached the prominent maskil (a proponent of the Jewish Enlightenment) Rabbi Menahem Mendel Lefin in Europe. In 1808, Lefin published Sefer Heshbon Ha-nefesh (Book of Spiritual Accounting), which introduced Franklin’s method for character-improvement to Hebrew-reading Jewish audiences. The text, with its Franklin-based method, became accepted and valued among mussar (applied Jewish ethics, or practical Jewish ethical instruction) practitioners, made its way into yeshivot and is still studied today.

But the ‘Franklin Prophecy’ shows no signs of going away. It’s too useful for those who want to use it to hate.

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Shai Afsai’s articles and poems have appeared in Anthropology Today, Journal of the American Revolution, Poetica Magazine, Reform Jewish Quarterly, Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, and Tablet Magazine.
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