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:
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: 1
. . . which Kennedy attributed to 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: 2
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: 3
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.
- 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Quote Page 59, 109, and 286, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 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 ↩
- 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] ↩