Opinion

Ignore the neo-Nazis. Benjamin Franklin Was No anti-Semite

For 80 years anti-Semites worldwide have celebrated a bare-faced forgery, 'Franklin's Prophecy,' as proof the founding father saw Jews as 'vampires' and 'a great danger for the United States.'

A portrait of Benjamin Franklin by Mason Chamberlin the Elder.
Wikimedia Commons

The notion that Benjamin Franklin (January 17, 1706 - April 17, 1790) was anti-Semitic first emerged some eighty years ago, in 1934, with the publication of a fraudulent and since then repeatedly discredited text commonly known as “Franklin’s Prophecy.” 

On February 3, 1934 William Dudley Pelley, the occultist head of the pro-Nazi Silver Legion of America and publisher of the fascist The Weekly Liberation, ran an article in his paper (“Did Benjamin Franklin say this about the Hebrews?”) containing 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”) by Franklin against Jews during the Convention, including a description of Jews as “a great danger for the United States of America” and as “vampires,” as well as an admonition to have the Constitution bar and expel them from the country lest in the future they change its form of government. 

By August 1934 “Franklin’s Prophecy” had been published in Nazi Germany. Nazi leaders and sympathizers helped disseminate the fraud in German, French and English, and in Germany, Switzerland and the United States. 

“Franklin’s Prophecy” reached American historian Charles A. Beard, best known for his 1913 "An Economic Interpretation of the US Constitution," in September 1934. Beard began a search for the source of “Franklin’s Prophecy,” in the process consulting with other scholars such as John Franklin Jameson, chief of the Manuscripts Divisions of the Library of Congress. 

Beard’s conclusions were published six months later, in March 1935. 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.” 

Henry Butler Allen, director of the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, also weighed in on the imaginariness of “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 others were collected into the pamphlet Benjamin Franklin Vindicated: An Exposure of the Franklin “Prophecy” by American Scholars, in 1938. 

A more recent discussion of the emergence and debunking of “Franklin’s Prophecy” is found in Nian-Sheng Huang’s Benjamin Franklin in American Thought and Culture, 1790-1990 (American Philosophical Society, 1994). Huang shows “Franklin’s 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 (just do an internet search for “Benjamin Franklin and Jews”) demonstrate how successful bigots world-wide have been in misappropriating the American founding father’s good name and fame for their nefarious purposes. 

However, despite his famous liberality in matters of religious opinions, Franklin actually did on several occasions use anti-Jewish language in his letters, though this language does not come near the vitriol he is purported to have publicly uttered in the “Prophecy.” Franklin, who also owned slaves and featured slaves for sale in his newspaper prior to becoming an abolitionist, was not always a man free of prejudice. 

Nonetheless, Franklin did eventually become an anti-slavery activist. In 1788, he also contributed money to Congregation Mikveh Israel, the oldest formal Jewish congregation in Philadelphia. This occurred during a time when the small congregation was overburdened with debt incurred from constructing its synagogue and had turned to its neighbors, “worthy fellow Citizens of every religious Denomination,” for assistance.

Among those stepping forward to help was Franklin, who donated five pounds to Congregation Mikveh Israel — a move very much in line with his attitude toward religion. It is not surprising that Franklin, who saw a positive societal role for faith and worship, and professed an interest in projects “serviceable to People in all Religions,” would assist in alleviating the synagogue’s debt and ensuring a Jewish presence in Philadelphia. 

It is also fitting that when Franklin passed way at age 84, his funeral procession in Philadelphia (as reported in the New Jersey's The Brunswick Gazette) was led by “All the Clergy of the city, including the Minsters of the Hebrew congregation.” 

Shai Afsai lives in Rhode Island. Afsai’s “Benjamin Franklin and Judaism” appears in the November 2016 issue of the Journal of the American Revolution.