When Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., borrowed the title of a song by rapper Puff Daddy in 2019 and tweeted that “it’s all about the Benjamins, baby,” critics across the political spectrum lost no time denouncing her. The reference to $100 bills, which bear the portrait of Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), was widely interpreted as an antisemitic trope suggesting that the pro-Israel lobby, because of its campaign contributions, holds unwarranted sway over American policy in the Middle East.
Omar’s tweet called to mind the age-old “dual loyalty” accusation often leveled against American Jews, but she might just as well have been referring to another antisemitic slur that also concerns Franklin, the Founding Father sometimes known as “the first American.”
This is the story of the “Franklin Prophecy,” known more accurately as the “Franklin Forgery”: how it got started, how it has been appropriated through the years, how it persists to this day, and what the Jewish community ought to do about it. Apart from Ben himself, the cast of characters runs the gamut from white supremacists William D. Pelley and Robert Edward Edmonson, to Nazis Rudolf Hess, Joseph Goebbels, and Julius Streicher, to New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, New York Gov. Thomas Dewey, historian Charles A. Beard, poet Ezra Pound, columnists Walter Winchell and Charles Krauthammer, and even Osama bin Laden.
Like its elder sibling, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Franklin Forgery has survived because of its utility to Jew-haters, who, in every generation, have relied on rumor, innuendo, and falsehood to excoriate “the Jews” when facts fail to serve their ends. Concocted in 1934, it has refused to disappear despite overwhelming evidence of its wholesale fabrication. The “fake news” of its day, the Franklin Forgery stubbornly lives on, one item in a veritable Sears catalog of antisemitic slanders in the Twitter and Facebook feeds and hate sites of neo-Nazis in America and in the polemics of clerics across the Muslim world.
The year was 1787 and the scene was Philadelphia, where delegates had convened to revise the Articles of Confederation. Nothing said at what became known as the Constitutional Convention was supposed to be revealed; to prevent “licentious publication” of the proceedings, the attendees had agreed on secrecy as far as their conversations were concerned. But Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (1746-1825), a delegate from South Carolina, who retained some papers from the meetings, allegedly published a diary about the conference based on his notes, and distributed copies privately to his friends.
The volume, titled Chit-Chat Around the Table During Intermission, included what purported to be a transcript of remarks delivered by Benjamin Franklin, then 81 years old. Franklin was quoted as advocating the exclusion of Jews from the new republic entirely in order to stave off dire consequences to American commerce, religion, and government. Pinckney ostensibly recorded Franklin’s remarks verbatim. Some excerpts:
In whatever country Jews have settled in any great numbers, they have lowered its moral tone; have depreciated its commercial integrity; have segregated themselves; have not assimilated; have sneered at, and tried to undermine, the Christian religion upon which this 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. […]
They cannot live among themselves only. They must subsist on Christians, and other peoples not of their race. If you do not exclude them from the 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, jeopardized our liberty, and put into it our best thoughts. […]
If you do not exclude them, in less than 200 years our descendants will be working in the fields to furnish them sustenance, while they will be in the counting houses, rubbing their hands gleefully. I warn you, gentlemen, that if you do not exclude the Jews for all time, your children’s children will curse you in your graves!
There are no records from before 1934 to testify to the existence of a Pinckney diary, nor had anyone apparently ever heard of the so-called Franklin speech until then. This artifact was ostensibly exhumed from history in an article titled “Did Benjamin Franklin Say this about the Hebrews?” that appeared on Feb. 3 of that year in an Asheville, North Carolina, publication called Liberation. Most copies of Pinckney’s work, according to the piece, had been destroyed by Union troops during General William T. Sherman’s 1864 march to the sea. But a copy Pinckney had entrusted to his daughter had supposedly survived the Civil War—and in it, the article asserted, the text of the speech had been preserved.
Although the article was unsigned, there was never any mystery as to who had written it. The journal, a self-described “publication of instruction and inspiration from sources beyond or above mortality,” was the official organ of the “Silver Legion of America,” commonly known as the “Silver Shirts,” a paramilitary organization modeled on Mussolini’s Black Shirts. Both the magazine and the militia were creations of one William D. Pelley (1890-1965), a New England-born journalist and Hollywood screenwriter turned lifetime anticommunist and antisemitic nutjob.
