The Only Thing Necessary for the Triumph of Evil is that Good Men Do Nothing

John F. Kennedy? Edmund Burke? R. Murray Hyslop? Charles F. Aked? John Stuart Mill?

Dear Quote Investigator: Here is a challenge for you. I have been reading the wonderful book “The Quote Verifier” by Ralph Keyes, and he discusses the mixed-up quotations that President John F. Kennedy sometimes declaimed in his speeches. Here is an example of a famous one with an incorrect attribution [QVE]:

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

Keyes says that the quote has not been successfully traced:

… which Kennedy attributed to British philosopher Edmund Burke and which recently was judged the most popular quotation of modern times in a poll conducted by editors of “The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.” Even though it is clear by now that Burke is unlikely to have made this observation, no one has ever been able to determine who did.

Will you explore this question?

Quote Investigator: First, “The Quote Verifier” volume has my highest recommendation. The impressive research of Keyes is presented in a fascinating, entertaining, and fun manner. Second, yes, QI will try to trace this expression. Edmund Burke and John Stuart Mill both produced apothegms that are loosely similar to the quotation under investigation but are unmistakably distinct.

The earliest known citation showing a strong similarity to the modern quote appeared in October of 1916. The researcher J. L. Bell found this important instance. The maxim appeared in a quotation from a speech by the Reverend Charles F. Aked who was calling for restrictions on the use of alcohol [SFCA]:

It has been said that for evil men to accomplish their purpose it is only necessary that good men should do nothing.

QI believes that the full name of Aked was Charles Frederic Aked, and he was a prominent preacher and lecturer who moved from England to America. The same expression was attributed to Aked in another periodical in 1920. Details for this cite are given further below.

The earliest attribution of the modern saying to Edmund Burke was found by top researcher Barry Popik. In July of 1920 a man named Sir R. Murray Hyslop delivered an address at a Congregational church conference that included the following [MHEB]:

Burke once said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing.”

The search for the origin of this famous quotation has lead to controversy. One disagreement involved the important reference book Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and the well-known word maven William Safire. Below are selected citations in chronological order and a brief discussion of this altercation.

In 1770 the Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke wrote about the need for good men to associate to oppose the cabals of bad men. The second sentence in the excerpt below is listed in multiple quotation references and shares some points of similarity to the saying under investigation, bit it is clearly dissimilar [EBG]:

No man, who is not inflamed by vain-glory into enthusiasm, can flatter himself that his single, unsupported, desultory, unsystematic endeavours are of power to defeat the subtle designs and united Cabals of ambitious citizens. When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.

In 1867 the British philosopher and political theorist John Stuart Mill delivered an inaugural address at the University of St. Andrews. The second sentence in the excerpt below expresses part of the idea of the quotation under investigation [JMG]:

Let not any one pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part, and forms no opinion. Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.

In 1895 a medical bulletin printed a comment that was similar to  John Stuart Mill’s adage. The wording of the second half matched closely though no attribution was given [MBMB]:

He should not be lulled to repose by the delusion that he does no harm who takes no part in public affairs. He should know that bad men need no better opportunity than when good men look on and do nothing. He should stand to his principles even if leaders go wrong.

Burke’s quote continued in use in the early 1900s. In 1910 a pithy form of the saying appeared in the Chicago Daily Tribune [CTG]:

Burke said, ‘When bad men combine, good men must organize.’

In October 1916 the San Jose Mercury Herald reported on a speech by Charles F. Aked in favor of prohibition as mentioned at the beginning of this article. Aked used an expression similar to the quotation under investigation; however, he used the locution “it has been said” to signal that he was not claiming originality. Thus, the saying was probably in circulation before 1916. Here is a longer excerpt [SFCA]:

“The people in the liquor traffic,” said the speaker, “simply want us to do nothing. That’s all the devil wants of the son of God—to be let alone. That is all that the criminal wants of the law—to be let alone. The sin of doing nothing is the deadliest of all the seven sins. It has been said that for evil men to accomplish their purpose it is only necessary that good men should do nothing.”

Note the second half of the adage is very close to the modern statement. The use of the word “evil” in the first half matches the modern version, but the phrase “evil men” harks back to the term “bad men” used by Burke and Mill.

In June 1920 a periodical called “100%: The Efficiency Magazine” published a maxim that was identical to the one above. The saying was again attributed to Rev. Charles F. Aked and it occurred twice: once in the subhead of the article and once in the body. The following passage referred to a “constructive publication”, but it was never identified in the article body [EMCA]:

The slogan of a recently established constructive publication is “For evil men to accomplish their purpose, it is only necessary that good men do nothing,” quoting the Rev. Charles F. Aked. While this is recognized as true of municipal politics, is it not also being evidenced as an actual condition in American industry?

