Tag Archives: Oliver Wendell Holmes

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.

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What Lies Behind Us and What Lies Before Us are Tiny Matters Compared to What Lies Within Us

Albert Jay Nock? Ralph Waldo Emerson? Oliver Wendell Holmes? Henry David Thoreau? Henry Stanley Haskins? William Morrow? Expelled Wall Street Stock Trader?

graduate09Dear Quote Investigator: I attended a graduation ceremony last year and was genuinely impressed by a quotation used in the keynote address:

What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.

The speaker credited Ralph Waldo Emerson and that sounded plausible to me, but when I searched on the internet to find a specific reference I was surprised to discover substantial disagreement. Some websites do attribute the words to Emerson, but other websites favor Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and yet others credit Henry David Thoreau. Also, I found the wording varies somewhat. Not one of the attributions has a strong justification. Too many websites simply copy information from other repositories of unconfirmed data. Could you overcome this confusion?

Quote Investigator: This popular motivational saying has been ascribed to a diverse collection of individuals. Expert Ralph Keyes wrote in the Quote Verifier: 1

This quotation is especially beloved by coaches, valedictorians, eulogists, and Oprah Winfrey. It usually gets attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson. No evidence can be found that Emerson said or wrote these words.

The earliest appearance of this adage located by QI is in a book titled “Meditations in Wall Street” that was produced in 1940 by the publishing house William Morrow & Company with an introduction by economics writer Albert Jay Nock. The word “before” is used instead of “ahead” in this initial saying: 2

What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.

When the book was originally released the name of the author was kept a mystery although the wordsmith was described as a Wall Street financier. However, that did not prevent eager quotation propagators from fabricating attributions. The maxim has been assigned to the introduction writer, Nock, and it has even been credited to the head of the publishing house, William Morrow.

In 1947 the New York Times printed the author’s identity: Henry S. Haskins, a man with a colorful and controversial background as a securities trader. QI believes that Haskins originated this popular saying which has in modern times been reassigned to more famous individuals.

Here are selected citations in chronological order.
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Notes:

  1. 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Quote Page 253-254, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1940, Meditations in Wall Street by Anonymous, With an Introduction by Albert Jay Nock, (“Anonymous” was Henry Stanley Haskins), Quote Page 131, William Morrow & Company, New York. (HathiTrust Full View)

Legal Advice: Pound the Facts, Pound the Law, Pound the Table

Alan Dershowitz? Jerome Michael? Jacob J. Rosenblum? Oliver Wendell Holmes?

Dear Quote Investigator: A few years ago I saw a famous quotation about legal strategy attributed to a celebrity professor [ADFW]:

Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz shares with his students a strategy for successfully defending cases. If the facts are on your side, Dershowitz says, pound the facts into the table. If the law is on your side, pound the law into the table. If neither the facts nor the law are on your side, pound the table.

But I thought that this saying was originally from a Columbia professor named Jerome Michael and not from a Harvard professor. Could you investigate this?

Quote Investigator: There is good evidence that Jerome Michael used a version of the saying while teaching, but the adage was in use before he graduated from Columbia Law School. QI has traced it back ninety-nine years and will present selected citations in reverse order.

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