Pelley, whose philosophy was an odd amalgam of fascism and the occult, had set up the white supremacist organization at the behest of an oracle he claimed had appeared to him during an out-of-body experience. In 1933, the day after Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany, Pelley had organized the Silver Shirts to fulfill its prediction that he would one day lead a “national vigilante organization.” The turmoil and poverty engendered by the Great Depression had rendered many whites receptive to his messages, and over time Pelley was able to build the Silver Shirts into a 15,000-man force. He hoped to use it to seize power in the United States and set up a “Christian commonwealth” with no room for Jews or other nonwhites.
During the early 1930s, Pelley was a whirling dervish of crazy right-wing energy. He founded several organizations, including the Galahad Press, which published books devoted to spiritualism; The New Liberator, a magazine whose contents “were obtained … via the psychic radio from great souls who have graduated out of this three-dimensional world”; and Galahad Extension University, a correspondence college that offered instruction in his ideology. Diabolical antisemitism pervaded all of Pelley’s endeavors.
Often deep in debt, the man whom columnist Walter Winchell (1897-1972) once dubbed “Smelly Pelley” later went on to lead a decidedly checkered career that included a run for the presidency as the candidate of the Christian Party; convictions for fraud and sedition; and incarceration for eight years in a federal penitentiary. Most of his endeavors were unprofitable and short-lived and came to naught; within two months of the Franklin article, for example, Liberation was defunct. Pelley died in 1965, but the single-page piece on Ben Franklin that he published in 1934, his most enduring achievement, has sadly outlived him.
Although American Jewish newspapers had reported regularly on Pelley’s antics, they offered no immediate reaction to the Liberation article. The foreign antisemitic press, on the other hand, didn’t miss the opportunity. In August 1934, the Weltdienst (World Service), a German news agency, published the so-called Franklin speech in German, French, and English. Later that month it was reprinted in Switzerland. The Jewish press took note of it only in September, after Nazi propagandist Julius Streicher (1885-1946) quoted it in an attack on American Jews in his virulently antisemitic tabloid Der Stürmer (The Stormer). On Sept. 20, the Jewish Daily Bulletin, a New York-based, English-language Jewish daily, reported on the article, but devoted only one paragraph to Franklin.
Five days later, Robert Edward Edmonson (1872-1959), an American journalist and alleged Nazi agent fond of decrying supposed Jewish control of America’s press and banks, seized on the forgery and distributed a version of it widely to investment and brokerage houses. It wasn’t a verbatim copy of the quote in the Liberation piece, but it was close.
Edmonson’s piece soon found its way into the hands of Charles A. Beard (1874-1948), one of the foremost American historians of his generation, a onetime Columbia professor who had written extensively about the Constitutional Convention. “I was amazed by the document,” Beard wrote later. “As a student of the writings of Pinckney and Franklin, I had never seen anything like it.”
Suspicious of its authenticity, Beard wrote Edmonson asking to see the original, but the latter passed the buck, referring the historian to a New York blueblood named Madison Grant (1865-1937), a well-known conservationist, a proponent of eugenics, and an unapologetic racist who had once bemoaned the fact that members of the “great race” were being “driven off the streets of New York City by the swarms of Polish Jews.” But on the subject of the so-called Pinckney diary, Grant was evasive. He didn’t have the document. He wrote Beard that some years earlier he had seen what purported to be a copy of the diary, but that he could not vouch for its authenticity.
Beard then consulted J. Franklin Jameson (1859-1937), the librarian of Congress, an expert on the Founding Fathers. Jameson assured him that Pinckney had not kept a diary, and declared the document “merely a forgery, and a crude one at that.” Beard himself came to the same conclusion after conducting his own analysis of Franklin’s other writings.
“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,” he wrote the following year. “In his writings on immigration, Franklin made no mention of discrimination against Jews.”
If anything, Beard asserted, Benjamin Franklin was a philosemite. When the Philadelphia congregation Mikveh Israel had sought to raise money to construct a synagogue, Franklin had not only signed the appeal; he had donated £5 to the effort. Ironically, Beard pointed out, the only ethnic group Franklin had ever suggested excluding were Germans. In 1755, the Founding Father had written of them that “those who come hither are generally the most stupid of their nation,” and asserted that if they were permitted to immigrate unfettered, “even our government will become precarious.”
