Lord Melbourne? William Windham? Benjamin Disraeli? Sydney Smith? William Lamb? Thomas B. Macaulay?
Dear Quote Investigator: Each of us has encountered an individual who with highhanded convictions presents an answer to every question. There is a famous witticism aimed at a person of this type:
I only wish that I was as cocksure of any one thing as he is sure of everything.
Do you know who crafted this expression?
Quote Investigator: There are many different versions of this statement which evolved over time. The earliest evidence indicates that William Lamb who was the Second Viscount Melbourne constructed this quip, and he aimed the barb at the prominent historian and politician Thomas Babington Macaulay. The first strong match located by QI was printed in 1851. Boldface has been added:
“I wish,” said he, “that I knew any thing as well as Tom Macaulay knows every thing.”
Details for this cite are given further below.
Here are selected citations in chronological order.
In 1765 an interesting thematic precursor appeared in a published letter from the theologian John Wesley who was one of the founders of the Methodist movement. Wesley penned a self-deprecating remark that contrasted the overweening certainties of youth with the uncertainties of maturity. The phrases “sure of every thing” versus “hardly sure of any thing” prefigured elements of the later expression. The spaces in “every thing” and ‘any thing” were present in the original text: 1
When I was young, I was sure of every thing. In a few years, having been mistaken a thousand times, I was not half so sure of most things as before. At present I am hardly sure of any thing, but what God has revealed to man.
In 1839 an incomplete inchoate version of the comment attributed to Lord Melbourne was published in the London periodical “The Quarterly Review”. Macaulay was not specifically named: 2
We believe it was Lord Melbourne who, on a recent occasion, concentrated the results of considerable experience and observation in this brief commentary on a Ministerial colleague’s eulogy of a young political economist:—’He’s clever enough; but I don’t like those fellows that are always cock-sure of everything.’
By 1851 an instance of the humorous remark credited to Lord Melbourne was in circulation. In the following expression “knew any thing” and “knows every thing” were contrasted: 3
Macaulay’s positiveness of assertion on the most obscure points of history and policy is well known to all his multitudinous readers. Lord Melbourne, who combined great accomplishments and unerring political shrewdness with the skepticism of a Hume, and the languid airs of a Brummell, once hit off this universal dogmatism of the great essayist with inimitable tact. “I wish,” said he, “that I knew any thing as well as Tom Macaulay knows every thing.”
Thomas Macaulay died in December 1859 and in 1860 several books and periodicals printed comments and anecdotes about his life. In early January “The Illustrated London News” published another version of the quotation: 4
He was a desperate assertor. What Lord Melbourne said of him was true of him from first to last. “I wish,” said Prime Minister Melbourne, “that I was as sure of any one thing as—Tom Macaulay is sure of everything”!
Also in 1860 the book “Macaulay; The Historian Statesman and Essayist. Anecdotes of His Life and Literary Labours” was released with a preface that was dated January 11, 1860. The same version of the quote was included: 5
Lord Melbourne once said of him, —“I wish,” remarked the Prime Minister, “that I was as sure of any one thing, as Tom Macaulay is sure of everything.”
In 1865 a newspaper in York, England printed an instance with the word “cocksure” which was also used in the partial match in 1839: 6
“I wish I were as cocksure of anything,” Lord Melbourne once said, “as Tom Macaulay is of everything.”
In 1872 the Yale Divinity School held a Semi-Centennial Anniversary Celebration and a speaker used a version of the quotation: 7
Lord Melbourne jocosely said that he wished he were as certain of anything as Macaulay was of everything.
In 1882 the collection “Short Sayings of Great Men” attributed an instance of the saying to the politician William Windham instead of Lord Melbourne: 8
William Windham once said, “I wish I was as sure of any thing as Macaulay is of every thing.”
In 1884 the volume “A System of Rhetoric” assigned a version of the remark to Sydney Smith, an English cleric and noted wit: 9
On reading Macaulay’s “History of England,” Sydney Smith remarked: “I wish I knew anything as well as Macaulay thinks he knows everything.”
In 1889 an edited collection of “Lord Melbourne’s Papers” was released with a preface written by Francis Thomas de Grey Cowper (Earl Cowper) who presented an instance of the expression: 10
It was Lord Melbourne, not Sydney Smith, who said, ‘I wish I was as cocksure of anything as Tom Macaulay is of everything’; but we see now that he had had his own period of cock-sureness like most other people.
In 1902 Lord Stanley employed an entertaining variant of the saying while speaking in the Parliament of Great Britain as recorded in the Hansard: 11
The hon. Member is very sure of everything; I wish I was as sure of any one thing he has said.
