Misquotes and Memes: Did Ben Franklin REALLY Say That?

  • Blaine McCormick
    Blaine McCormick, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of the management department in Baylor University's Hankamer School of Business, is the author of "Ben Franklin: America's Original Entrepreneur" and speaks and writes often about the Founding Father whose face is featured on the $100 bill. (Matthew Minard/Baylor Marketing & Communications)
  • Ben Franklin
    Ben Franklin
July 1, 2015

Baylor Expert Affirms, Debunks Founding Father’s Famous – and Infamous – Sayings

Contact: Eric Eckert, 254-710-1964
Follow Eric on Twitter at @ EricBaylorU
Follow Baylor Media Communications on Twitter: @BaylorUMedia

WACO, Texas (July 1, 2015) – 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," McCormick said. "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.”

ABOUT BLAINE MCCORMICK

Blaine McCormick, Ph.D., serves as associate professor and chair of the management department in Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business. A nationally recognized scholar on the business practices of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison, McCormick has been featured in a number of media outlets, including The New York Times, CNN, National Public Radio and ABC World News Tonight. His book, “Ben Franklin: America’s Original Entrepreneur,” a modern language version of the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, was lauded by Library Journal as one of the Best Business Books of 2005.

ABOUT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY

Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked research institution, characterized as having “high research activity” by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The University provides a vibrant campus community for approximately 16,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions. Baylor sponsors 19 varsity athletic teams and is a founding member of the Big 12 Conference.

ABOUT HANKAMER SCHOOL OF BUSINESS

Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business provides a rigorous academic experience, consisting of classroom and hands-on learning, guided by Christian commitment and a global perspective. Recognized nationally for several programs, including Entrepreneurship and Accounting, the school offers 24 undergraduate and 13 graduate areas of study. Visit www.baylor.edu/business and follow on Twitter at @Baylor_Business.

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