Social media platforms have long proved a popular outlet for the circulation of quotes from well-known figures, with a significant proportion of them being mistattributed or apocryphal. A long-circulating example of this phenomenon is a quote attributed to Founding Father Benjamin Franklin highlighting the responsibility every citizen bears to “question authority”:
For the most part, the earliest online attributions of this thought to Franklin go back no further than the 2000s, which suggests that the origin of this statement is much more recent than the 18th century. One of the earliest appearances of the quote online was published on 12 August 2005 in the course of a discussion on a page for politically active librarians called Radical Reference. The original poster wasn’t seeking to attribute the entire quote to Franklin, nor did he even mention Franklin; he merely aimed to trace the origins of the short phrase “question authority.” In 2009, another participant replied to the inquiry to assert that:
The origin of the phrase is sometimes attributed to Timothy Leary who was an advocate of psychedelic drug research and a proponent of the beneficial effects of LSD. His approach to “Question Authority” was wrong. Leary died in 1996.
However, Benjamin Franklin was often quoted as saying “it is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority.” That’s probably where Leary got his version of the phrase.
However, the poster provided no citation with this response, and no other commenters attempted to attribute the comment to Franklin or document his usage of it.
An undated version of this quote appeared on a Pinterest board named “Fake Quotes from the Founding Fathers,” the relevant pin leading to a June 2009 YouTube video that included the quote. Various commenters asserted a number of the quotes included in the video were inaccurate, and one said of the Franklin attribution:
Timothy Leary made the “question authority” quote, not Franklin. It seems to have first appeared in a Stanford Newspaper in the 1970s attributed to Ben Franklin, but he never said it most likely. If you find a source for Franklin pre-1960, let me know.
This quote was glaringly absent from Franklin’s Wikiquote page, as well as its companion “Talk” page. Moreover, we were unable to locate any comments remotely resembling the attributed quote via Yale’s extensive Franklin Papers, a comprehensive digitized archive of Franklin’s publications, correspondence, and manuscripts.
The quote “it is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority” has widely been attributed to Benjamin Franklin since the mid-2000s, but we could locate no credible evidence before or after that period suggesting that the comment was ever written or uttered by. The most comprehensive collection of Franklin’s writings not only provides no evidence that the quote is authentic, but it also lacks any other statement of Franklin’s similar enough to serve as reasonable basis for the attribution.
In fact, Google Books’ Ngram Viewer records virtually no usage of the phrase “question authority” in printed material until the latter part of the 20th century, making it extremely unlikely that Franklin would have employed it two centuries earlier.