If You Don’t Stand for Something, You’ll Fall for Anything

Alexander Hamilton? Gordon A. Eadie? Irene Dunne? Peter Marshall? Theodore DeVries? William Sloane Coffin Jr.? Alex Hamilton? Anonymous?

dunne03Dear Quote Investigator: There is a popular exhortative statement that employs the contrasting words “stand” and “fall”. Here are three versions:

(1) If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.
(2) Those who stand for nothing fall for anything.
(3) When you stand for nothing, you fall for everything.

This adage is attributed to Alexander Hamilton, Peter Marshall, and others. Could you explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: An interesting precursor for the saying appeared in a Methodist church announcement in an Iowa newspaper from 1926. The word order and meaning were distinct, but the keywords were the same. In 1927 the same precursor was printed as a “Sermonogram” in an Ohio newspaper: 1 2

It is easier to fall for anything than to stand for something.

Thanks to Andrew Steinberg for these nascent citations.

The earliest evidence of close match known to QI was published in the January 1945 issue of a journal called “Mental Hygiene”. At the time of publication World War II was still being fought. The adage appeared in an article by the medical doctor Gordon A. Eadie titled “The Over-All Mental-Health Needs of the Industrial Plant, with Special Reference to War Veterans”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 3

We are trying to show him not only what we are fighting against, but what we are fighting for. So many of these boys have only a very hazy idea of the real issues of the war. About all they see is “going back to the good old days.” This is a dangerous state. If they don’t stand for something, they will fall for anything. They need to realize that we are fighting two wars—the war of arms and the war of ideas—that other war of which the war of arms is one phase.

The important reference work “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” from Yale University Press has an entry for this adage and points to the same journal and year for its earliest citation. 4

Although the saying was employed by Gordon A. Eadie it is not clear whether he crafted it. A few months later the adage was spoken by the popular film actress Irene Dunne during a radio broadcast as indicated below. QI believes that it is reasonable to categorize this expression as an anonymous modern proverb.

The common attribution to the eighteenth-century statesman Alexander Hamilton was probably based on a mistaken understanding of a relatively modern citation. A different man named Alex Hamilton who was a British broadcaster used the saying in 1978. Details are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In May 1945 the movie star Irene Dunne participated in a radio program called “Town Meeting of the Air” according to “Radio Life Weekly” magazine, and she spoke a version of the saying: 5

Before three thousand interested spectators, Irene Dunne, Eddie Cantor, Will Durant and Rev. J. Herbert Smith brought the “Town Meeting of the Air” to Los Angeles with a bang—or should we say a clang….

Miss Dunne capably summed up the affirmative by stating that “If we don’t stand for something, we’ll fall for anything.”

In July 1945 the mass-circulation “Reader’s Digest” published the saying as a short freestanding item and credited the words to Dunne. “Reader’s Digest” functioned as an important locus for the popularization of quotations: 6

If we don’t stand for something, we will fall for anything.
— Irene Dunne on America’s Town Meeting of the Air

In November 1945 a newspaper in Canton, New York printed a short announcement about a church service. The expression was used as the title of a sermon by Theodore DeVries: 7

The Presbyterian Church. Rev. Theodore DeVries minister. Church service at 10:30. Sermon topic. “If We Don’t Stand For Something, We Fall For Anything”. Church School at 11:40.

Also in November another pastor named A.J. Whitney used an instance of the saying as a sermon title as recorded in a Cooperstown, New York newspaper: 8

Pastor, Rev. A.J. Whitney “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll be sure to fall for anything.”
Wednesday, November 28: Weekly prayer meeting at the parsonage at 8 p.m.

In 1946 an Albany, New York newspaper reported on a meeting of the National Woman’s Party with about 50 attendees. An instance of the adage was mentioned: 9

Miss Grace Reavy suggested as a slogan for the group, “Unless you stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”

At the start of legislative sessions in the U.S. Senate a daily prayer is typically offered by the Senate Chaplain. On April 18, 1947 Chaplain Peter Marshall spoke the following words: 10

Our Father, we yearn for a better understanding of spiritual things, that we may know surely what Thy will is for us and for our Nation. Give to us clear vision that we may know where to stand and what to stand for—because unless we stand for something, we shall fall for anything.

The above valuable citation was listed in the landmark reference “Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations Requested from the Congressional Research Service”, and today the saying is sometimes ascribed to Peter Marshall; however, the 1945 citations reveal that the expression was already in circulation before 1947. 11

In 1948 “The Rotarian” magazine printed an excerpt from a speech given at a Rotary club that referred to the statement by the Senate Chaplain though the phrasing presented differed from the original prayer: 12

It is something like the present chaplain of the Senate said recently in one of his moving prayers at the recent special session, “Lord, help us to stand for something, because a man who stands for nothing will fall for anything.”—From a Rotary Club address.

In 1968 Evan Esar’s massive compendium “20,000 Quips and Quotes” presented two variants of the statement: 13

(1) Some people stand for nothing because they fall for everything.
(2) The people who fall for everything probably stand for nothing.

