preservation and persistence of the changing book

Franklin Quoted by Minsky

3.30.04 (Richard Minsky has kindly given FotB permission to mentioned his research on a famous dictum attributed to Benjamin Franklin. The text of his email follows.)

<My current rant is on the lack of rigorous academic discipline in the current generation of students. They get an assignment and google it. The crap they look at is worse than meaningless. It’s dangerous. Someone posts wrong info online and 20,000 people copy it to other sites. Then it becomes accepted wisdom.

Here’s an example from my current Work. When researching material for my edition, The Bill of Rights, I kept coming across this quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin:

They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.

You can see it online at http://www.ushistory.org/franklin/quotable/quote04.htm and it is used by libertarians, neo-Nazis, conservatives, liberals, and every imaginable mainstream and fringe group.

A google search on “They that can give up essential liberty” just gave me 43,900 results. Two years ago it gave me 20,000. The language did not sound to me at all like Franklin (one of my favorite old timers). Franklin never would have said “They that can.” I found an attribution of the quote on several of the sites: An Historical Review of the Constitution and Government of Pennsylvania.

I had to spend $1,000.00 to get a copy of the First Edition, which was published anonymously in London, 1759. The quote is on the title page. It is excerpted from a letter from the Assembly to the Governor of Pennsylvania in 1755. The book was produced as propaganda when Franklin was in London petitioning the King to get the heirs of Wm Penn to give the colonists money to buy guns for the Indians so they could defend them against the Indians that the French were arming.

I then bought a copy of the next issue of the book, Philadelphia 1812, which is attributed “by Benjamin Franklin, LL.D.” on the title page. I compared the paper and the type of the text to the 1759 edition, and it is identical. That is, it was printed on the same paper from the same type – all the “defects” are the same. So the edition attributed to Franklin after his death is actually the same edition printed in 1759, with a new title page (which is different paper and typography). Some research reveals that Franklin shipped 500 copies to Philadelphia on July 12th 1759, 50 for the assembly and the rest to be sold there, but they were held until 22 years after Franklin’s death, then issued with a new title page. You can see why people attribute the quote to him.

I also purchased the 10 volume Collected Works of Franklin edited by Jared Sparks, published in 1840. In volume VII there is a letter that Franklin wrote to his friend David Hume 27 September, 1760, in which he says, in response to Hume’s praise of the Historical Review, that it was “not written by me, nor any part of it,” except for one small section and some of the text attributed to the Assembly when he was serving there. Sparks adds a page long footnote detailing who supported the contention that Franklin was the author, and concludes that it was published under Franklin’s direction and with his approval. In his autobiography, Franklin says that he was the publisher. It is now believed that Richard Jackson was the author, with Franklin doing some tweaking.

But what about the bad grammar of the quote? What you see on all those websites is a MISQUOTE. For The Bill of RIghts edition I made a 40″ wide print of the quote as it appears on the title page, from a scan of the original:

It’s not They that can , it’s Those who would . And who changed purchase into obtain?

Franklin may well have composed this particular quote. The actual version, as opposed to the one presented at 44,000 websites, does have the ring of his style. A little more more research as to who was present at the Assembly November 11, 1755, the minutes of the meeting, and a copy of the original letter, should resolve that detail.

Whether or not Franklin was the author, the version on thousands of websites misquotes it and makes Franklin sound illiterate.

The issue is compounded by how I made the print. An astute typographer would notice that Franklin, a master printer, would never have allowed such an unbalanced composition, with the widow on the last line. And in reality he did not. I edited the scan in photoshop. In the original, opposite the word SAFETY. flushed to the right, it has “Page 289″. So the quote had two “feet” on the bottom. I just didn’t want the page number on my print, so I copied the laid lines from another part of the page and lined them up to match, overlaying and obscuring the page number.

You can’t trust digital images of historical artifacts. They can easily be altered, even to fool the eyes of those who look for obscure clues like the laid lines in the paper.

My current Work includes the print and all the above books, and is titled On The Value of Original Source Material.