In July 1920 a different version of the saying appeared anonymously in a magazine called the Railway Carmen’s Journal. This variant used the term “bad men” and occurred in isolation at the beginning of an editorial section [RCBA]:

For bad men to accomplish their purposes it is only necessary that good men do nothing.

On July 5, 1920 the temperance crusader Sir R. Murray Hyslop of Kent, England, delivered an address at a church conference, the Fourth International Congregational Council. The address was published in 1921, and it contained a version of the now famous statement which Hyslop attributed to Burke. This is the earliest example of this attribution that QI knows about and it was found by Barry Popik who presented it on his website [CCB]:

Burke once said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing.” Leave the Drink Trade alone and it will throttle all that is good in a nation’s life. Let it alone, that is all that is required. Cowardice will suffice for its triumph. Courage will suffice for its overthrow.

On July 30, 1920 a business digest periodical that lists articles published in other magazines included an entry for the piece in 100% magazine. The subhead for the article was reproduced so the maxim appeared in this digest magazine and was further propagated [BDP]:

Are We Helping the Radicals? “For Evil Men to Accomplish Their Purpose, It Is only Necessary That Good Men Do Nothing.” Perhaps the “Do Nothing” Attitude Is Responsible for Much of the Industrial Unrest. By Charles H Norton, General Manager Collins Service. 100% June ’20 p. 64. 1000 words.

In 1950 the saying appeared in the Washington Post and was attributed to Burke as noted in the Yale Book of Quotations [WPG][YQG]:

It is high time that the law-abiding citizens of Washington, and particularly those in organized groups dedicated to civic betterment, became alert to this danger and demanded protection against organized gangdom.

This situation is best summed up in the words of the British statesman, Edmund Burke, who many years ago said: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

In 1961 President John F. Kennedy addressed the Canadian Parliament and used a version of the quotation that he credited to Edmund Burke [JKG]:

At the conference table and in the minds of men, the free world’s cause is strengthened because it is just. But it is strengthened even more by the dedicated efforts of free men and free nations. As the great parliamentarian Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

In 1968 the quotation appeared in the 14th edition of the seminal reference work Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. The words were attributed to Burke and a 1795 letter was specified as support [BFG]:

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

Letter to William Smith [January 9, 1795]

In 1980 the New York Times language columnist William Safire wrote about the quote and challenged the attribution to Burke given in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (14th). He did so based on information from a persistent correspondent who stated that the letter cited by Bartlett’s did not contain the quote [WSG1]:

The trouble is that it may be a phony. When I used the “triumph of evil” quotation recently to condemn complacency, a man named Hamilton A. Long of Philadelphia wrote to ask where and when Burke had said it. …

Then the quotation sleuth sprung his trap. “It’s not in that letter,” Mr. Long replied triumphantly. “Nor any other source quoted in the quotations books I’ve found. They are false sources.”

In 1980 a new 15th edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations was released, and in 1981 Safire again discussed the quote [WSG2]. The editor of Bartlett’s noted that the quotation had not been located in Burke’s writings, and the reference work was updated to reflect that fact. In the 16th edition the quote is listed under Burke and a footnote indicates that vigorous searches have failed to find the words in Burke’s oeuvre.

In conclusion, quotations from Burke and Mill are conceptually related to the quote under examination, but neither expression is close textually. In October of 1916 Charles F. Aked used a maxim in a speech that was similar but not identical to the modern quote.

In 1920 Murray Hyslop attributed the modern version of the quote to Burke. The record is too incomplete to make strong claims about who crafted the quote.

It is possible that Aked created an adage with conscious or unconscious inspiration from Burke or Mill. Perhaps Hyslop heard the phrase and assigned it to Burke because he believed it sounded similar to Burke. Kennedy kept a notebook of quotations that he found worth recording. He may have heard a version attributed to Burke and noted it down for future use. Sorry QI cannot provide a more definitive response, but these new cites represent some progress. Thanks for your question.

Update history: On May 9, 2012 the citation for Charles F Aked dated October 31, 1916 was added to the post. Also, the 1895 citation was added, and the conclusion was partially rewritten.