In 1973 “Time” magazine printed the remarks of peace activist and clergyman William Sloane Coffin Jr. who recounted the advice that he gave to an undergraduate: 14

My line to him as to so many students in the 1950s was: ‘You’re a nice guy but not yet a good man. If you don’t stand for something, you’re apt to fall for nothing!’

A version of the saying was included in the “Oxford Essential Quotations” database of the “Oxford Reference Online” system. The words were credited to a British writer and broadcaster named Alex Hamilton whose birth date was specified as 1936: 15

Those who stand for nothing fall for anything.
‘Born Old’ (radio broadcast), in Listener 9 November 1978

The 1978 citation date highlighted the distinction between Alex Hamilton and the U.S. founding father Alexander Hamilton, but confusion has persisted and incorrect attributions have been frequent.

In 1990 a letter was printed in “SPIN” magazine from Bill Finley who worked for another magazine called “In These Times”: 16

To paraphrase Gil Scot-Heron’s grandmother’s words: If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.

In conclusion, QI believes this saying is a modern proverb with unknown authorship. A precursor was in circulation by 1926, and the earliest known close match occurred in an article by Gordon A. Eadie in 1945. Hence, some may wish to credit Eadie. Yet, antedatings are possible in the future. Actress Irene Dunne helped to popularize the expression with her radio appearance and the reprinted quotation in “Reader’s Digest”.

Image Notes: Irene Dunne from the film Love Affairs. Public domain image From Wikimedia Commons. Blue figures from Nemo on Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Sharif Faizullah and Bubbanotbad Drevik whose inquires motivated QI to construct this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Andrew Steinberg for the 1926 cite.)

Notes:

  1. 1926 May 27, State Center Enterprise, Church Announcements: Methodist Mention, Quote Page 1, Column 4, State Center, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive)
  2. 1927 July 29, Athens Messenger, Sermonograms, Quote Page 8, Column 7, Athens, Ohio. (NewspaperArchive)
  3. 1945 January, Mental Hygiene, Volume 29, Number 1, “The Over-All Mental-Health Needs of the Industrial Plant, with Special Reference to War Veterans” by Gordon A. Eadie, M.D. (Affiliation: Eastern Aircraft Division, General Motors Corporation, Linden, New Jersey), Start Page 101, Quote Page 103, Published by the National Committee for Mental Hygiene, Inc., New York. (Verified on microfilm)
  4. 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro Quote Page 239, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Note that the first citation lists the title and author of the article preceding the article containing the saying due to a slight misreading.) (Verified on paper)
  5. 1945 May 20, Radio Life Weekly, Volume 11, Number 11, RADIO: West – National and International, Subheading: How Could It Miss?, Quote Page 7, Column 3, Published in Los Angeles, California. (Old Time Radio Researchers Group; Verified with PDF of magazine; Archive located at otrr.org)
  6. 1945 July, Reader’s Digest, Volume 47, (Freestanding quotation), Quote Page 48, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on paper)
  7. 1945 November 20, St. Lawrence Plain Dealer, Section: Churches and Organizations, (Short notice/announcement), Quote Page 5, Column 5, Canton, New York. (Old Fulton)
  8. 1945 November 30, The Otsego Farmer, Section: Miscellaneous, (Short notice/announcement), Quote Page 9, Column 6, Cooperstown, New York. (Old Fulton)
  9. 1946 March 25, The Knickerbocker News, Institute Director to Discuss Albany’s Cultural Background At Zonta Club Dinner Meeting, (Set of short items about miscellaneous meetings in the community), Quote Page B-5, Column 1, Albany, New York. (Old Fulton)
  10. 1949, United States Congressional Serial Set. Prayers Offered by the Chaplain The Rev. Peter Marshall at the Opening of Daily Sessions of Senate During 80th Congress 1947-1948, Senate Document 170, 80th Congress, Second Session, (Prayer dated Friday, April 18, 1947), Quote Page 20, Published by United States Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. (HathiTrust) link link
  11. 1989, Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations Requested from the Congressional Research Service, Edited by Suzy Platt, Section: Belief, Quote Page 24, Library of Congress, Washington D.C. (HathiTrust) link link
  12. 1948 October, The Rotarian. Volume 73, Number 4, Section “Opinion: From Letters, Talks, Rotary Publications”, “Why Men Are Useless” by Harry C. Scherer, (Rotary Club Address), Quote Page 51, Column 1, Published by Rotary International. (Google Books Full View) link
  13. 1968, 20,000 Quips and Quotes by Evan Esar, Quote Page 293 and 542, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper)
  14. 1973 June 25, Time, The Nation: The Coffin Course in Ethics, Time, Inc., New York. (Online Time Magazine Archive; Accessed content.time.com on February 18, 2014)
  15. Oxford Essential Quotations, Edited by Susan Ratcliffe, Entry: Alex Hamilton, Publisher Oxford University Press, Oxford Reference Online, Published online: 2012, Online Version: 2013, (Accessed February 18, 2014)
  16. 1990 June, SPIN, Volume 6, Number 3, Letters: Point Blank, Edited by Nathaniel Wice, “So You Say It’s Your Birthday…”, (Letter from Bill Finley, Associate Publisher, In These Times, Chicago, IL) Quote Page 10, Column 1, Published by SPIN Media LLC. (Google Books Full View) link