Finally, Beard concluded that evidence of forgery could be found in the text itself. “The phraseology of the alleged ‘Prophecy’ is not that of the eighteenth century, nor is the language that of Franklin,” he wrote. “It contains certain words that belong to contemporary Germany rather than America of Franklin’s time.” In a portion of the speech referring to a Jewish return to Palestine, for example, he pointed out that the word “homeland” was used anachronistically; Jews had not employed it that way in Franklin’s time, nor had Zionism been a feasible or popular movement. Not only did the writing not sound like Franklin; it didn’t sound like anyone who had written during the colonial era.
La Guardia called Hitler a ‘brown-shirted fanatic’ and suggested that the right place for a statue of the Fuehrer at the 1939 World’s Fair would be in a chamber of horrors.
Beard publicized his findings in March 1935 in a Zionist journal called Jewish Frontier and they were quickly picked up by other publications. But the lie continued to be reprinted and circulated, and by October of that year, Sidney Wallach (1905-1979), an officer of the American Jewish Committee, one of the nation’s oldest Jewish advocacy organizations, gave voice to a question surely on many minds then, and no less so in today’s world of “fake news.” In a syndicated column, he wondered how to respond effectively to repeated falsehoods in the press that stubbornly continued to inspire belief.
“That speech and press should be kept free for the expression of opinions and views all reasonable persons will agree,” he declared. But “is it in the interest of society … to extend such freedom to the malicious distortion of fact, the freedom that encourages the perversion and, eventually, subversion of freedom of speech and the press, and hastens the advent of a regime of suppression and reaction?” It was a question that surely had been raised in every generation made to suffer each new iteration of the blood libel—the accusation that Jews murder Christian children to use their blood in religious rituals—and in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It was now being asked about the “Franklin Prophecy.”
Indeed, Nazi propagandists incorporated the Franklin myth into their bible, the Handbuch der Judenfrage (Handbook on the Jewish Question) in 1935 and kept it at the ready to deploy as a weapon when needed. In early 1937, New York’s charismatic Mayor Fiorello La Guardia (1882-1947) gave them an excuse. He touched off a massive Nazi propaganda campaign when, during an address to the women’s division of the politically liberal American Jewish Congress, he called Adolf Hitler a “brown-shirted fanatic” and suggested that the right place for a statue of the Fuehrer at the 1939 World’s Fair would be in a chamber of horrors. This evoked a vigorous protest from the German Embassy in Washington and a rebuke to La Guardia from U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull. Uncowed, the mayor quipped that “I am pleased that Hitler was so quick to recognize himself.”
In response, Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945) assailed La Guardia in his newspaper Der Agriff (The Attack) as a “lout” and “an impudent Jew” (although La Guardia was raised Episcopalian, his mother came from an Italian Jewish family) and threatened to “take a disagreeable interest in American affairs.”
As part and parcel of this effort, Goebbels trotted out an encore of the Franklin screed that the official German news agency made sure to reprint in all Nazi papers. Before long, some 5,000 copies of a circular with the fabricated speech were distributed in and around New York City. This iteration, however, stated that the original Pinckney diary could be found in the collection of Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute, a science museum with an important collection of Franklin’s papers. In response, the institute’s librarian publicly insisted not only that they did not possess such a document, but neither did the Library of Congress nor the New York Public Library.
There was a second reason for flyers to appear in the fall of 1938. Supporters of New York Gov. Herbert H. Lehman, who was running for reelection in a bitter campaign against New York County Republican District Attorney Thomas E. Dewey, had come up with a novel use for the phony speech. Although Lehman was Jewish, on the eve of the election, in an effort to siphon Jewish votes away from Dewey, his loyalists apparently distributed mimeographed copies of the speech to thousands of Jewish voters in Manhattan and Brooklyn in forged Dewey campaign envelopes. Dewey’s campaign manager was quick to decry “the lengths to which desperation has driven certain elements of the opposition party.” But those lengths might have made the difference in the election, which Lehman won by only 1.4% of the vote.
Keeping the speech alive, of course, served the malicious purpose of dividing Americans. Wisconsin’s Wausau Daily Herald saw it as part of a larger Nazi effort to “attack the solidarity of the American people on racial lines, obviously with the intention of corrupting and shattering the tolerance and good will, which are the basis of our democracy.” Indeed, the strategy was right out of Mein Kampf, in which Hitler wrote that “the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying.”
In December 1938, Rudolf Hess (1894-1987), Hitler’s deputy Fuehrer, quoted the alleged remarks on a trip to Czechoslovakia, twice referring erroneously to the founding father as “President Franklin.” Hess was abetted in this by the American antisemitic poet and critic Ezra Pound, a fascist collaborator who immortalized the lie in “Canto LII,” modernist verse he wrote in 1940: “Remarked Ben: better keep out the Jews or yr/grand children will curse you.”
Each time the Franklin speech was cited as fact, people spoke out to expose it. Christian leaders such as the Rev. Walter Russell Bowie preached against it from their pulpits. Journalists like Walter Winchell debunked it in their columns. And after his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Franklin was published in October 1938, author Carl Van Doren, inundated with inquiries about it, did his best to undermine it. Yet every time it was denied, it was also repeated.
But how else could it be discredited? Jewish American writer Michael Gold (1894-1967) was unequivocal about the danger it posed and the proper tactic to counter it. “We must fight such lies with the facts; fight them daily, and in detail ... Such lies seem too trivial and obvious to be answered, and yet they can accumulate, unanswered, and secretly poison a republic and spell its doom.”
To this end, the American Jewish Committee produced a 16-page pamphlet to set the record straight. At just about the time American Nazis were gathering for their huge rally in Madison Square Garden, Benjamin Franklin Vindicated: An Exposure of the Franklin “Prophecy” by American Scholars was published. It was a compilation of old and new statements by seven learned men who testified to the falsity of the diary and the speech. The most comprehensive rebuttal of the whole story that was ever produced, it received broad coverage in the nation’s newspapers.
But of course, that didn’t even begin to put an end to the myth. When leaflets were left in subways, taxis, hotel lobbies, restaurants, buses, and railroad terminals in New York in early 1942, there were several reports that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was investigating their source. Jewish groups blamed the Constitutional Educational League, an anti-communist, anti-union group under the control of Joseph P. Kamp (1900-1993) that was indicted by two federal grand juries that same year for conspiring against U.S. involvement in World War II. Kamp’s organization was also linked the following year to the distribution of the speech at steel plants in Detroit by members of the Ku Klux Klan.
In 1943, the so-called Franklin speech was mentioned during hearings before a subcommittee of the House Committee on the Post Office on a proposal to close the U.S. mails to literature that fomented racial hatred. Known as the Lynch Bill after its sponsor, Rep. Walter A. Lynch, D-N.Y., it called for criminalizing the mailing of defamatory statements likely to expose members of particular races or religions to “hatred, contempt, ridicule or obloquy,” under penalty of a fine of up to $5,000 or imprisonment.
There was strong support for the bill in many quarters, but the Jewish community was divided between those who thought it a useful measure to suppress antisemitism and those who saw it as a threat to free speech. The Post Office lobbied hard against the measure, which it viewed as inviting a logistical nightmare that wouldn’t do much to fight bigotry, and it ultimately died in committee.
Revelations of the horrors of the Holocaust in the postwar years did little to stop attacks on Jews from white supremacists in the United States; if anything, their assaults got even more strident. In 1946, an organization styling itself the “International Science Committee” mailed flyers all over the country that included the Pelley speech together with a claim that 67 million voters favored a proposal that “all persons of Jewish birth must leave the United States no later than December 30, 1948” and a call for a national referendum on the question.
Very occasionally, public criticism fetched a retraction. When the Rev. James W. Fifield (1899-1977) of the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles naïvely asserted that the Franklin speech was “a matter of historical record,” a local member of the board of the Anti-Defamation League demanded a retraction and got one.
But this was the exception, not the rule.
In the years since, Benjamin Franklin has remained the darling of antisemitic sheikhs and imams.
After the State of Israel was established in 1948, the Franklin speech virus spread to the Middle East. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, deeply anti-Jewish, had invited ex-Nazis into his government. In 1957, a spokesman for his regime was quoted in Al Gomhuria, an influential, state-owned Arabic language daily, as advocating the expulsion of Jews from America and citing the bogus Franklin quote as an authority.
