As you might have gathered from my previous posts, Benjamin Franklin is a secondary character in my current work-in-progress. He acts as a mentor to my hero Jericho Jones—a totally fictional character. Because of this relationship, there are scenes where my hero must interact with Franklin. I think it’s very important to accurately portray a historical figure when using him in fiction. This is why I try to verify the facts and suppositions I use with historical research by respected scholars.
One of the many things known about Franklin is his publication of Poor Richard’s Almanack, which first appeared in 1732 and annually thereafter until 1758. Pennsylvania sent him to London in 1757 as their colonial representative. Many famous quotes are printed in the almanac. In one of my scenes, I needed to use the saying “Honesty is the best policy,” and immediately paused my writing. Was this actually one of Franklin’s quotes?
I turned to the internet and put the quote in with the additional tag of Benjamin Franklin. The search returned several nicely displayed pictures with the saying in lovely font and attributing it to Franklin.
A lovely made picture didn’t mean it was actually said by him.
Now I was on the hunt to discover who actually did originate the saying. Eventually I came to a blog post by Schmaltz and Menudo who had explored this very question on June 12, 2016. The author proved it didn’t come from Franklin, although he used the concept in some of his writing.
The next most popular person to attribute quotes to is William Shakespeare. The blog author also examined that source, which is attributed to the play Antony and Cleopatra Act III Scene IV between Antony and his wife Octavia. The author pointed out the saying could be construed as twisted from Antony’s speech, but Shakespeare didn’t originally coin the phrase either.
To verify the speech, I turned to the book The Works of William Shakespeare, which was presented to my grandfather for his regular attendance in school during the year 1916-1917. As the blog author had stated, Antony’s line reads as:
Let your best love draw to that point, which seeks
Best to preserve it; if I lose mine honor,
I lose myself:
The bolded part is considered the basis for the claim that Shakespeare originated the quote. I don’t quite see it myself. It sounds more like the basis for the Cavalier poet Richard Lovelace’s line from his 1649 poem To Lucasta, Going to the Warres “I could not love thee, dear, so much, Loved I not honor more.”
The blog author did further research, tracing the honesty saying back to a better source in 1599, but I had stopped by then. Benjamin Franklin did not originate the saying, but he also didn’t have access to the internet. I decided to make Franklin admit the quote wasn’t his, but at the same time, have him erroneously attribute it to Shakespeare. I will put the correct research in my Author’s Note at the end of the book.
So far what is just a small interaction in my story, I ended up trailing down several rabbit holes to find my answer.
Link to blog researching the quote: