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Misquotes and memes: Did Ben Franklin really say that?

Date:
July 1, 2015
Source:
Baylor University
Summary:
As Independence Day approaches, social media is lighting up with memes and quotes from the nation’s Founding Fathers. But did George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin actually say these things for which they receive so much acclaim? A scholar can tell the truth about Ben.
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As Independence Day approaches, social media is lighting up with memes and quotes from the nation's Founding Fathers.

But did George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin actually say these things for which they receive so much acclaim?

While he can't always speak for George and Tom, Blaine McCormick, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of the management department in Baylor University's Hankamer School of Business, can speak for Benjamin Franklin. McCormick authored the book, "Ben Franklin: America's Original Entrepreneur," and speaks and writes often about the Founding Father whose face is featured on the $100 bill.

And since "honesty is the best policy" (yes, Franklin did write that), McCormick sets the record straight on a few notable sayings attributed to Franklin. Here is what's fact and what's fiction:

1. "A penny saved is a penny earned."

Did Ben Franklin say it? No.

"Franklin never actually said his most famous misattribution," McCormick said. "The actual quote from 1737 is 'A penny saved is two pence clear,' which is far more financially sophisticated. The misquote blends cost saving with revenue creation and stays completely on the income statement. The actual quote comes from the balance sheet."

2. "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy."

Did Ben Franklin say it? No.

"This is definitely the most popular misattribution placed onto a T-shirt. In fact, this misquote probably keeps the T-shirt industry in Philadelphia afloat each year," McCormick said.

Although Franklin never said this, he did say something remarkably close in 1779, when he wrote his French friend, Abbe Morellet, according to McCormick. In a scientific commentary about how water is changed into wine, Franklin remarked, "We hear of the conversion of water into wine at the marriage in Cana as of a miracle. But this conversion is, through the goodness of God, made every day before our eyes. Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards; there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy. The miracle in question was only performed to hasten the operation, under circumstances of present necessity, which required it."

"That's close," McCormick said, "but much harder to put onto a T-shirt."

3. "He that lives upon hope, dies farting."

Did Ben Franklin say it? Yes.

Franklin published this one in his 1736 Poor Richard's Almanack at the peak of his efforts to promote industrious living, McCormick said. Franklin urged a reliance on hard work rather than luck or hope with such maxims as "God helps them that help themselves" and "He that waits upon Fortune, is never sure of a dinner."

"Dinner was the main, mid-day meal in Colonial America and work assured a full belly more than luck, in Franklin's view. Thus, a person who lived only on hope -- of either the generosity of others or spontaneously generating food -- would only have air in his or her digestive system," McCormick said. "In fact, Franklin hinted that this attitude was fatal and those that held it died with only air in their bellies. In 1758, Franklin republished the quip as 'He that lives upon hope, dies fasting' but both tell the same story. In sum, however, this is an actual Franklin quote."

4. "Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn."

Did Ben Franklin say it? No.

"This one doesn't even sound Colonial, does it? Nor does, 'The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself' or 'By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail,' yet all three regularly show up online when people collect Franklin quotes," McCormick said.

To verify the authenticity of any Franklin quote, McCormick said the essential first step is to search on key phrases at the Franklin papers online (www.franklinpapers.org).

"This site has a wonderful search engine that cuts through fake Franklin quotes like a hot knife through butter. You will find that 'Honesty is the best policy' comes from a 1779 letter from Franklin to Edward Bridgen but that 'Some people die at 25 and aren't buried until 75' fails to produce results -- primarily because the average Colonial citizen died in their 30's. A Colonial quote about people regularly living until 75 would have been a fantastic world indeed. Franklin, however, lived to the ripe old age of 84. Definitely above average."


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Materials provided by Baylor University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.


Cite This Page:

Baylor University. "Misquotes and memes: Did Ben Franklin really say that?." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 1 July 2015. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/07/150701152634.htm>.
Baylor University. (2015, July 1). Misquotes and memes: Did Ben Franklin really say that?. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 27, 2017 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/07/150701152634.htm
Baylor University. "Misquotes and memes: Did Ben Franklin really say that?." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/07/150701152634.htm (accessed May 27, 2017).

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