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Benjamin Franklin a Plagiarizer?

Updated on December 17, 2016
RGraf profile image

Rebecca Graf is a seasoned writer with nearly a decade of experience and degrees in accounting, history, and creative writing.

When we think of plagiarism, we typically think of students cheating on their papers. That is one of the most common forms.Yet, it started out long before that here in America in our early newspapers. And it was committed by a founding father, Benjamin Franklin.

Hard to believe? Well, he might have called it something differently, but when you looked at the bare facts....

The Early Newspapers

We take for granted many of the media outlets we have today. That includes the periodicals that can be found practically anywhere.There was a time when they were not so prolific yet they played vital roles in society. Through them, the public was able to garner news, learn new information, and entertain themselves...Kind of like the Internet today.

In America, one of the earliest newspaper publishers was Benjamin Franklin, and his reputation today belies his actions of the day.


Benjamin Franklin

His words were prolific back then as they are today. Everyone knew who Benjamin Franklin was and commonly quoted the man. He was one of several newspaper publishers in the New World, but his were one of the most popular. That meant what he wrote was read and repeated. Many considered Franklin a smart man. After all, everything he said was from his creative mind, right?

Maybe not.

Franklin’s newspapers were largely plagiarized. He took many excerpts from other writers and newspaper publishers and let others see them as his own work. Should we fault him? Maybe not.

Plagiarism in the early newspapers was quite common. Publishers took from other publishers, and those they took from knew it. No one got upset over it. It has been said that “Franklin, in short, was a serial plagiary. Is this some dirty secret from his past, which would have disqualified him from a position of responsibility had it come out during his lifetime? Hardly. When several historians were recently charged with plagiarizing passages in their works, the scandal occupied front pages and buzzed in faculty lounges for months. But when Franklin stole whole works, no one cared. Far from being a scandal, it was almost the norm.” (

They quoted others, but never admitted it. They stole and didn’t care. In fact, “Every element of Franklin's sham comes straight from Swift's essays of a quarter-century before, and yet Franklin nowhere credits his source. And though in this case he paraphrased Swift rather than quoting him directly, he often stole words as well as ideas,” (Ibid.)

The Plagiarism Epidemic Today

While using another person’s words wasn’t uncommon back in Franklin’s day, it might be the birth of an epidemic. Since then plagiarism has taken a life of its own. It is found about everywhere from grade schools through major universities and even into professional work environments. The sickness is showing up everywhere.

It has become more than just borrowing words. It has become deliberate theft due to laziness. The norm has become something abhorrent to the public especially those who work hard to create the pieces stolen. Awards have been given only to find that they should have been given to someone else.

Can we blame this on Benjamin Franklin? Can you lay the epidemic on his doorstep? After all, the Founding Father we look up to stole words, right?


How It Affects Us Today

Plagiarism today is just as rampant as it was back then, at least percentage wise I guess you could say.There are more opportunities to commit it. There are more tools to help make it easier. The Internet has opened up a new world for those who steal ideas and words from others.

So what does plagiarism do to us today? It encourages theft. It encourages dishonesty and laziness. By allowing people to get away with it, we give thieves power over those who honestly work hard at crafting a sentence or who stay up all night creating ideas and plans. Thank you, Ben, for setting the groundwork for others to follow.


Benjamin Franklin was a very talented man. He was a wonderful inventor and had a way with words that helped him professionally and as a diplomat later after the creation of the United States. He played a major role in establishing this country and the government that we use today. This article is not meant to discredit him or see him as a bad person. It is simple look at what used to be accepted as the norm is now seen as a criminal act.


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    • RGraf profile image

      Rebecca Graf 5 months ago from Wisconsin

      Yes, he was interesting. He was a man who could move through so many different circles. Thanks for stopping by.

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 5 months ago from Long Island, NY

      I always found Franklin to be an interesting fellow who dealt with many problems throughout his life.

      When he was in the newspaper business, he had many people, including friends, write pieces for inclusion, in addition to his own writing. He mentioned that in his autobiography.

      So I assume he wasn't careful to check where the others were getting their content from. As for his own writing, I've noticed that he mentioned names of people he quoted quite a bit. But as you say, the business was different in those days and I'm sure he didn't always give credit when due.

      The entire newspaper business was new at that time. He even had a large following of his Poor Richard's Almanack.

      I had read several of Franklin's books in the past few years, and I recently wrote an article reviewing five of them. He was definitely an interesting historic figure who knew how to succeed in life when the odds are against you.