Benjamin Franklin: The Missing Virtue of Honesty

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Franklin’s associations with secret fraternities is often overlooked in history books for the general population, but is well known by the elite society who are often deeply involved in these secret “cults.” Julius Sachse states in his forward, “Strange as it may appear, not a single one of the great orators who spoke during the late celebration made, the least mention of Benjamin Franklin as a Freemason, yet during almost sixty years of his eventful life and career. Franklin was an active Freemason (vii).” It makes one wonder why this is not common knowledge for “We the People” yet groups from within these fraternities know about them and what it is that they do inside their “windowless lodges.” It’s no surprise that Franklin was so inspired by his initiation and steps toward the highest degree that he created his own secret club, which he named “Junto.”

Benjamin Franklin first became a Freemason at the St. Johns Lodge in Philadelphia between 1730 and 1731 (Sachse, 2). Interestingly, in Franklin’s autobiography, he speaks of a “great” and “extensive” project that he had “conceived” in the year of 1731 but does not tell the reader what that venture is. Franklin’s observations in the beginning of Part III of his autobiography concerns information, which he never discloses from which book he receives this intelligence from, about the political parties that attend to the affairs of the world; how each of these parties have special interests within political categories; how they “thwart” others, “break parties into divisions,” and “occasion more confusion;” these agendas are used to push his particular interests to the forefront (Franklin 73). Interestingly, this is reminiscent to the phrase “Order out of Chaos” (ordo ab chao) which, to anyone with eyes wide open, would recognize the same tactics employed to today’s model of government. Going back to Sachse, it turns out that this great and extensive project is Franklin writing codes and laws for his Masonic Lodge in Philadelphia in 1732 (Sachse, 2). He reaches the 33rd degree as Grand Master in 1734, which is the highest degree of the Scottish Rite and renders him able to receive additional memberships in the knighthood orders. As it turns out, Franklin was a member of multiple orders in Europe, which include France and Great Britain.

Benjamin Franklin’s statement, “So convenient to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make reason for everything one has a mind to do (27)” smacks of Aleister Crowley’s motto, “Do what thou wilt,” a Thelema motto that was adopted by the Rosicrucians in the early 1900’s. No doubt this freed Franklin of any emotional responsibility or guilt regarding to what he said or did within the secrecy of his groups or in public.

Interestingly enough, according to Frater Graves, “Franklin did establish a secret group of Rosicrucians that met as a separate body in Philadelphia.” Franklin stated in his autobiography that he had mused over a “bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.” After much deliberation of what this list should contain, thirteen character assets: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility made the contents.

Of the thirteen virtues he listed, the word “truth and honesty” were missing, which was an utter surprise. Truth  and honesty are a couple virtues that is commonly striven for by people looking to better themselves, so for Franklin to omit those particular merits says a lot about his character and what he thinks about lying and dishonesty. Instead, number seven’s “sincerity” is put into truth and honesty’s place with the first part of Franklin’s definition saying, “Use no hurtful deceit.” Franklin supplies a broad term with no clear meaning for sincerity and so I was forced to draw my own conclusions about what this meant. The definition of deceit means to defraud, to trick, or to act with craftiness in order to mislead someone. So, for Franklin, it was perfectly permissible to lie to someone as long as he doesn’t believe that his trickery didn’t hurt them or their beliefs. And of course, this ability to lie without consequence allows for secrecy and deception, which follows his second virtue of “silence.”

The omission of “truth and honesty” brought me to Albert Pike who wrote Morals and Dogma later in the 1800’s on the virtues of being a Mason and what the responsibilities are. According to Pike, “Masonry [. . .] conceals its secrets from all except the Adepts and Sages, or the elect, and uses false explanations and misinterpretations of its symbols to mislead those who deserve only to be misled; to conceal the truth [.] The Teachers, even of Christianity are [. . .] the most ignorant of the true meaning of that which they teach. There is no book of which so little is known as the Bible (Pike, 104,105).” If there is any doubt about dishonesty or withholding information by the Masons, there can be no doubt that this is also practiced outside the lodge and explains the reason for the distaste that John Adams felt for Benjamin Franklin.

