A Man May Do an Immense Deal of Good, If He Does Not Care Who Gets the Credit

Benjamin Jowett? Father Strickland? William T. Arnold? Harry Truman? Ronald Reagan? Charles Edward Montague? Edward Everett Hale?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a quotation I love that presents an insightful guideline for the most effective way to achieve a goal by accenting humility:

[A] The way to get things done is not to mind who gets the credit for doing them.

Here is another statement that expresses a similar sentiment.

[B] There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.

When I tried to find out who was responsible for these quotations I became confused because there are so many different versions of what I consider to be the same basic idea. Could you look into this expression or family of expressions and figure out who first verbalized the thought?

Quote Investigator: This is a complicated question, and QI will attempt to tackle it for you. This concept of positive action coupled with a generous spirit has a multiplicity of formulations, and it has inspired a large number of people. Here are four versions:

[1] A man may do an immense deal of good, if he does not care who gets the credit for it.

[2] This was the opportunity for a man who likes to do a good thing in accordance with the noble maxim … “Never mind who gets the credit.”

[3] The way to get things done is not to mind who gets the credit of doing them.

[4] There is no limit to what a man can do who does not care who gains the credit for it.

These sayings are certainly not identical, but they are closely interlinked thematically. Quotation number [1] appeared in a diary entry from the year 1863 in which the words were recorded as spoken by a Jesuit Priest named Father Strickland. This is the earliest citation located by QI.

In 1896 the text of [2] was published, and the phrase “Never mind who gets the credit” was dubbed the noble maxim of Edward Everett Hale.

In 1905 quotation [3] was published, and the words were attributed to Benjamin Jowett who was a theologian and classical scholar at Oxford University. But one of the author’s who made this attribution decided it was flawed, and in a later book he reassigned credit for the saying from Jowett to a “Jesuit Father”. This is probably a reference to Father Strickland. This maxim is the same as quote [A] given by the questioner above.

Expression [4] was used by Charles Edward Montague in 1906, but he did not claim coinage of the phrase. He said it was the favorite saying of his friend and colleague the journalist William T. Arnold. But Montague did not credit Arnold as originator either. He left the attribution anonymous by using the locution “someone has said”.

In 1922 Montague published a close variant of saying [4], “There is no limit to what a man can do so long as he does not care a straw who gets the credit”, in his book “Disenchantment”. For this reason he is sometimes cited in modern texts and databases.

Finally, quotation [B] which is similar to [4] appeared in the 1980s on a small plaque atop the desk in the Oval Office of the White House during the Presidency of Ronald Reagan. Here are selected citations in chronological order.

QI hypothesizes that a Jesuit Priest named Father Strickland deserves primary credit for this family of sayings. This claim is based on the diary entry dated September 21, 1863 written by Sir Mountstuart E. Grant Duff and multiple attributions thereafter. However, similar maxims may have been developed independently. The diary of Duff who was a Scottish politician and held important administrative posts in India was published in 1897 [FSG1]:

Met at the house of the Rev. C.K. Paul, at Stourminster Marshall, Father Strickland, an English Jesuit, who said to me – “I have observed, throughout life, that a man may do an immense deal of good, if he does not care who gets the credit for it.”

Duff was so impressed by the saying that he wrote it down and remembered it. Several years later he used it himself as recorded in a diary entry dated November 4, 1887. His listener was also intrigued by the words and she wrote them down. Hence, the maxim may have been further disseminated in this time period [FSG2]:

On this subject she entered into various details of which I make no note, but which led me to quote the words once used to me by an English Jesuit. “Ah! one can do a great deal of good in this world if one does not care who gets the credit for it.” She was so much struck with this that she ran to the end of the room in which we were talking and wrote it down.

