The Franklin Prophecy and Antisemitic Forgery for ProfitRoundup
tags: Benjamin Franklin, antisemitism, Forgery
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).
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. […]
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.
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