Anything Obscure & Eclectic
Detail of David Martin's "Benjamin Franklin," including a bust of Newton, 1767.

Beer, (not) by Benjamin Franklin


Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.
–Benjamin Franklin (1706-90)

Would it were true, friends. The quote, not the sentiment. The sentiment is most definitely true.

In 1779, Benjamin Franklin–who did write “There never was a good war or bad peace”–returned to Paris to assist in the negotiations for a treaty with England; he would succeed, of course, but not until 1783. While in Paris, he sent a letter to French economist, author, and all-around big thinker André Morellet. “Behold the rain,” wrote old Ben, “which descends from heaven upon our vineyards. There it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine, a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.” Hear, hear, but not, fundamentally, about beer.

Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky, by Benjamin West, c.1816.

Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky, by Benjamin West, c.1816.

This is hardly an isolated incident. Among many false maxims to which Franklin is occasionally linked is an explication on a Latin phrase favored by drinkers and Western movie screenwriters alike: In vino veritas, “In wine, truth,” from Pliny the Elder, who attributed the saying to the Greek poet Alcaeus as Oinos kai alathea, “wine and truth.”

Franklin’s supposed witticism–“In wine there is wisdom, in beer there is freedom, in water there is bacteria”–is a profoundly zealous attribution. The word “bacteria” wasn’t defined and used until the mid-19th century, and even then it existed almost exclusively in the domain of medical texts, say the 1847 edition of Todd’s Cyclopaedia of Anatomy and Physiology or the delightfully named Jabez Hogg’s The microscope: its history, construction and application, circa 1864. Even for a genius on the scale of Benjamin Franklin this is hardly light reading, unlikely to cross his desk, the desk at which he is not sitting, he having been dead for some fifty-seven years.

But doubtless hero worship of the kind that puts Poor Richard beside some decidedly hard-working cherubs on that fateful, storm-tossed night has room for the occasional wild historical inaccuracy.

This entry was published on 19 March 2012 at 3:27 pm. It’s filed under B and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

2 thoughts on “Beer, (not) by Benjamin Franklin

  1. Delightful, Art. I’m sure it makes Ben happy. You are becoming a wag historian! (<:}&

  2. Pingback: On JFK and Dante | Art On Edge

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