Benjamin Franklin and the Jews
by Andrew Hamilton
FRANKLIN’S racialism was evident in the demographic pamphlet “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, Etc.” (1751)(see “Benjamin Franklin on Demography & Whiteness”) cited by Thomas Malthus on the first page of the second edition of his Essay on the Principle of Population (1802).
Scattered comments pertaining to race and Jews can be found throughout Franklin’s writings.
In Benjamin Franklin’s day, Jews did not demographically comprise a large enough percentage of the population to exercise the social control they previously had over Spain and Portugal, or were later to wield over Russia, the United States, and the rest of the “West.”
In 1767 Franklin told pioneer German statistician Gottfried Achenwall that there were Jews in Pennsylvania and New York. In Pennsylvania there were some Jewish schools, but New York had a synagogue.
The Jewish population must have increased over the years. Near the end of Franklin’s life, in 1788, the Jews begged for money from well-to-do Christians to help construct their Philadelphia synagogue, Congregation Mikveh Israel. They wrote in their appeal:
They [the Jews] are therefore under the necessity of earnestly soliciting from their worthy fellow citizens of every religious denomination, their worshipping Almighty God in a way & manner different from other religious societies, [will] never deter the enlightened citizens of Philadelphia, from generously subscribing towards the preservation of a [Jewish] religious house of worship.
Franklin donated £5 toward the £800 needed, or 0.6% of the total — a not insignificant sum in my view.
American Jews consisted primarily of Iberian-descended Sephardim rather than German/East European Ashkenazim — two genetically distinct populations.
In light of what has transpired since, it is educational to examine the reactions of whites to the Jewish presence in their societies.
Plenty were out-and-out philo-Semites of the kind ubiquitous today. One such was the Puritan divine Ezra Stiles, a Congregationalist minister and president of Yale University.
Sephardic Jews were readily accepted by both custom and marriage into the top ranks of colonial and early American society, consequently genetically entwining themselves with the native ruling class as they always have — in ancient Rome and Persia, in 20th century Communist dictatorships, and in 19th to 21st century “democratic” Europe and the US.
Early American Jews were wealthy, privileged, and enjoyed high social status. They dominated the lucrative trade in African slaves; the wealthy Aaron Lopez of Newport, Rhode Island was the premiere trafficker in human flesh in the colonies.
Here are some of Benjamin Franklin’s comments about Jews.
In a 1766 letter there is a cryptic reference to a debt: “As the other bankers beside the Jew, have satisfied you that it was fully paid, I am sure I ought to be satisfied, though I do not understand it.”
Writing from London in 1767 to his son William Franklin:
We have had an ugly affair at the Royal Society lately. One Dacosta, a Jew, who, as our clerk, was entrusted with collecting our monies, has been so unfaithful as to embezzle near £1300 in four years. Being one of the council this year as well as the last, I have been employed all the last week in attending the enquiry into and unraveling his accounts, in order to come at a full knowledge of his frauds.
Three months later he wrote to a French correspondent, “a wicked Jew, entrusted as our clerk and collector, has unobserved run away with our money upon earth, to the amount of near 1500 pounds, which makes it necessary for us in this affair to apply for Royal assistance.”
In late 1781 badly needed war goods purchased in the Netherlands from the Jewish banking firm Jean de Neufville & Fils of Amsterdam were being withheld, causing Franklin, then the American diplomat to France, to write angrily to John Adams in Holland:
I think they have no right to stop the goods; and I think also that the keeping us out of possession of £50,000 sterling’s worth of goods for securing the payment of a petty demand for damages, appears to me not only ungenteel & dishonourable treatment, but a monstrous injustice. It seems to me that it is principally with Mr. Neufville we have to do; and though I believe him to be as much a Jew as any in Jerusalem, I did not expect that with so many & such constant professions of friendship for the United States, with which he lards all his letters, he would have attempted to enforce his demands (which I doubt not will be extravagant enough) by a proceeding so abominable. . . . But I would not be compelled to pay whatever he may please to demand, because he has our goods in possession. We have, you observe, our hands in the lion’s mouth; but if Mr. N. is a lion, I am a bear, and I think I can hug & grip him till he lets go our hands. He has bought goods for us, and till he delivers them he has no equitable right to be paid for them . . . let him keep his goods & seek his remedy where he can find it. . . . His proposition when I first saw him, of terms on which he would borrow money for us, stamped his character on my mind with an impression so deep that it is not yet effaced. (Letter to John Adams, November 26, 1781)
Franklin’s irritation becomes more understandable in a second letter to Adams a few weeks later — quoted here at length — when, in response to Adams’s inquiry, he spelled out Neufville’s terms for a proposed Revolutionary War loan. With unbelievable understatement the statesman calls it “an extravagant security for a trifling sum”:
The first proposition is, “That for the security of this loan of two million guilders, Holland currency, we engaged & hypothe-qued (his words) [French law, hypothèque; hypothecation, the pledging of something as security for a debt without delivery of title or possession] to said Mr John de Neufville and Son of Amsterdam, or their representatives, as we do engage and hy-potheque to them in the name of the whole Congress of the thirteen United States of North America, generally all the lands, cities, territories and possessions of the said thirteen States, so which they have and possess at present, as which they may have or possess in the future, with all their income, revenue & produce, until the entire payment of this loan & the interests due thereon. . . .”
The second proposition was (verbatim, as the first) “That out of the produces again through all those thirteen States of America shall be send over and shipped to Europe, and chiefly or as much as possible to the port of Amsterdam during the ten years of this loan the double of one tenth part of this loan, to the value of four hundred thousand guilders, which as far as is possible they’ll come to Amsterdam, shall be sold there by Mr. John de Neufville and Son, and what goes to other ports by their correspondents, and the money kept at their disposal for the use of Congress at least during the first five years; and during the last five years of this loan one-half of this money is to serve to decharge every year one tenth part of the money borrowed, engaging that before the end of the tenth year there will be remitted in such a manner, and left in hands of said Mr John de Neufville & Son of Amsterdam, a sufficient sum of money to decharge this whole loan with the interest due thereon.”
You will observe that this article is obscurely expressed; I was obliged to demand Eclaircissements [clarification] in conversation. The conversation was also difficult to understand; Mr de N’s English not being then of the clearest. But from the whole after much discourse, I gathered, that we were to send over every year for the first five years, in tobacco, rice, indigo, codfish, oil, &c &c. the value of 400,000 guilders, to be sold by Messrs J. de N. & Son, for our use, on a commission, of five per cent.; and that the money was to remain in their hands to enable them to pay off in the last 5 years the principal of the loan, though one-half of it was to remain in their hands till the end of the term. — A subsequent article (the 6th) also provides that 100,000 guilders more should be annually sent over in produce to them, & sold, &c. to discharge the interest. . . .
Besides this, I was led to understand, that it would be very agreeable to these gentlemen, if in acknowledgment of their zeal for our cause & great service in procuring this loan, they could be made by some law of Co[ngress] the general consignee of America, to receive and sell upon commission by themselves and correspondents in the different ports & nations, all the produce of America that should be sent by our merchants to Europe.
Franklin concluded the second letter with one of the bitterest statements I’ve ever seen by such an equable gentleman:
I was wrong in supposing J de Neufville as much a Jew as any in Jerusalem, since Jacob was not content with his per cents, but took the whole of his brother Esau’s birthright; & his posterity did the same by the Canaanites, & cut their throats into the bargain, which in my conscience I do not think Mr. J. de Neufville has the least inclination to do by us — while he can get anything by our being alive. (Letter to John Adams, December 14, 1781)
It is difficult to discover background information about this affair because virtually all major biographies of Franklin omit any mention of it.
The company in question was an Amsterdam merchant banking firm that unsuccessfully attempted to raise funds for John Adams and Franklin in the Netherlands.
A document on the Massachusetts Historical Society website suggests that John Adams, then ambassador to the Netherlands, was responsible for initiating contact with Neufville. His action came back to haunt him years later, and, in 1809, after his presidency and during his retirement, he felt compelled to publicly justify his negotiations with the banking house. (See footnote 4 of the MHS document.)
Mind-boggling as they are, Franklin’s Neufville letters are not mentioned by liberal biographers Carl Van Doren (Benjamin Franklin, 1938; Pulitzer Prize for Biography) or Yale University’s Edmund S. Morgan (Benjamin Franklin, 2002).
But both authors must have known about them.
Morgan’s book was based upon precisely the Benjamin Franklin Papers I’m quoting — and he says in his preface that he read them all.
Van Doren’s book, which is very thorough, is also based upon Franklin’s writings — Van Doren extensively quotes Franklin’s own words from scattered journals, letters, and miscellaneous writings with the stated aim of “completing” Franklin’s unfinished Autobiography. And the de Neufville letters had been published by Albert H. Smyth, editor of the multi-volume The Writings of Benjamin Franklin (1905–1907).
Mention of Neufville is also missing from the major biographies by H. W. Brands (2000), Walter Isaacson (2003), and others.
