Ben Franklin “We Must All Hang Together or All Hang Separately” Quote or No Quote?

One of the advantages of being in my station in life and having my social status is that I’m able to hire professionals to do a lot of the difficult work for me. The Buzzkill Institute pays very well for this, in my opinion. And so when the new Chief Operating Officer called me into her office the other other day, I half-expected her to spend most of the meeting thanking me for giving her such a wonderful job.

That’s not what happened. She sat me down and gave me a thorough explanation of where I was failing as Professor Buzzkill. “Didn’t you realize,” she said with apparent alarm, “that Ken Burns has a new documentary on Ben Franklin coming out?” “No,” I replied. She sighed and said that I’d better record a Franklin-themed episode sharpish, and I’d better get the Buzzkill researchers working on it immediately. “I always quote Ben Franklin to my workers,” she continued. “‘We must all hang together, or most assuredly we will all hang separately.’ So get to it, and make it a team effort. I don’t trust the work that you do alone.”

I nearly told her about the questionable veracity of that quote attribution, but she pushed me out the door too quickly. So I’ll tell you what the Buzzkill research team has confirmed.

Ben Franklin was a political and philosophical giant in his day. In addition to his high ideals and penetrating intellect, he was also interested in conveying common wisdom, through the sayings and epigrams he published in his annual Poor Richard’s Almanack from 1736 to 1758. He has become, therefore, one of a handful of Americans to whom quotations are routinely attributed, whether they be lofty and profound epigrams, or common wisdom about everyday life.

The story is that, at the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia in 1776, Franklin warned his fellow patriots that, “we must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” This quote seems to fit in with the Franklin epigrammatic style, and colonial unity _was_ a serious problem when the Declaration was signed. There was disagreement among the colonists about whether and how to overturn British rule and establish a new country. Whoever said this, therefore, was not cracking a joke. Disunity was a major concern.

Lots of experts have examined the “we must all hang together” quote. Unlike many of Franklin’s other quotations, there is no solid evidence that he said it at the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It’s also very unlikely to have originated with him. But the story of how it became attributed to him tells us a lot about how famous sentiments have been put into the mouths of even more famous people over time.

You see, other Franklin-isms, such as “a republic, if you can keep it” (said by him in a response to a question about what type of government was to come out of the writing of the U.S. Constitution in 1787) were written down by witnesses or friends at the time. Historians and quote specialists are very comfortable with the veracity of those attributions.

Alas, Franklin’s name didn’t get attached to the “we must all hang together” quote until 1840, when it appeared in a ten-volume compendium of Franklin’s writings by Jared Sparks. As is often the case, Sparks gave no source citation for this quote.

The “hang alone or hang together” saying has been traced in print to John Dryden’s 1717 book, The Spanish Fryar, where it is referred to as a “Flemish proverb.” (Ben Franklin was 11 years old in 1717.) And given that it is listed as a “proverb,” it probably pre-dates 1717.

But now I’ll bring the discussion back to the American continent. In a letter to his uncle dated 14 April 1776, Carter Braxton (a Virginia moderate who was a member of the Continental Congress) said of the atmosphere of the Congress’s deliberations, “a true saying of a Wit – We must hang together or separately.” That letter, of course, was written almost three months before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and the tone indicates that it was an old witticism. 

The sentiment appears frequently in early 19th century literature, but it was always attributed to someone other than Franklin. In 1801, “If we don’t hang together, by Heavens we shall hang separately” was part of an English play, “Life,” written by Frederic Reynolds.” In his, “Memoirs of a Life, Chiefly Passed in Pennsylvania” (1811), Alexander Graydon attributed the saying to Richard Penn, the grandson of William Penn. And then, by 1840 and Jared Sparks’ volumes, it was attached to Benjamin Franklin.

This is an extremely common trajectory for quotations, and my Buzzkill answer is that the following is what probably happened.

“We must all hang together or we will all hang separately” has probably been around since the 1650s or so (as an old Flemish proverb). It was well-enough known in 1776 to be regularly trotted out in times of crisis, and when the need for unity was at a high point. That’s why Carter Braxton referred to it in his letter in April of that year. And it may have indeed been said by any number of people in the summer of 1776, especially in Philadelphia around the time the Declaration was debated, approved, signed, and printed. There’s just no good evidence that Franklin ever said it. Perhaps it was already a cliché by then and, therefore, beneath someone of his wit and intellect to utter.

How, then, was the quote Franklin-ized in succeeding centuries? Again, this is the Professor Buzzkill explanation of what I see as a common historical phenomenon.

As the revolutionary generation started to die out and become part of the early written history of the young United States, the vast number of people involved in the revolution and the development of the new government was gradually whittled down to a couple of dozen notables in popular memory and history. I call this “the Mount Rushmore effect.” You can’t possibly talk about the hundreds or thousands of people directly involved in something important, so people concentrate on leaders and on the famous. 

As time rolls on, and more and more events become part of the “American story,” the number of individual historical figures well-known in the popular mind continues to go down. We forget about all the second- and third-level people who do most of the work for which political and military leaders get all the credit. And that’s not even mentioning the hundreds of thousands of, if you will, “foot soldiers” on the ground. Archaeologists (perhaps alien archaeologists) thousands of years from now will find Mount Rushmore, and assume that the four men depicted there were responsible for most of American history. 

Many of you out there are going to hate me for lumping you in with people who are satisfied with sound-byte history. And I know that you know there were more than a handful of people involved in the American revolution. Still, I hope that as we all sit down tonight to watch the first episode of Ken Burns’ new documentary on Ben Franklin, we’ll be pleasantly surprised if he doesn’t characterize Franklin as the only wit, the only intellectual, and the only significant person of letters in early American history. Franklin himself drew his inspiration from many people. 

And even though the new Chief Operating Officer at the Buzzkill Institute has the “hang together or hang separately” quote misappropriated, she fits in very well with the ethos of our approach to studying people in the past. That is, heroes are given too much attention. Most things were a massive team effort. 

Buzzkill Bookshelf:

Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin