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Say What? Says Who? Benjamin Franklin on Beer – or Not

Posted by at 8:02 pm | Category: Beer Backgrounds 0

Anchor historian Dave Burkhart debunks the most frequently misquoted and misattributed sayings about beer and San Francisco.

“Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”

Benjamin Franklin

We at Anchor Brewing have no doubt of the truth of this statement. But of the author? Well, it simply wasn’t Benjamin Franklin.

Wishfully but mistakenly attributed by beer lovers, lecturers, and writers to a man who deserves credit for so much already, it remains one of the most popular sayings about beer—if not God and happiness—that nobody really said.

Although he enjoyed beer—especially small beer, perfect for long sessions devoted to discussions of political philosophy, economic theory, science, and the arts—Ben Franklin was first and foremost a great lover of wine.

 

In 1779, while in France, Franklin wrote to his friend, the theologian, economist, philosopher, and writer André Morellet (1727–1819):

On parle de la conversion de l’eau en vin, à la nôce de Cana, comme d’un miracle. Mais cette conversion est faite tous les jours par la bonté de Dieu, sous nos yeux. Voilà l’eau qui tombe des cieux sur nos vignobles, et alors elle entre dans les racines des vignes pour-être changée en vin. Preuve constante que Dieu nous aime, et qu’il aime à nous voir heureux.1

André Morellet

Prose about wine always sounds so poetic in French, but Franklin sounds great in any language:

We hear of the conversion of water into wine at the marriage in Cana, as of a miracle. But this conversion is, through the goodness of God, made every day before our eyes. Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, and which incorporates itself with the grapes to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy!1

As Franklin reminded Monsieur l’Abbé Morellet in the same letter, “In vino veritas…Truth is in wine.” And truth, according to Morellet’s motto on the bookplates in his vast library, triumphs over all—Veritas omnia vincit.

Franklin wrote less reverentially about beer in his autobiography. In London in the mid-1720s, its consumption by his fellow printers had troubled him, in spite of the fact that it was perfectly normal in those days to fortify oneself with a beer or two at work:

I now began to think of getting a little Money beforehand; and expecting better Work, I left [Samuel] Palmer’s to work at [John] Watts’s near Lincoln’s Inn Fields, a still greater Printing House. Here I continu’d all the rest of my Stay in London [he returned to Philadelphia in 1726].

At my first Admission into this Printing House, I took to working at Press, imagining I felt a Want of the Bodily Exercise I had been us’d to in America, where Presswork is mix’d with Composing. I drank only Water; the other Workmen, near 50 in Number, were great Guzzlers of Beer.

On occasion I carried up and down Stairs a large Form of Types in each hand, when others carried but one in both Hands. They wonder’d to see from this and several Instances that the Water-American as they call’d me was stronger than themselves who drank strong Beer. We had an Alehouse Boy who attended always in the House to supply the Workmen. My Companion at the Press, drank every day a Pint before Breakfast, a Pint at Breakfast with his Bread and Cheese; a Pint between Breakfast and Dinner; a Pint at Dinner; a Pint in the Afternoon about Six o’Clock, and another when he had done his Day’s-Work. I thought it a detestable Custom. But it was necessary, he suppos’d, to drink strong Beer that he might be strong to labour.

I endeavour’d to convince him that the Bodily Strength afforded by Beer could only be in proportion to the Grain or Flour of the Barley dissolved in the Water of which it was made; that there was more Flour in a Penny-worth of Bread, and therefore if he would eat that with a Pint of Water, it would give him more Strength than a Quart of Beer. He drank on however, and had 4 or 5 Shillings to pay out of his Wages every Saturday Night for that muddling Liquor; an Expence I was free from. And thus these poor Devils keep themselves always under….

From my Example a great Part of them, left their muddling Breakfast of Beer and Bread and Cheese, finding they could with me be supply’d from a neighbouring House with a large Porringer of hot Water-gruel, sprinkled with Pepper, crumb’d with Bread, and a Bit of Butter in it, for the Price of a Pint of Beer, viz, three halfpence. This was a more comfortable as well as cheaper Breakfast, and kept their Heads clearer. Those who continu’d sotting with Beer all day, were often, by not paying, out of Credit at the Alehouse, and us’d to make Interest with me to get Beer, their Light, as they phras’d it, being out.2

Franklin’s Printing Press

 

Despite Franklin’s feelings about beer, God, of course, still loved him and wanted him to be happy. And forty years later there is proof!

In 1768, Franklin visited the London print shop where he had once been a journeyman printer. He was sure that one of their presses was the very press that he had operated over forty years before. That was cause for celebration, and he ordered a gallon of porter to share with his fellow printers and toast their noble profession.

The press is now in the Smithsonian. A brass plate was affixed to it in 1833. It reads, according to New Yorker John B. Murray, who was responsible for bringing the press to America:

DR. FRANKLIN’S Remarks relative to this Press, made when he came to England as agent of the Massachusetts, in the year 1768. The Doctor at this time visited the Printing-office of Mr. Watts, of Wild-street, Lincoln’s-lnn-Fields, and, going up to this particular Press, (afterwards in the possession of Messrs. Cox and Son, of Great Queen-street, of whom it was purchased,) thus addressed the men who were working at it:—”Come, my friends, we will drink together. It is now forty years since I worked like you at this Press, as a journeyman Printer.” The Doctor then sent out for a gallon of Porter, and he drank with them,—”SUCCESS TO PRINTING.”3

So—unless you see lightning—raise an Anchor Porter to Ben Franklin and be happy!

Citations

1Franklin’s letter and translation from Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Benjamin Franklin, by his grandson, William Temple Franklin, 1819. A slightly different version appears in Mémoires de l’abbé Morellet, M. Lémontey, ed., Paris, 1821: “On parle de la conversion de l’eau en vin, à la noce de Cana, comme d’un miracle. Mais cette conversion est faite tous les jours par la bonté de Dieu devant nos yeux. Voilà l’eau qui tombe des cieux sur nos vignobles; là, elle entre les racines des vignes pour être changée en vin; preuve constante que Dieu nous aime, et qu’il aime à nous voir heureux.”

2From Franklin’s autobiography in The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, a joint project of Yale University Library and the American Philosophical Society.

3From A Lecture on the Life of Dr. Franklin, by John B. Murray, 1841, which includes a transcript of Rev. Hugh M’Neile’s 1841 lecture at the Liverpool Royal Amphitheatre, at which Murray displayed the “Franklin” printing press he purchased and would soon ship to America. J. L. Cox, in an 1841 letter to Murray, confirmed the story about the press and the porter, though not the date. “I remember an old press-man in my father’s employ, named Norgrove, who informed me that when Dr. Franklin was in this country, arranging the Treaty of Peace between England and the United States, he one day came to the office, and that he (Norgrove) was then working at the Press. The Dr. observed that it was the same Press he had himself once worked at when a journeyman; and having ordered some porter to be sent for, he drank some with him, and the other men in the room; recommending them all to be industrious and attentive to business, as he had bee, and that, like himself, they would benefit by it.”


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