In 1944 Bennett Cerf, an industrious collector of anecdotes and bon mots, presented a reassignment of the quip. In Cerf’s recounting Benjamin Disraeli delivered the line to his political rival William Ewart Gladstone: 12
“Mr. Disraeli cannot possibly be sure of his facts,” thundered Gladstone in one debate. “I only wish,” was the reply, “that I could be as sure of anything as my opponent is of everything.”
The 1964 book “The Fine Art of Political Wit” included a chapter about the politician Adlai Stevenson who presented an oddly different tale about the jape. Stevenson believed that Macaulay was not the target of the jibe instead he employed the statement to attack another man named Brougham: 13
…I think it was, Macaulay who said of some Englishman, Brougham, I believe, ‘I wish I was as sure of anything as he is of everything.’
In conclusion, QI believes that Lord Melbourne should be credited with this statement, and the target of his criticism was Thomas B. Macaulay? There are several different wordings, and it is not certain which was actually used by Melbourne. Other individuals may have used the expression, but based on current evidence Melbourne has priority.
Image Notes: Portraits of Lord Melbourne and Thomas Babington Macaulay from Wikimedia Commons. Images are cropped reproductions of two-dimensional public-domain works of art. Rooster from OpenClips on Pixabay.
(Great thanks to quotation expert Nigel Rees who discussed this expression in the July 2012 issue of his newsletter mentioning the existence of partial matches in 1839 and 1851. Rees also presented the January 7, 1860 citation. 14 Special thanks to Ralph Keyes who mentioned William Windham in “The Quote Verifier”. Many thanks to Kenneth Hirsch who located and shared several valuable citations, e.g., the 1884 cite for Sydney Smith. Thanks also to other ADS discussion participants in 2009.)
- 1765 January, The London Magazine, Or, Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer, (Letter to author of London Magazine from John Wesley), Of Planetary Worlds, Start Page 26, Quote Page 28, Column 2, Printed for R. Baldwin, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1839 June, The Quarterly Review, Volume 64, Number 127, Review of Prescott’s History of Ferdinand and Isabella, (Quotation in footnote), Start Page 1, Quote Page 45, Published by John Murray, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1851 August, Graham’s Magazine, Volume 39, Number 2, “The Use and the Economy of Invective” by P., Quote Page 66, Column 2, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1860 January 7, The Illustrated London News, “Town and Table Talk on Literature, Art, &c.” Quote Page 10, Column 1, London, England. (Internet Archive Full View) link ↩
- 1860, “Macaulay; The Historian Statesman and Essayist. Anecdotes of His Life and Literary Labours With Some Account of His Early and Unknown Writings”, Second Edition, (Preface is dated January 11, 1860), Quote Page 124, John Camden Hotten, Piccadilly, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1865 June 24, The York Herald, Issue 4832, Romish Practices in the Church of England, (Acknowledgement to the Daily News), Quote Page 11, Column 3, York, England. (19th Century British Library Newspapers: Part II) ↩
- 1872, The Semi-Centennial Anniversary of the Divinity School of Yale College, May 15th and 16th, 1872, Historical Address by Prof. George P. Fisher, Start Page 3, Quote page 18, Press of Tuttle, Morehouse and Taylor, New Haven, Connecticut. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1882, Short Sayings of Great Men: With Historical and Explanatory Notes by Samuel Arthur Bent, Second Edition, Quote Page 364, Published by James R. Osgood and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1884, A System of Rhetoric by C. W. Bardeen (Charles William Bardeen), Quote Page xcviii, Published by A. S. Barnes & Company, New York. (Google Books Full view) link ↩
- 1889, Lord Melbourne’s Papers (Viscount William Lamb Melbourne), Edited by Lloyd C. Sanders, Preface by The Earl Cowper, Quote Page xii, Longmans, Green, and Co., London. (HathiTrust Full View) link link ↩
- 1902 March 18, Hansard, United Kingdom Parliament, Commons, South African War-Remounts and Other Contracts, Speaking: Lord Stanley (Westhoughton), HC Deb, volume 105, cc334-443. (Accessed hansard.millbanksystems.com on January 23, 2014) link ↩
- 1944, Try and Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Quote Page 256, Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1964, The Fine Art of Political Wit by Leon A. Harris, Section: Adlai Stevenson, Quote Page 252, E. P. Dutton & Company, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 2012 July, The “Quote…Unquote” Newsletter, Volume 21 Number 3, Publisher & Editor: Nigel Rees, Quote Page 16, Quote Answer Number: A4372. (Distributed as a PDF via email)(website link) ↩