I found the reply I made last month to a query:

Date: Fri, 08 Sep 2006 05:58:58 -0400
To: (Doug Williams)
From: Richard Minsky
Subject: Re: Quote context

Richard Minsky,
From everything I have gathered, your’s seems to be the most comprehensive and accurate research into the origins of this quote. I am interested in this quote’s context. Your mention of the basic purpose of the letter in which the quote is found is informative, but I do not understand how the quote actually relates to the letter’s contents.
Can you enlighten me?
–Doug Williams

Dear Doug,

I assume you mean the “Essential Liberty” quote attributed to Franklin, which I wrote about a few years ago. You pose a good question. The quote appears at least three times in the book–on the title page, in the letter to the Governor, and restated as a philosophical position.

In the letter it’s in the context of the colonists who did not support the Assembly’s position on inhabitants of the frontier, families living two or three miles apart, who were subject to “Attacks of small Parties of skulking Murderers.” Reading it today one might call it terrorist attacks.

There are some specifics given in the letter, comparing those colonists who do not try to defend themselves, those who try to make friends with the Indians by trading with them, and those who want weapons in order to defend themselves. It gets complicated, because there are issues of who exactly would do the defending. Keeping in mind the function of the letter as a political solicitation and the book in its entirety as propaganda, I don’t rely on it as a historical account, though the title suggests that. Some reading between the lines is necessary.

You also have to read the accounts that precede the letter. The Governor blamed the Assembly for not giving him the powers to establish a Militia to defend the colony. That caused some colonists to demonize the Assembly. The Assembly apparently didn’t have the funds to arm a Militia, or to trade with the Indians, and wanted Penn’s heirs (in England) to ante up, since they were the beneficiaries of income from the colony. Meanwhile the Governor said that the French had armed the Delaware and Shawanese “under the Pretense of restoring them to their Country.” So there was propaganda on that side of the story too. He also said that they had intelligence that “The Enemy had fallen upon settlements at a place called the Great Cove, and slaughtered or made Prisoners” of the inhabitants. The Assembly immediately passed a grant of Sixty Thousand Pounds to be struck in Bills of Credit and paid for by taxes on all the Estates (real and personal) in the Province for four years. The Governor rejected the bill and wouldn’t sign it, saying he did not have the authority to tax the Proprietaries (i.e., the Penn family).

We have to keep in mind that the Indians who were said to be marauding had been displaced by the colonists Franklin was lobbying for. Plenty of modern parallels with that as well. The Governor then said that the Susquehanna Indians wanted guns to defend themselves with, and the colonists should immediately give them what they wanted or they would join with the French, not being able to defend themselves against a superior force.

There were all sorts of petitions coming in from the colonists to the Assembly–a page details them–including those who wanted the Assembly to stop petitioning the governor for money for armaments. There also were questions about whether the Governor’s reports about the Indian invasion were exaggerated or false, and there are several pages about the treaty with Six Nations who were fighting for the English. The book suggests that the Governor was using the Indian terror scare to get the colonists alienated from the Assembly.

The Governor represented English authority, the Assembly represented the colonists. A lot of the “quote” is innuendo and implied meaning and is subject to interpretation. My take on it is that “Those who would ” refers to the colonists who believed the Governor and would protect them and that more powers should be given to the Governor, and thereby to the English authority, rather than retained by the Assembly.

After quoting the letter, the text of the book reads:
There is not in any Volume, the sacred Writings excepted, a Passage to be found worth the Veneration of Freemen, than this, ‘ Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety;” nor could a Lesson of more Utility have been laid at that Crisis before the Pensylvanians.
It really is remarkable how much of this story relates to today’s world.

Best regards,

Additional Comment, 12/26.06

The ushistory.org web page I referenced has now been updated with a slightly different version of the quote than they had previously, changing that to who, with a reference (that I have not yet found a copy of), and it now also has a reference to the version I quoted:

They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.
–Franklin’s Contributions to the Conference on February 17 (III) Fri, Feb 17, 1775

In 1755 (Pennsylvania Assembly: Reply to the Governor, Tue, Nov 11, 1755), Franklin wrote: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
This phrasing was also the motto in Historical Review of Pennsylvania, attributed to Franklin

It’s important to note that this sentiment, with many variations, was much used in the Revolutionary period by Franklin and others.

(Richard’s remarks on the Dictum have circulated the web at futureofthebook.com for three years now. The page generates about one hundred referers every twenty four hours including frequent links from the Wiki entry on Franklin. The traffic originates from antithetical political enclaves unwittingly converged. Like Richard’s other work to bring documentary banners of US history back into play in the present, his essay on the Dictum and its mutations of text and meaning is stirring. As events unfold only a book artist such as Richard can create such poise. )

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