Wednesday, October 1st, 2014

'Half a truth is often a great lie': Did Benjamin Franklin really say that?

Benjamin Franklin wrote many memorable lines in "Poor Richard's Almanack." (File photo)
Benjamin Franklin wrote many memorable lines in "Poor Richard's Almanack." (File photo)

When PolitiFact named President Barack Obama’s claim that "if you like your health care plan, you can keep it," our fifth Lie of the Year, the Twittersphere rapidly reacted.

Some agreed. Some did not. Some shrugged. Some screamed (or at least wrote angry messages in ALL CAPS).

But one tweet at us stood out for how well it captured the essence of the debate surrounding Obama’s statement.

" ‘Half a truth is often a great lie.’ - Benjamin Franklin"

That tweet came courtesy of @FrozenSicleBoy, among others, aptly noting that we gave Obama’s claim a Half True when we first put it to the Truth-O-Meter in 2009.

But before we indulged ourselves in the virtues of Franklin’s philosophies, unfortunately, we’ve come to expect that the Founding Fathers are misquoted or had quotes wrongly attributed to them. So the skeptics in us immediately wondered if Franklin actually ever uttered those words.

A quick Google search found several variances of the quote, for the most part attributed to Benjamin Franklin. That’s not definitive proof, but at least we knew it wasn’t pulled out of thin air.

Our next stop was the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. The organization was founded by Franklin, so they should know a thing or two about the man.

We were put in touch with Roy E. Goodman, the curator of printed materials at the American Philosophical Society Library. After hearing the quote, Goodman thought it sounded like something that could have come from Franklin, whom he called "the approachable Founding Father" and "Mr. Average American" compared to his aristocratic contemporaries.

Goodman perused through the pages of two authoritative references on Franklin for us: A Concordance to the Sayings in Franklin’s Poor Richard, by Frances M. Barbour, and Ben Franklin Laughing, by Paul Zall.

The former text said we could find the quote we were looking for in the July 1758 copy of Poor Richard’s Almanack, a collection of sayings and advice published by Franklin from 1732 to 1758 under the pseudonym Richard Saunders.

We pulled up a copy of the 1758 volume of Franklin’s iconic text, and sure enough we found the quote in question. "Half the Truth is often a great Lie" was, indeed, written by Franklin, listed in the almanac between "The first mistake in publick business, is the going into it," and "The way to see by faith, is to shut the eye of reason: The morning daylight appears plainer when you put out your candle."

In fact, it was not the only time Franklin wrote about truth during the quarter century he published Poor Richard’s Almanack. Here’s a few more:

  • "A Lie stands on 1 leg, Truth on 2."

  • " When Knaves fall out, honest Men get their goods: When Priests dispute, we come at the Truth."

  • "The Sting of a Reproach, is the Truth of it."

  • "Craft must be at charge for clothes, but Truth can go naked."

  • "When the Wine enters, out goes the Truth."

Speaking of wine, Goodman told us that one of the quotes most often misattributed to Franklin is hanging in bars across the country: "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy."

"I get that a lot, but he never said that," Goodman said. "Franklin was an equal opportunity drinker. But in moderation."

But otherwise, Goodman finds that Franklin is generally quoted accurately.

"You can say he said anything and he probably did," he said. "Franklin wrote so much and printed so much you can find a lot of things in his writings."

Our esteemed readers wrote us that Franklin said, "Half a truth is often a great lie." That’s pretty darn close. In Poor Richard’s Almanack, we found it as "Half the truth is often a great lie." Kudos to those who accurately quoted Franklin.