Shortly after the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the speech was reprinted in Latin American newspapers and magazines as part of antisemitic attacks orchestrated by Arab diplomats and Arab League operatives. In 1981, it reared its head in Morocco, where anti-Jewish articles appeared in both French and Arabic language newspapers. But in a rare rebuke, King Hassan II ordered the papers seized, allegedly to avoid equating antisemitism with anti-Zionism.
Reacting to a Palestinian student demonstration in the West Bank in 1998, the conservative American Jewish columnist Charles Krauthammer (1950-2018) devoted a whole column to Yasser Arafat’s propaganda machine. He cited an article in the official Palestinian press that did not stop at castigating Israeli policy, but preached lessons on the nature of the Jewish people, equating Jews with Nazis. It went on to quote chapter and verse of the Franklin myth.
Then, in October 2002, Osama bin Laden (1957-2011) issued his “letter to the American people” in which he laid out al-Qaida’s justifications for its jihad against the United States. Among them, he insisted, was that Jews, having ostensibly taken over the American economy and media, “now control all aspects of your life, making you their servants and achieving their aims at your expense.” He added that this state of affairs was “precisely what Benjamin Franklin warned you against.”
Where had bin Laden gotten this? It may have been from the London-based Saudi daily Alsharq Al-Awsat, which had carried an article earlier that year titled “The Prophecy of a Philosopher,” quoting Nazi sources on Franklin. “What this preeminent man said, and what America did not heed, came true there to the last detail,” it read. It went on to complain that “The Jewish gangs took over the sacred land of Palestine. Palestine is only the beginning. The locusts will spread throughout the Arab world.”
In the years since, Franklin has remained the darling of antisemitic sheikhs and imams. Speaking in Khartoum in 2004 about the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Sheikh Abd Al-Jahil Al Karouri warned that “If America wants to preserve the country it has established, it must listen to Franklin’s advice, who warned them against the Jews. Now the Jews are leading them into these battles and this mess.” In a 2014 television interview, an Egyptian actor asserted that Franklin had warned the American people in 1787 about “terrorist groups of Jews.” In 2018, a Kuwaiti cleric explained that Franklin had delivered his remarks “when he saw that the morals of prostitution and usury were flooding American society.”
In recent years, warning signs have appeared that—even as the screed continues to be pressed into service regularly by the far right—the far left seems to be tolerating it. A good example is former U.K. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who invited Sheikh Raed Salah (b. 1958), a Palestinian whom Israel has accused of supporting terrorism, to Parliament in 2012 and praised him as a voice who “must be heard.” Salah has repeated vicious lies about Jewish blood libels and Benjamin Franklin’s view of Jews with no comment on the record from Corbyn.
The problem has gotten far more severe, and more complex, with the advent of the internet. For all its promise and its capacity to do good, the worldwide web has probably been history’s single technological development most helpful to the dissemination of hate speech. It has enabled virtually anyone in the world to air grievances and abject lies and reach multitudes of readers unimagined by Pelley in 1934, and to do it within seconds and free of charge. Witness the thousands of references to the “Franklin Prophecy” on the net and on social media that a Google search returns.
Yet in words that still resonate today, Philip Perlmutter (1925-2012), then director of the St. Louis region of the American Jewish Congress, argued strongly in 1960 that suppressing free speech, even for a laudable goal, is a two-edged sword. “Our horror at the fanatical charges in the hate literature should not cause us to advocate shortcutting constitutional guarantees in order to apprehend anti-Semites and suppress anti-Semitism,” he wrote. “The same Bill of Rights that guarantees freedom of religion and equality before the law guarantees freedom of expression and due process.”
Speaking for the AJC, Perlmutter voiced opposition to criminalizing the defaming of racial or religious groups. “With such a provision to rely on, any anti-Semite could turn his trial into a prolonged effort to ‘prove’ his charges, no matter how extreme or fantastic. Such a trial would give the defendant more publicity for his fulminations than he could ever receive if left to himself.”
In rejecting government regulation of hate literature, Perlmutter put his faith in “the capacity of the American people to distinguish between truth and falsity.”
Franklin himself would have agreed. As he wrote in Poor Richard’s Almanack in 1773, “A lie stands on one leg, truth on two.”
Scott D. Seligman is a writer, historian, and the author of nine books. His most recent work is The Great Kosher Meat War of 1902: Immigrant Housewives and the Riots That Shook New York City (Potomac Books, 2020).