John Adams? Tobias Smollett? Alain-René Lesage?
Dear Quote Investigator: In class last year we studied the Boston Massacre and our history book said that John Adams, who later became the second President of the United States, defended the soldiers who shot and killed the protesters. During the defense Adams used the famous phrase:
Facts are stubborn things.
But when I looked up this phrase in an old copy of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations I found that someone named Tobias Smollett was credited. Further, Smollett used the phrase when he was translating a book that was written even earlier by a Frenchman. Can you investigate this?
Quote Investigator: The evidence indicates that John Adams did use the phrase; however, before he used it Tobias Smollett employed it. Further, the French author Alain-René Lesage wrote the book that Smollett translated. Intriguingly, QI has located an instance of the proverb that predates the usage by each of these three gentlemen.
In 1770 John Adams was asked to help provide a legal defense for the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre. He accepted the task knowing that his fellow colonists were hostile to the troops and his legal practice would probably suffer. His defending argument did include the famous phrase as recorded in an 1788 history book [JABM]:
I will enlarge no more on the evidence, but submit it to you, gentlemen—Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence: nor is the law less stable than the fact. If an assault was made to endanger their lives, the law is clear, they had right kill in their own defence.
Familiar Quotations by John Bartlett does list the saying in its 10th edition dated 1919. Yet, John Adams is not credited [JB]:
AUTHOR: Tobias George Smollett (1721–1771)
QUOTATION: Facts are stubborn things.
ATTRIBUTION: Translation of Gil Blas. Book x. Chap. 1.
The novel Gil Blas was written by the Frenchman Alain-René Lesage, and the translation by Smollett appeared by 1748 or 1749. So the saying entered the English language by that date. But the entry in Bartlett’s book also has a footnote that points to an earlier date: Elliot: Essay on Field Husbandry, p. 35 (1747).
The date can be pushed further back. The Yale Book of Quotations (2006) has this citation [YQF]:
Facts are stubborn things.
Bernard Mandeville, An Enquiry into the Origin of Honor, and the Usefulness of Christianity in War (1732)
The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs has a close variant also in 1732 [OXFC]:
Plain matters of fact are terrible stubborn things.
E. Budgell Liberty & Progress ii (1732)
QI has located two interesting early citations. The first includes an exact instance of the saying in a periodical called The Political State of Great Britain in November of 1717 [PSGB]:
But Facts are Stubborn Things And therefore, when he comes to the Proof of his Charge, I have a Right to demand of him, to keep to those Four Particulars which I have just now mentioned.
The second citation includes a close variant of the saying, “matters of fact are stubborn things”, in a book titled Treason Unmask’d in 1713 [TU]:
But Matters of Fact are stubborn Things, and no Fact can be more certain, than that his See Was full of him, while between December 6, and January 10, he had committed several Treasons, and was put into Custody for them.
Gil Blas, the picaresque French novel by Lesage, was published starting in 1715. Thus, the instance of the maxim in Treason Unmask’d antedates the novel. The earliest date may be pushed further back as databases continue to grow and as more searches are conducted. Thanks for your question.
[JABM] 1788, The History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment, of the Independence of the United States of America by William Gordon, Volume 1 of 4, Page 296, Printed for the Author by Charles Dilly, London. link
[JB] 1919, Familiar Quotations by John Bartlett, 10th edition, Quotation:Facts are stubborn things. (Online edition at Bartleby website) link
[YQF] 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Proverbs:95, Page 612, Yale University Press, New Haven.
[OXFC] 2009, The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs editor Jennifer Speake, Quote:Facts, Oxford University Press, Oxford Reference Online. (Accessed 2010 June 15)
[TU] 1713, Treason Unmask’d; or, The Queen’s Title, the Revolution, and the Hanover Succession Vindicated, Page 255, Printed and sold by the booksellers of London and Westminster. link
[PSGB] 1717 November, The Political State of Great Britain, Page 428, Volume XIV, Printed for the Author, London. link