[SFCA] 1916 October 31, San Jose Mercury Herald, Dr. Charles F. Aked On Liquor Traffic, Page 1, Section 2, [Page 9], San Jose, California. (Archive of Americana) (Thanks to Ken Hirsch for pointing out this citation in a post by J. L. Bell at the website Boston 1775; Verified with newspaper scans from Archive of Americana; Thanks to Mike at Duke University for obtaining images from Archive of Americana) link

[EBG] 1770, Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents by Edmund Burke, [Third edition], Page 106, Printed for J. Dodsley in Pall-Mall, London. (Google Books full view) link

[JMG] 1867 March 16, Littell’s Living Age, [Inaugural Address at University of St. Andrews: 1867 February 1], Page 664, Number 1189, Fourth Series, Littell and Gay, Boston. (Google Books full view) link

[MBMB] 1895 June, The Medical Bulletin, The Medical Profession and the State: Alumni Oration by Hon. Mariott Brosius of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Start Page 201, Quote Page 203, Column 1, The F. A. Davis Co., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books full view) link

[CTG] 1910 August 28, Chicago Daily Tribune, Capen Pleads for Reforms, Page 4, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)

[EMCA] 1920 June, “100%: The Efficiency Magazine”, “Are We Helping the Radicals?” by Charles H. Norton, Page 64, Efficiency Company, Chicago. (Google Books full view) link

[MHEB] 1921, Volume of Proceedings of the Fourth International Congregational Council, Held in Boston Massachusetts June 29 – July 6 1920, Address Delivered July 5, 1920 to the International Congregational Council, “Some Present Features of the Temperance Crusade” by Sir R. Murray Hyslop, J. P., Page 166, [The National Council of the Congregational Churches of the United States, New York], The Pilgrim Press, Boston. (Google Books full view) link [Barry Popik’s web page link]

[RCBA] 1920 July, Railway Carmen’s Journal, Editorial Notes, Page 366, Brotherhood Railway Carmen of the United States and Canada, Kansas City, Missouri. (HathiTrust) link

[BDP] 1920 July 30, “Business Digest and Investment Weekly” editor Fremont Rider, Labor, Page 75, Arrow Publishing Corporation, New York. (Google full view) link

[WPG] 1950 January 22, Washington Post, “District Affairs: Indifference Fosters Gangsterism” by Harry N. Stull, Page B8, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)

[JKG] 1962, Documents on Disarmament 1961, [May 17, 1961: Address by President Kennedy to the Canadian Parliament {Extracts}], United States Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Publication 5, Released August 1962, Washington, D.C. (HathiTrust full view) link

[BFG] 1968, Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations 14th Edition Revised and Enlarged, edited by Emily Morison Beck [by John Bartlett], Page 454, Little, Brown and Company, Boston. (Verified with scans)

[YQG] 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Page 116, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)

[WSG1] 1980 March 9, New York Times, “On Language: The Triumph of Evil” by William Safire, Section New York Times Magazine, Page SM2, New York. (ProQuest)

[WSG2] 1981 April 5, “On Language; Standing Corrected” by William Safire, Section New York Times Magazine, Page SM4, New York. (ProQuest)

7 thoughts on “The Only Thing Necessary for the Triumph of Evil is that Good Men Do Nothing

  1. Ralph Keyes

    I appreciate your regular recognition of the THE QUOTE VERIFIER. Your work along with that of Barry Popik and others has certainly carried our knowledge of quotation attributions beyond what I could do when researching that book with resources available at the time. Keep up the good work.

  2. Karen Reed

    Can you confirm that this similiar quote can be attributed to Thomas Jefferson? “All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for men of good conscience to remain silent.”

    I see other web sites claiming this as Jefferson’s quote, but I have not found any source.

    Thank you,

  3. Garson O'Toole Post author

    Karen Reed: I have not researched this variant quotation carefully yet. A preliminary search shows no compelling evidence that Jefferson made this remark.

  4. Kathy Harwell

    A group of women I’ve been associated with for the past few weeks, includes one who believes this is a variation, if not a direct quote, of something somewhere in the Bible. She was not specific.

    Is there any truth to this?


  5. Dave

    Hey, Kathy. I’m a pastor with a graduate degree in theology, and was also raised in a Bible-centric church. I’m not aware (nor have I been able to find in some brief checking just now) of any Bible verse that says anything like this quotation.

    Your friend isn’t totally wrong, though, since the sentiment (human responsibility to oppose evil) is a broadly biblical concept that underlies, for example, the book of Jeremiah. The big difference here is that the scripture everywhere emphasizes God’s sovereign control over all events and his commitment to overthrowing evil. The quote emphasizes man’s responsibility.

    Hope that helps.

  6. Reb Yehonatan Levy

    This quote has its roots in the Talmud, and Midrashic commentaries… from sources such as: “to save one life is to save the entire world, and therefore to do nothing in the aid of your neighbor is to bring on destruction…” among many other comments this one stood out… thx.

  7. Chris

    The following passage contains the spirit of the quote too

    Ps 12 v 7 – 8
    O Lord, you will keep us safe and protected from such people forever. The wicked freely strut about when what is vile is honoured among men

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