The only secondary source referring to the affair that I have found is the much older Pulitzer Prize-winning biography by William Cabell Bruce:
Nor, when an extortioner attempted to perpetrate an outrage upon the United States, did [Franklin] fail to oppose him with a wit quite as keen and with a spirit far more resolute. Such a skinflint seems to have been De Neufville, of Amsterdam, who offered on one occasion to borrow money for the United States, provided that their representatives hypothecated to his firm, in the name of the whole Congress of the Thirteen United States, as security for the loan, all the lands, cities, territories and possessions of the said Thirteen States, present or prospective. After mercilessly analyzing in a letter to John Adams the unconscionable covenants by which this tremendous hypothecation was to be accompanied, Franklin ended with these observations [about Jacob and Esau, quoted above].
The immediate occasion for this letter was the refusal of De Neufville to allow the goods which had bred trouble between Franklin and William Jackson to be delivered to the agents of the United States until a claim for damages that he had preferred against the United States was satisfied. . . .
And [Franklin] was as good as his word, and let De Neufville know that, if he did not deliver the goods, the bills drawn by him on Franklin for the price, though accepted, would not be paid. A few days later, in another letter to Adams with respect to the same matter, Franklin said in regard to a proposal of settlement made by De Neufville, “I think that the less we have to do with that Shark the better; his jaws are too strong, his teeth too many and his appetite immensely voracious.” Before the episode was ended, De Neufville was only too glad to dispatch his son to Paris to beseech the bear to relax his hug. (Benjamin Franklin Self-Revealed: A Biographical and Critical Study Based Mainly on His Own Writings, 2 vols. [New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1917]).
When Franklin was dying, in December 1789, so emaciated from weight loss caused by opium treatment that, he said, “little remains of me but a skeleton covered with a skin,” he received a request for money from a Jewish woman. He explained in a letter to a friend that she was
the widow of a Jew who, happening to be one of a number of passengers, that were about 46? years ago in a stage-boat going to New York, and which, by the unskillful management of the boatman, overset the canoe from whence I was endeavouring to get on board her, near Staten Island, has ever since worried me with demands of a gratuity for having as he pretended been instrumental in saving my life; though that was in no danger, as we were near the shore, and you know what an expert swimmer I am, and he was no more of any service to me in stopping the boat to take me in, than every other passenger; to all of whom I gave a liberal entertainment at the tavern when we arrived at New York, to their general satisfaction at the time. But this Hayes never saw me afterwards, at New York, or Brunswick or Philadelphia that he did not dun me for money on the pretense of his being poor and having been so happy as to be instrumental in saving my life, which was really in no danger. In this way he got of me sometimes a double Joannes, sometimes a Spanish doubloon, and never less, how much in the whole I do not know having kept no account of it, but it must have been a very considerable sum; and as he neither incurred any risk, nor was at any trouble in my behalf, I have long since thought him well paid for any little expense of humanity he might have felt on the occasion. He seems, however, to have left me to his widow as part of her dowry.
It is fascinating to observe that the pushy, grasping, self-centered Hayes got what he wanted from the eternally busy and socially well-connected Dr. Franklin, despite the latter’s awareness, even resentment, over the slimy con man’s brazen impositions.
Why? Franklin was no doormat. Yet the Jew shamelessly pressed himself upon him and — voilà! — got what he wanted.
In Franklin’s allusions to Jews we see a definite differentiation, separation, setting apart — a perception of otherness.
Jewishness is also frequently associated with negative traits. The harsh-sounding term “Jew,” rather than “Hebrew,” “Israelite,” or some other euphemism of the time, sounds somewhat like an epithet.
This negative connotation is significant because, although philo-Semites must acknowledge — if only sneakily and dishonestly — that Jews are radically different from whites — including themselves — all criticism is forbidden.
We (rightly, in the eyes of philo-Semites) are second- or third-class citizens.
Jews, by contrast, are our moral, intellectual, and social superiors. Unlike us, they must not be evaluated objectively or by the same standards as other people. Nothing they say or do is ever wrong. It is acceptable to single them out positively as a group, but never negatively. Even the most godless philo-Semites are convinced that Jews incarnate some ineffable divine holiness, elevating the Chosen far above the ranks of ordinary mortals, whose rights and interests do not matter by comparison.
But Franklin, seemingly, did not think that way.
A Note on Sources
The definitive edition of The Papers of Benjamin Franklin (Yale University Press, 1959–2011), 40 volumes long and counting, has now reached the year 1783 — when he was still a diplomat in France.
A digital version of the papers in CD ROM format, including many not yet published in book form, was created in 1988 by the Packard Humanities Institute headed by David W. Packard, son of Hewlett-Packard co-founder David Packard.
Yale Revolutionary War historian Edmund S. Morgan based his book Benjamin Franklin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002) on reading “everything on the disk and the volumes [The Papers of Benjamin Franklin published to that time] but not much else.” (Morgan preface to Benjamin Franklin, p. ix.)
Edmund S. Morgan wrote a special Introduction to Ben Franklin for the website (left-hand frame).
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