Life Isn’t Fair, But Government Must Be

Ann Richards? John F. Kennedy? Apocryphal?
annrichards01Dear Quote Investigator: There is a new one-woman play titled “ANN” about Ann Richards who was the Governor of Texas in the 1990s. The theatrical presentation contains a memorable line about her philosophy of government. I am not sure if I remember it exactly, but the statement is similar to this:

Life isn’t fair, but government should be.

Did Ann Richards say this? When? When I searched I found some people claiming JFK said this.

Quote Investigator: Ann Richards was sworn in as governor of Texas on January 15, 1991, and she delivered a speech during the inauguration festivities that was reported on the next day in the San Antonio Express-News. The expression she spoke differed by one word from the phrase given in the query: 1

Focusing on her campaign themes of “A New Texas” and giving the government back to the people, Richards said, “There is nothing more fundamentally important to me than the understanding that this administration exists to serve the taxpayers.”

“Life isn’t fair, but government must be,” she said.

Interestingly, the Houston Chronicle also reported on the inauguration festivities and presented a line spoken by Richards; however, the wording was slightly different. The word “absolutely” was included: 2

Richards, in summoning the slain president’s memory, said: “Years ago, John Kennedy said that ‘Life isn’t fair.’ Life is not fair, but government absolutely must be.”

QI has not heard an audio recording of the speech by Richards and does not know which transcript is accurate. It is also conceivable that Richards employed the saying more than once on inauguration day. If she did say it twice, perhaps both versions were accurate.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1991 January 16, San Antonio Express-News, “New governor vows return of government for the people” by Bruce Davidson, Page 1A, San Antonio, Texas. (NewsBank Access World News)
  2. 1991 January 16, Houston Chronicle, Section: A, “New governor greets the people – Richards, Bullock pledge a ‘New Texas’ by R.G. Ratcliffe and Clay Robison, Quote Page 1, Houston, Texas. (NewsBank Access World News)

What You Do Speaks So Loudly that I Cannot Hear What You Say

John F. Kennedy? Ralph Waldo Emerson? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: In 1960 President John F. Kennedy spoke at that Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, Utah and used a quotation that he attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson [JKU]:

What we are speaks louder than what we say, as Emerson said.

I was surprised when I came across this because my favorite saying about hypocrisy is the following:

What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.

I thought these words were written by Emerson, but now I am not so certain. Did Emerson express this idea in more than one way? Did Kennedy employ a misquotation? Surprisingly, I could not find either of these statements in a database of Emerson’s essays. Could you help me to unravel this?

Quote Investigator:The first quotation below is directly from an essay titled “Social Aims” by Ralph Waldo Emerson published in 1875. The other six quotes appeared in the years afterward. Most are credited to Emerson, but one is ascribed to a “great man”, and another is anonymous. It is remarkably commonplace for a popular saying to be simplified and streamlined over time:

1) Don’t say things. What you are stands over you the while, and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary.

2) Don’t talk. What you are thunders so loudly above what you say that I cannot hear you.

3) Be still, for what you are stands over you and speaks so loudly I cannot hear what you say.

4) What you are stands over you and thunders, and denies what you say.

5) What you are, thunders so loud that I cannot hear what you say.

6) What you are speaks so loud I can not hear what you say

7) What you do speaks so loud, that I cannot hear what you say.

The ordering of the sayings given above is based on perceived simplification and not chronology. All of these items were published on or before 1900. The last item appeared in a sermon published in 1900, and the parishioners were told that the wisdom emanated from Emerson.

The variant that is the questioner’s favorite is nearly identical to item seven which has been ascribed to Emerson for more than one-hundred years. The words “loud” and “loudly” have been swapped. QI thinks that both quotations presented by the questioner are abridged and simplified forms of what Emerson actually wrote.

This belief concurs with quotation expert Ralph Keyes who identified saying number one above as the likely impetus for the modern sayings numbered six and seven [QVRE]. Here are selected citations in chronological order.

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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.

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