The Foolish and the Dead Alone Never Change Their Opinion

Abraham Lincoln? James Russell Lowell? Anonymous?

lowell08

Dear Quote Investigator: Intelligent and thoughtful people maintain mental flexibility throughout life. It is irrational to rigidly adhere to a fixed opinion in the face of reliable contrary information. Abraham Lincoln supposedly said:

The foolish and the dead alone never change their opinions.

These words have also been credited to the prominent poet and editor James Russell Lowell. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: This quotation appeared in the 1871 collection “My Study Windows” by James Russell Lowell within a section about President Abraham Lincoln. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

The imputation of inconsistency is one to which every sound politician and every honest thinker must sooner or later subject himself. The foolish and the dead alone never change their opinion.

The passage above was written by Lowell and reflected his opinion. He did not ascribe the words to Lincoln; however, some readers probably became confused because the piece was about Lincoln. Lowell’s quotation differed slightly from the popular modern version. The word “opinion” was singular in the original statement.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1886 a periodical called “The American Homoeopathist” discussed the mysteries of medical cures and incorrectly ascribed a version of the quotation using the plural “opinions” to Lincoln: 2

The dynamics of remedies, like the dynamics of our existence, is not yet within our intellectual reach. Abraham Lincoln said “the foolish and the dead alone never change their opinions.”

In 1887 a newspaper in Abbeville, South Carolina published a miscellaneous collection of sayings without attributions in a column titled “Grains”. Here were three of the items. The variant phrasing of the quotation added the word “only” and omitted the word “alone”: 3

He is a strong man who can hold down his opinion.
Only the foolish and the dead never change their opinions.
Religion would have no enemies if it was not an enemy to vice.

In 1896 the “The San Francisco Call” newspaper of California published an article that criticized the opponents of women’s suffrage. The article credited Lowell with a slightly modified version of his original quotation: 4

There is another class of objectors who say it would be very inconsistent to make such a departure from time-honored customs as the enfranchisement of woman would oblige. To such we say, with Emerson, that “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines”; and with Lowell, that “The foolish and the dead never change their opinions.”

In conclusion, James Russell Lowell should be credited with the statement he published in 1871. The ascription to Abraham Lincoln was a mistake that entered circulation by 1886. Multiple variants have evolved, e.g., the word “alone” is sometimes omitted, and the plural “opinions” is sometimes included.

Image Notes: Portrait of James Russell Lowell engraved by J. A. J. Wilcox circa 1855; accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Picture of a flexible model from PublicDomainPictures at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Hugh Hyatt whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1871, My Study Windows by James Russell Lowell (Professor of Belles-Lettres in Harvard College), Section: Abraham Lincoln: 1864, Start Page 150, Quote Page 166, James R. Osgood and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1886 March 1, The American Homoeopathist, Volume 12, Number 3, Brown: Dynamization and Force, Start Page 101, Quote Page 102 and 103, A. L. Chatterton & Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1887 March 23, The Abbeville Press And Banner, Grains, Quote Page 1, Column 6, Abbeville, South Carolina. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1896 May 4, The San Francisco Call, Woman Suffrage, Quote Page 6, Column 3, San Francisco, California. (Newspapers_com)