The Franklin Prophecy: An Anti-Semitic Hoax Gets New Life on the Internet
by Jeffrey Belodoff and Elyce Milette
Sixty-five million Americans, including ninety percent of school children, have Internet access, according to the latest Census Bureau estimates. Although the Franklin Prophesy, an anti-Semitic statement falsely attributed to Benjamin Franklin, has existed for nearly seventy years, it rested in relative obscurity until recently. Now this propaganda piece has a new venue and dangerously high visibility on the Internet.
First published by the leader of an American organization aligned with nazis, the Silver Shirts League of America, the Franklin Prophesy currently appears on multiple Internet sites affiliated with anti-Semitic individuals and organizations. The Aryan Nation publishes it on its website as part of a continuous and malicious flow of hate literature aimed toward Jews and African-Americans. Stormfront, a skinhead site that refers to itself as Jewatch, displays it prominently. The Ku Klux Klan exploits the document by including it on its list of nearly fifth purported proofs that Jews plan to destroy the United States. The anti-Semitic Right has elevated the Franklin Prophesy to a place in its mythology equivalent to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. (The Protocols, a forged document that claimed to be a Jewish political and economic plan leading to a world takeover, was concocted by tsarist secret police in an endeavor to shift attention from the failures of the regime. As planned, it incited the Russian population against Jews. Since that time, it has been one of the bedrock documents of modern anti-Semitism. The Protocols are still distributed worldwide, and serve as a template for other such propaganda.)
The Franklin Prophesy - known as the Franklin Fallacy or Forgery by those who refute it - appears in slightly different forms; in some cases only excerpts appear. Following is the version likely to be seen on the Internet:
I fully agree with General Washington, that we must protect this young nation from an insidious influence and penetration. That menace, gentlemen, is the Jews. In whatever country Jews have settled in any great number, they have lowered its moral tone; depreciated its commercial integrity; have segregated the state... and have not been assimilated; have sneered at and tried to undermine the Christian religion upon which that nation is founded, by objecting to its restrictions; have built up a state within a state; and when opposed have tried to strangle that country to death financially, as in the case of Spain and Portugal.
For over 1,700 years, the Jews have been bewailing their sad fate in that they have been exiled from their homeland, as they call Palestine. But, gentleman, did the world give it to them in fee simple, they would at once find a reason for not returning. Why? Because they are vampires, and vampires do not live on vampires. They cannot live only among themselves. They must subsist on Christians and other people not of their race. If you do not exclude them from these United States, in this Constitution, in less than 200 years they will have swarmed here in such great numbers that they will dominate and devour the land and change our form of government, for which we Americans have shed our blood, given our lives, our substance and jeopardized our liberty. If you do not exclude them, in less than 200 years our descendants will be working in the fields to furnish them substance, while they will be in the counting houses rubbing their hands. I warn you, gentlemen, if you do not exclude Jews for all time, your children will curse you in your graves. Jews, gentlemen, are Asiatics, let them be born where they will or how many generations they are from Asia, they will never be otherwise. Their ideas do not conform an American's, and will not even though they live among us ten generations. A leopard cannot change its spots. Jews are Asiatics, are a menace to this country if permitted entrance, and should be excluded by this Constitutional Convention. William Dudley Pelley, leader of the Silver Shirts and the assumed author of this forgery, first published the piece in 1934. Although not critically acclaimed, he had been a moderately successful novelist in the 1920's. One of his novels sold 100,000 copies, notable by the standards of this time, and respectable by today's standards. Born in 1890 in Massachusetts, his formal education ended at high school, but he continued to read widely and began to write, first as a journalist then as novelist and screenplay writer.
During the 1930's Pelley created and led the Silver Shirts, a large right wing group, aligned himself with the German-American Bund, the American front for the German government, and formed ties to other fascist organizations. Hailing Hitler's government as "excellent," he stated that the "Great Extermination" might begin in the United States. Attacks on prominent Jews, he wrote, might cow remaining ones into the lesser alternatives of sterilization and segregation. He applauded Kristallnacht but dismissed the later atrocities as fables. In an attempt to achieve political power, he ran for president in 1936; he received, however, only 1600 votes. Pelley's activities during the war, including distribution of pro-German propaganda to American troops, violated the Espionage Act of 1917, and led to his conviction for subversion. Sentenced to fifteen years in prison, he served eight. After leaving prison on parole in 1950, Pelley became involved in spiritualism and the occult, making his living by writing and holding sťances. He died in obscurity in 1965.
The Franklin Prophesy, however, had taken on a life of its own. The German government added the document to the "Handbook on the Jewish Question" that it distributed worldwide in the 1930's and 1940's. Although most fascist and pro-fascist groups such as the Silver Shirts and the German American Bund dissolved when the United States entered World War II, their propaganda survived. Distribution of the Forgery had little impact until such well-known bigots as Robert K. Smith, a former Silver Shirt whose anti-Semitic radio broadcasts had a national audience, publicized it.
