Abraham Lincoln? William Makepeace Thackeray? Laurence Hutton? Apocryphal? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Selecting a profession can be quite difficult, and changing your initial choice may be necessary. Yet, you should always strive for excellence. The following inspirational words are heartening:
Whatever you are, be a good one.
The phrase is usually attributed to Abraham Lincoln, but it sounds modern to my ear. Books about happiness, coaching, and career choice have all included the saying. Sadly, misattributions to Lincoln are commonplace. What do you think?
Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Abraham Lincoln made this remark. Lincoln died in 1865, and the earliest attribution to Lincoln was printed in a compendium of quotations in 1946, a very late date.
Interestingly, at the turn of the previous century the saying was firmly attached to another famous individual, the English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray who died in 1863. The earliest instance of the saying located by QI was published in a memoir in 1897 by Laurence Hutton who was a prominent magazine editor, critic, and essayist. The memoir was serialized in “St. Nicholas: An Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks”.
Hutton described a crucial incident from his childhood in the 1850s when he met William Makepeace Thackeray who asked him about his aspirations. Hutton was uncertain about his goals in life, but he replied that he wanted to be a farmer. Thackeray responded to Hutton with a version of the saying which has now become popular. Hutton’s memoir was written in the third person, and he referred to himself as “The Boy”. Boldface has been added to excerpts:
Mr. Thackeray took The Boy between his knees, and asked his name, and what he intended to be when he grew up. He replied, “A farmer, sir.” Why, he cannot imagine, for he never had the slightest inclination toward a farmer’s life. And then Mr. Thackeray put his gentle hand upon The Boy’s little red head, and said: “Whatever you are, try to be a good one.”
If there is any virtue in the laying-on of hands The Boy can only hope that a little of it has descended upon him. And whatever The Boy is, he has tried, for Thackeray’s sake, “to be a good one!”
By 1904 the above version of the saying was shortened to “Whatever you are, be a good one” and assigned to Thackeray. Both versions were disseminated in the following decades.
QI believes that Laurence Hutton’s memoir was the most likely origin of the statement, and Hutton ascribed the words to William Makepeace Thackeray, but he was writing many years after the incident occurred; hence, uncertainty was inherent. On the other hand, the expression deeply impressed Hutton and influenced his life, so the phrasing he reported might have been accurate.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.