There Is No Right Way to Do the Wrong Thing

Toby Keith? Charles Jewett? W. Adam? Seneca the Younger? Waylon Jennings? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A song by the country music superstar Toby Keith includes the following words in the chorus:

Ain’t no right way,
To do the wrong thing,

The song is on the album “White Trash With Money” which was released in 2006. More than a decade ago I started to use the same saying:

There’s no right way to do the wrong thing.

Yet, I do not recall hearing this phrase before 2000. Is this a modern proverb?

Quote Investigator: Some researchers thought the phrase might be modern, i.e., twentieth century, but a major new reference work: “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R Shapiro dispelled that notion. The authors found a citation before 1900 and placed the phrase in a special appendix listing: “No Longer Modern Proverbs” [DMRW].

In fact, the aphorism has a long history. In 1850 an article about the relationship between Britain and India was published in the U.S. periodical “De Bow’s Southern and Western Review”. The article criticized the dominance of Britain [DBWA]:

They stand in the relation of conquerors and conquered; of arbitrary rulers and subject masses; of masters and slaves-without common associations, …

The phrase was used when the author discussed how Britain should rule India [DBWA]:

There is no right way of doing a wrong thing; and while the relation itself is allowed to continue, the mode of acting under that relation must partake of its vicious and unnatural character.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1880 a book about the life of Charles Jewett, an advocate for temperance, was published, and it included a version of the aphorism spoken by Jewett [CJWT]:

“A man may do a right thing in a wrong way; but he cannot do a wrong thing in a right way. For there is no right way of doing wrong.”

In March 1891 a newspaper in Iowa published a collection of sayings under the title “Wit and Wisdom”. The phrases in the compilation were obtained from a variety of periodicals, and the same article was printed in several newspapers in different states. Here are two examples [IPRH]:

—There is no right way to do a wrong thing.—Ram’s Horn.
—People who are given to laying up grudges seldom accumulate much else.—Milwaukee Journal.

In 1898 a periodical in the United Kingdom called “The Latter-Day Saints’ Millennial Star” printed a variant of the expression [LDMS]:

There are many wrong ways of doing a right thing; but there was never a right way of doing a wrong thing.

In 1947 a Wichita, Kansas paper called “The Negro Star” printed a set of ‘Wise Sayings” that included the following [WKNS]:

Be generous with kindly words, especially about those who are absent.
There is no right way to do a wrong thing.

In 1955 the aphorism was credited to the philosopher Seneca in a Louisiana newspaper. Presumably this acknowledgment was intended for Seneca the Younger. Both the Younger and the Elder Seneca attract dubious attributions [SYBR]:

It’s just as true today as when the ancient Roman philosopher, Seneca, said it: “There is no right way to do a wrong thing.”

In 1974 a politically flavored version of the saying appeared in the upper-left corner of the front page of a Connecticut newspaper in a feature called “Today’s Chuckle” [TCCT]:

Too many people in Washington just never did learn that there is no right way to do the wrong thing.

In 1996 the politician Dick Armey credited the maxim to a different prominent country music singer [DMWJ]:

Waylon Jennings has a great line: ‘There ain’t no right way to do the wrong thing.’

In conclusion, this aphorism was in circulation by 1850. The article in “De Bow’s Southern and Western Review” was written by someone identified as “W. Adam, Esq.”, but QI thinks that Anonymous is a reasonable attribution for now.

(Thanks to Paul D. White whose email inquiry inspired the construction of this question and the initiation of this exploration.)

[DMRW] 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro Section: Appendix, Page 290, Column 2, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)

[DBWA] 1850 July, De Bow’s Southern and Western Review, Edited by J. D. B. de Bow, Government of British India by W. Adam Start Page 1, Quote Page 2, Published by J. D. B. de Bow, New Orleans, Louisiana. (Google Books full view) link

[CJWT] 1880, Charles Jewett: Life and Recollections by William M. Thayer, Table Talk, Quote Page 411, Publisher James H. Earle, Boston. Massachusetts. (Google Books full view) link

[IPRH] 1891 March 13, Iowa Postal Card, Wit and Wisdom, Page 7, Column 5, Fayette, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive)

[LDMS] 1898 July 28, The Latter-Day Saints’ Millennial Star, Thoughts That Breathe, Page 480, Edited, Printed and Published by Rulon S. Wells, Islington, Liverpool, UK. (Google Books full view) link

[WKNS] 1947 June 6, The Negro Star, Wise Sayings, Page 4, Column 3, Wichita, Kansas. (GenealogyBank)

[SYBR] 1955 May 06, State Times Advocate, Pull Up A Chair by Neal O’Hara, Page 4-A, Column 6, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)

[TCCT] 1974 November 6, The Morning Record, Today’s Chuckle, Page 1 [Upper left corner], Meriden-Wallingford, Connecticut. (Google News Archive)

[DMWJ 1996 April 28, Dallas Morning News, Weathervane, Page: 1J, Dallas, Texas. (NewsBank Access World News)

One reply on “There Is No Right Way to Do the Wrong Thing”

  1. Most interesting, as this quote is often attributed to management guru Ken Blanchard or inspirational writer Harold Kushner, but is obviously way older. What great research. Thanks.

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