The next two citations concern Edward Everett Hale, author and Unitarian clergyman, and his motto about disclaiming credit. In the first excerpt below Hale was directly quoted, and the sentiment he expressed did not seem particularly ennobling, but in the second citation the term “noble maxim” is used. Note these words were published in 1893, and thus appeared before the publication date of Duff’s diary though the events recorded in the diary transpired many years earlier according to Duff [EEH1]:

“Another rule of mine,” he playfully said to me, “is never to do anything I can find another to do for me, and besides this it has been the motto of my life for many years not to care who gets the credit so long as a thing is done as it ought to be.”

In 1896 the clergyman and historian Leonard Woolsey Bacon invoked the words of Edward Everett Hale and emphasized the notion of accomplishing something valuable while not caring about credit [EEH2]:

This was the opportunity for a man who likes to do a good thing in accordance with the noble maxim of Edward Everett Hale: “Never mind who gets the credit.”

In 1897 a periodical called “The Speaker” ran a review of the published diary of Mountstuart E. Grant Duff. The critic singled out the words of Father Strickland and reprinted them in the review. Thus, the adage was further distributed [SFS]:

The following remark of Father Strickland’s, an English Jesuit, is full of marrow and fatness: “I have observed throughout life that a man may do an immense deal of good if he does not care who gets the credit of it.” Members of Parliament, please copy.

In 1903 a religious periodical “The Friend’ published a version of the maxim that is similar to Strickland’s aphorism. The quote was freestanding in the publication, and it gave no attribution. This cite is also noted in the helpful reference work “The Quote Verifier” [TFS] [QVF]:

“ONE can do a great deal of good in this world if one doesn’t care who gets the credit for it.”

The next cite in 1905 contained an attribution for the expression under investigation to Benjamin Jowett. The book “The Works of John Ruskin” consisted principally of text by Ruskin, the influential art critic and social commentator. However, the saying and its attribution to Jowett appeared in an aside written by the editors of the volume: Edward T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn.

But this was not a final judgment. The author Cook later decided that the ascription was incorrect. In a 1909 book he changed the attribution from Jowett to “a wise man”. Finally, in 1911 when an edition of “The Life of John Ruskin, Volume 2″ was published Cook reassigned the quotation to a “Jesuit Father”. The details are further below. Here is the 1905 passage mentioning Jowett. The pronoun “he” refers to John Ruskin [CBJ]:

In letters to Mrs. Norton, he gives a lively account of his difficulties and his devices. “Everybody sends me their opinions privately; I pick out what I want and prepare it as Mr. So-and-so’s, patting it hard on the back.” He saw the truth of Jowett’s saying, that the way to get things done is not to mind who gets the credit of doing them.

The next work in chronological order is a 1906 volume that combines three works. The main text is “Studies of Roman Imperialism” by William T. Arnold. The other two texts are memoirs about Arnold written by Mrs. Humphry Ward and Charles Edward Montague, respectively. The memoir of Arnold by Montague contained a version of the saying under investigation and that helps to explain why Montague himself is credited in some current reference works and databases.

Indeed, Montague used the phrase in 1906 and later in 1922. Montague stated that the journalist William T. Arnold liked the saying. Yet, importantly, he made no claim that he or Arnold coined the phrase. Instead, he designated it as anonymous by ascribing it to “someone” [CEM1].

There is no limit, someone has said, to what a man can do who does not care who gains the credit for it. Arnold, who liked the saying, thought that for a man who wished to get things done there was no work like journalism. Imagine, he would say, what politics might be if the man who is in love with great ends had not to be always seeing to it that he is not overlooked—if he could give up his chance of a name for the chance of making, unknown, a deeper dint on the life of his time.

In 1907 the book by Arnold, Ward, and Montague was reviewed in the journal “The American Historical Review”. The reviewer singled out the quotation for reprinting, and this helped to further propagate the phrase. The article stated that the maxim reflected Arnold’s beliefs [AHR]:

Few people were aware of the services which Arnold rendered to the public, and of his record as a journalist, for he held the opinion that “there is no limit to what a man can do who does not care who gains the credit for it”.

In 1908 the saying was employed without attribution in the field of journalism. This probably reflected the connection of the words to the journalist Arnold [AWA]:

It has been truly said that there is nothing like journalism for any one who is anxious to get things done and does not care who gets the credit for them.

Also, in 1908 the author of a memoir referred to the diary of Duff, and he properly credited the words of Father Strickland. This is evidence that this version of the maxim had an ongoing cultural influence in this period [TGEN]:

Sir Mountstuart Grant Duff quotes in his diary  (vol. ii. p. 293) a saying of Father Strickland to the following effect: ‘One may do a great deal of good in this world if one does not care who gets the credit of it.’ I have come across very few people in my public career who have really acted on this principle.

In 1909 a variant of the adage was used in a book about rugs, and it was credited to “an English Jesuit priest” [ARJ]:

This village is becoming far-famed for its artistic  productions, and though the name of the English founder is usually forgotten when the village is described, the handicrafts that flourish there are a living monument to his genius. Certainly of him it could be said in the words of an English Jesuit priest: “It is wonderful how much good a man may do in this world if he does not care who gets the credit of it.”

In 1909 Edward T. Cook used the aphorism again. Originally he ascribed the words to Benjamin Jowett; however, this time he attributed them to “a wise man”. This reassignment was discussed earlier in this post [ECBJ]:

The journalist, with unmoved muscle, applauds, as if they were new to him, the “bold initiative,” the “happy phrase,” or the “convincing arguments” which he, it may be, has supplied to the statesman. And this, I think, is generally the more excellent way; for the way to get things done, as a wise man has said, is not to mind who gets the credit of doing them.

In 1911 Edward T. Cook published “The Life of John Ruskin, Volume 2″ and he reassigned the adage again. This time he attributed the words to a “Jesuit Father”. The pronoun “he” refers to John Ruskin [ECJR]:

He saw the truth of the Jesuit Father’s saying, that the way to get things done is not to mind who gets the credit of doing them.

In 1922 Charles E. Montague published his essay collection “Disenchantment” about World War I. The essay “Any Cure?” contained the adage, but the words were attributed to any specific person. Rather, Montague called it a “saying”. This work is cited in the Quote Verifier [QVF] and the Yale Book of Quotations [YQC] [CED]:

Our best friends for a long time to come will not be any of the standing cynosures of reporters’ eyes; they will find a part of their satisfaction in being nobodies; assured of the truth of the saying that there is no limit to what a man can do so long as he does not care a straw who gets the credit for it.

In 1975 the maxim was used in a magazine for sports coaches. This version shares several word choices with the variant attributed to Harry Truman in a 1988 citation given further below [SCP]:

It’s amazing what you can accomplish with pride and unselfishness—where you have people who don’t care who gets the credit.

In the 1980s Ronald Reagan displayed a plaque with a version of the aphorism according to the website of the “Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library.” There is a picture showing the plate design on the website [RRG]:

On his desk in the Oval Office, President Reagan kept a small plaque with the words: “There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he does not mind who gets the credit.”

In 1982 John Solbach, a member of the Kansas Legislature used a version of the adage when he discussed the process of passing laws [JSK]:

“Putting your name on a bill is kind of like tying a can around your tail,” Solbach said, noting the majority party can put amendments on it later. “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you let somebody else take the credit.”

In 1988 Time magazine political analyst Hugh Sidey ascribed a similar version of the maxim to Harry Truman. Although this is now a commonplace attribution in internet databases QI has not found any substantial support for it [HTA]:

“It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit,” said Harry Truman.

In conclusion, this is a popular idea and many people have articulated it over the years. The preponderance of evidence points to Father Strickland as the key progenitor of this family of expressions. But the phrasing is highly variable, and the basic pattern of the quote may have been discovered independently on more than one occasion.

QI thanks you for your question and hopes you achieve your goals. Perhaps you may even obtain some of the credit.

[FSG]1897, [1863 September 21: Date on Diary Entry], Notes from a Diary 1851-1872 Volume I by Sir Mountstuart E. Grant Duff, Page 237, John Murray, London. (Google Books full view) link

[FSG2] 1900, [1887 November 4: Date on Diary Entry] , Notes from a Diary 1886-1888 Volume I by Sir Mountstuart E. Grant Duff, Pages 223-224, John Murray, London.  (Google Books full view) link

[EEH1] 1893 February, The Californian, Men of Letters by James Realf, Jr., Page 303, Vol. III, No. 3, The Californian Publishing Company. (Google Books full view) link

[EEH2] 1896 October, The New England Magazine, “Norwich, Connecticut” by Leonard Woolsey Bacon, Page 181, Volume XV, No. 2, New England Magazine Co. (Google Books full view) link

[SFS] 1897 April 24, The Speaker, Review of Notes from a Diary, Page 460, London. (Google Books full view) link

[TFS] 1903 March 21, The Friend: A Religious and Literary Journal, Page 284, Column 1, Vol. 76, No. 36, Society of Friends, Philadelphia. (Google Books full view) link

[QVF] 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Page 38, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper)

[CBJ] 1905, The Works of John Ruskin edited by Edward T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, Introduction, Page xliv, George Allen, London. (Google Books full view) link

[CEM1] 1906, Studies of Roman Imperialism by William T. Arnold, With Memoir of the Author by Mrs. Humphry Ward and C. E. Montague, (Memoir: Middle Life by C. E. Montague) Page lix (59), University Press, Manchester. (Google Books full view) link

[AHR] 1907 January, The American Historical Review, Reviews of Books, [Review of "Studies of Roman Imperialism" by William T. Arnold With Memoir of the Author by Mrs. Humphry Ward and C. E. Montague], Page 351, Volume XII, Number 2, American Historical Association. (Google Books full view) link

[AWA] 1908 February, The Atlantic Monthly, The Contributors’ Club: Vocation and Avocation, Page 286, Column 1, Atlantic Monthly Co. (Google Books full view) link

[TGEN] 1908, Thomas George Earl of Northbrook G.C.S.I.: A Memoir by Bernard Mallet, Pages 292-293, Longmans, Green and Co., London. (Google Books full view) link

[ARJ] 1909 (Copyright 1903), Abnakee Rugs by Helen R. Albee, Page 26, Cambridge: Printed at the Riverside Press. (Google Books full view) link

[ECBJ] 1909, Edmund Garrett: a Memoir by Edward T. Cook, Chapter 7: Editor of the Cape Times, Page 105, Edward Arnold, London. (Hathi Trust full view) link

[ECJR] 1911, The Life of John Ruskin, Volume 2 1860-1900 by Edward T. Cook, Page 154, Macmillan, New York. (Hathi Trust full view) link

[YQC] 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Page 532, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)

[CED] 1922, Disenchantment by Charles Edward Montague, Page 260, Brentano’s, New York. (Google Books full view) link

[SCP] 1975 August, Scholastic Coach, “Linebacking in the LSU 5-4-2 and 4-3-2″ by Charley McClendon and Doug Hamley, Page 23, Column 2, Volume 45, School Division of Scholastic Magazines, New York. (Google Books snippet; Verified on paper) link

[RRG] “Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library” website, “They Broke the Mold When they Made Ronnie. – Nancy Reagan”, reaganlibrary.com, (Accessed 2010 December 20) link link

[JSK] 1982 January 25, Lawrence Journal-World,  “Local Legislators Ready To Introduce Measures” by David Toplikar, Page 16 (GN Page 9), Lawrence, Kansas.  (Google News archive)

[HTA] 1988 November 7, Time magazine, “The Presidency: Will These Mud Crawlers Learn to Fly?” by Hugh Sidey, Time, Inc., New York. (Time online archive; Accessed 2010 December 19) link

One thought on “A Man May Do an Immense Deal of Good, If He Does Not Care Who Gets the Credit

  1. This sentiment is also expressed somewhere in Franklin’s autobiography, though I can’t seem to find it right now. A keyword search for “credit” did not turn it up.

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