President Kennedy and John Quincy Adams held a high degree of suspicion and objection for these Freemasonic Societies. President Kennedy once said during a speech in 1961, “The very word secrecy is repugnant in a free society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths, and secret proceedings.” Franklin was steeped very deeply into secrecy and his autobiography hints of this when he discusses Junto and the laws within this society. Kennedy goes on to discuss subversion, which in Franklin’s autobiography, he admits to doing but not in those words. For example, Franklin wants to push a code or law to which most of the members of Junto are opposed. Rather than just vote on it, lose, and then concede that the idea of the law is terminated, Franklin sets it aside and uses a tactic over a couple of years known as predictive programming which “prepares the minds” of his society members until Franklin successfully pushes the law that he wants while successfully undermining everyone else’s desires. This strategy is subversive, manipulative, crafty, and deceptive that which plainly agrees with his virtues of order, silence, and sincerity. This is also nasty tactic used by the politicians of today. Simply put, nothing has changed.

John Quincy Adams was of the same mind as Kennedy when he stated “I do conscientiously and sincerely believe that the Order of Freemasonry, if not the greatest, is one of the greatest moral and political evils under which the Union is now laboring (171) […] a conspiracy of the few against the equal rights of the many (296) […] Masonry ought forever to be abolished. It is wrong – essentially wrong – a seed of evil, which can never produce any good (111).” It is conceivable that once learning about these societies and conversing with his father in matters regarding what goes on inside the lodges and that most of the presidents so far, including Franklin were among the members. The idea of leaders involved in secret societies within the government was enough to spur the abolishment of Freemasonry in America by John Q. Adams, which unfortunately, they never succeeded.

John Adams, for one, having worked extensively with Franklin numerous times over a twenty year period, did not trust Franklin. Robert Middlekauff, writing in Benjamin Franklin and His Enemies, notes that Adams “professed to feel only contempt for Franklin” (200). Though John Adams Sr. had written an essay  on Franklin’s achievements, it offered a forced and distant praise. It’s not a wonder; Benjamin Franklin has only proven to be a purveyor of deceit and dishonesty, which he practiced daily, according to his autobiography.

D.H. Lawrence saw him as ushering in the end of spiritual enlightenment and the embodiment of an ideal committing one’s soul to wealth: “The pattern American, this dry, moral, utilitarian little democrat, had done more to ruin the old Europe than any Russian nihilist. [. . .] Either we are materialistic instruments, like Benjamin, or we move in the gesture of creation, from our deepest self, usually unconscious.” (58).

While it may seem that I am being unduly harsh on Franklin, he is seen as one of the large figures of the enlightenment. However, like all mortals, the larger the figure, the more that figure conceals. In some ways, Franklin is an architect of the American republic, but he is also the “pied piper” whom the people of our country followed down a path that would lead to our becoming an economic empire, with money material objects being the desired goal. In that sense, he is a trader and a traitor to our highest ideals, especially when we consider what he really means by order, silence, and sincerity. Certainly, he is admired for his experiments with electricity, his political skills, and for his inventions, but as a man, any admiration of him must be tread with caution.

Works Cited:

Adams, John Quincy, 1767-1848. Six Letters from John Quincy Adams to Edward Livingston, On Masonry. Philadelphia: C.T. Jones, 1833. babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015038768860. PDF.

Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Dover publications. Mineola, NY. Print. 1996.

Graves, Frater Orvil. “Benjamin Franklin as a Rosicrucian.” Rosicrucian Digest. Vol. XVII. June 1939, pp 178-182, http://www.iapsop.com/archive/materials/rosicrucian_digest/rosicrucian_digest_v17_n5_1939_jun.pdf. Accessed 30 Nov. 2016.

Kennedy, John F. April 27, 1961 Speech, Youtube, by Philosopher Rex, 4 October 2010. youtu.be/8Jb8KqaerhQ. Accessed 2 Dec. 2010.

Lawrence, D. H. “Benjamin Franklin.” Studies in Classic American Literature Shearsman Books, 2011. pp 48-60. xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/LAWRENCE/dhlch02.htm. Accessed 29 Nov 2016.

Middlekauff, Robert. Benjamin Franklin and His Enemies. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft4d5nb373/. Accessed 29 Nov. 2016.

Pike, Albert. Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry: Prepared for the Supreme Council of the Thirty-Third Degree, for the Southern Jurisdiction of the United States and Published by its Authority. L.H. Jenkins. Richmond, Virginia. 1942. Print.

Sachse, Julius F. Benjamin Franklin As a Free Mason. Philadelphia: New Era Print. Co, 1906. Internet resource. babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=dul1.ark:/13960/t0sr1w90p;view=1up;seq=9. Accessed 30 Nov. 2016.

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One Response to Benjamin Franklin: The Missing Virtue of Honesty

  1. This is part of an essay that I wrote for class about Benjamin Franklin and his ties to the Freemasons.

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