From the beginning, the document was challenged as a forgery. The Franklin Institute, the supposed repository of the original document, has always denied its existence. Henry Butler Allen, the former director of the Institute, first disavowed it in a 1938 publication of "The Institute News." The International Benjamin Franklin Society, an organization dedicated to celebrating the achievements of Franklin, denied the authenticity of the paper in 1937. Noted American historians Charles Beard described it as a "boldfaced lie." However, by 1956 the document had become again widely enough distributed to attract the attention of the Anti-Defamation League, which issued a formal refutation. By the 1960's, interest in the document diminished. The advent of the Internet has revived its visibility.
Millions of children use the net; thousands of students may turn to it for assistance in an assignment about Franklin. A simple search for information about this man may lead to a site on the Forgery. Franklin, an American icon, is one of the most recognizable figures in this country's history. Every school child knows at least the Disney version of Franklin, and is familiar with his connection to the Revolution. Franklin's experiment with the lightening rod is as well known as Washington's story of the cherry tree. Especially vulnerable, the young or under-educated can be misled easily by an American hero's connection, however false, with the document. Although the paper has high visibility on the Internet, a refutation does not. It is also likely that sites displaying the document will have links to other virulent anti-Semitic sites.
Less innocent than the school children exposed to it are those who exploit it. Alienated, angry, and malicious people manipulate the text to legitimize an anti-Semitic tradition that supposedly reaches back to the Founding Fathers. They use it to fabricate a concept that hatred of Jews is a continuum which began with the people who established the United States.
This imaginary proclamation must be exposed as a fraud. Like all successful hoaxes, it includes a grain of truth. Benjamin Franklin and Charles Pinckney were delegates to the Constitutional Convention. However, nothing else in or about the paper has ever been verified. No one has ever produced Pinckney's journals, which supposedly include the original document. Hardly an anti-Semite, Pinckney was a political ally and personal friend of Francis Salvador, the first Jew to hold office in the United States and the first Jew that was killed in the Revolution. Moreover, the Franklin Institute, which is said to harbor the piece, denies its very existence. No record of it can be found before 1934 - when it simply appears. Since the original document cannot be produced, a paper and ink analysis cannot be used to date and therefore verify it. The language itself, stresses Charles Beard, indicates that it was not written during that time. It utilizes words that did not occur in American English until well after its alleged publication. For example, although the word "vampires" did not appear in English until the second half of the nineteenth century, the document attributes that term to Jews. It also uses the term "homeland," a word that was not identified with Jews in that sense during Franklin's time.
Most importantly, the record and character of Benjamin Franklin refute the document. The twenty first century offers us the resources to understand him better than any of the other Founding Fathers. We have an autobiography. We have scientific papers. We have personal letters and journals. We have official communications to the Continental Congress and foreign governments. We have the aphorisms of Poor Richard. We have his will. We have descriptions of him by others and newspaper reports about him. We have two hundred years of historians scrutinizing Benjamin Franklin. The measure of the man has been taken.
Nothing in Franklin's writing or in any other recorded speech can be found that in anti-Semitic. Considering the vehemence of the comments attributed to him, how is it likely that similar remarks do not appear in his record? We do, however, have two direct refutations of the Forgery. One in contained in Franklin's record of charitable contributions. He bestowed sums of money to fifty Philadelphia organizations and institutions that he considered to be acting in the public good. Among those was Mikvah Israel, the first synagogue established in Philadelphia. When the synagogue was in severe financial straits, he gave the institution financial support in order to support its good works. Another is Franklin's religious philosophy. Written in the last year of his life, it may very well be his last statement on the subject of religion.
Letter to Ezra Stiles, 9 March 1790:
Here is my creed. I believe in one God, the creator of the universe. That he governs by his providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable service we render to him is doing good to his other children. That the soul of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental points in all sound religion, and I regard them as you do in whatever sect I need with them.
"...Almost every one of these points might have been taken from the classic declaration of Jewish faith as laid down in thirteen articles by the Jewish philosopher - rabbi, Moses Maimonides," stated Alan D. Corre, Emeritus Professor of Hebrew Studies of University of Wisconsin. In presenting a special Congressional medal to Mikvah Israel as one of the organizations supported by Franklin, he emphasized this ideological similarity to those of the Jewish faith.
The Franklin Prophesy is an example of the power of the Internet to spread hatred. However, it also affords us an important opportunity to educate the public about the distinction between implication and reality. It may not be possible to defeat individual cases of propaganda, but it is possible to teach a vital lesson as a whole: that of the difference between disinformation and fact. This skill is crucial. It is especially critical because the issue of plausibility changes over time. In the same manner that Benjamin Franklin's ideas were perverted, anti-Semites used the Internet to spread the falsehood that the Mossad planned the September 11 attacks using Arabs as dupes. That notion may seem absurd in the present, but it might not appear so to a population that is uninformed in the future. The efforts of the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center have been laudable, but they must be intensified. School curriculums must be modified to mandate lessons that will equip the young to guard themselves against extremism. The Franklin Forgery is a perfect vehicle through which we can fight fanaticism through education.
The authors are indebted to Leo P. Ribuffo's texts, The Old Christian Right: The Protestant Far Right from the Great Depression to the Cold War and Right, Center, Left: Essays in American History, and the Anti-Defamation League's website, both of which offer additional and valuable information on the topic.
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