Your Liberty To Swing Your Fist Ends Just Where My Nose Begins

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.? John B. Finch? John Stuart Mill? Abraham Lincoln? Zechariah Chafee, Jr.?

Dear Quote Investigator: I am writing a book on the theme of freedom and would like to include a classic quotation about the pragmatic limitations on liberty. My research has identified several versions of this popular saying:

The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.

The right to swing my arms in any direction ends where your nose begins.

My right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins.

Strangely, these three similar statements were credited to three very different people. The first quote was attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. The second saying was credited to John Stuart Mill, and the third was ascribed to Abraham Lincoln. But I do not trust any of these attributions because no citations were provided. Could you investigate this adage and determine its origin?

Quote Investigator: The seminal reference work “The Yale Book of Quotations” presents an important citation for this saying that shows when the phrase entered the realm of scholarly legal discourse. The saying was not credited to any one of the three luminaries mentioned in the query. In June 1919 the Harvard Law Review published an article by legal philosopher Zechariah Chafee, Jr. titled “Freedom of Speech in War Time” and it contained a version of the expression spoken by an anonymous judge [ZCYQ] [ZCHL]:

Each side takes the position of the man who was arrested for swinging his arms and hitting another in the nose, and asked the judge if he did not have a right to swing his arms in a free country. “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins.”

Interestingly, the genesis of this adage can be traced back more than thirty-five additional years. Several variants of the expression were employed by a set of lecturers who were aligned with the temperance movement which favored restrictions on the sale and consumption of alcohol in the United States. The earliest instance located by QI appeared in a collection of speeches that were delivered by John B. Finch who was the Chairman of the Prohibition National Committee for several years in the 1880s and died in 1887.

The saying Finch used was somewhat longer and clumsier than later versions of the aphorism. But the central idea was the same, and Finch received credit from some of his colleagues. It is common for expressions to be shortened and polished as they pass from one speaker to another over a period of years. Here is the relevant excerpt from an oration Finch gave in Iowa City in 1882 [PVJF]:

This arm is my arm (and my wife’s), it is not yours. Up here I have a right to strike out with it as I please. I go over there with these gentlemen and swing my arm and exercise the natural right which you have granted; I hit one man on the nose, another under the ear, and as I go down the stairs on my head, I cry out:

“Is not this a free country?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Have not I a right to swing my arm?”

“Yes, but your right to swing your arm leaves off where my right not to have my nose struck begins.”

Here civil government comes in to prevent bloodshed, adjust rights, and settle disputes.

For decades the saying was used at pro-Prohibition rallies and meetings. Also, at the turn of the century the saying was adopted by some educators who presented it as a moral rule that children should learn about. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading