Edmund Burke? Anselme Batbie? Victor Hugo? King Oscar II of Sweden? George Bernard Shaw? François Guizot? Georges Clemenceau? Benjamin Disraeli? Winston Churchill? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Some individuals change their political orientation as they grow older. There is a family of sayings that present a mordant judgment on this ideological evolution. Here are three examples:
Not to be a républicain at twenty is proof of want of heart; to be one at thirty is proof of want of head.
If you’re not a socialist before you’re twenty-five, you have no heart; if you are a socialist after twenty-five, you have no head.
If you aren’t a liberal when you’re young, you have no heart, but if you aren’t a middle-aged conservative, you have no head.
Political terminology has changed over time, and it differs in distinct locales. Within the context of these sayings the terms “républicain”, “socialist”, and “liberal” were all on the left of the political spectrum. Would you please explore this complex topic?
Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in an 1875 French book of contemporary biographical portraits by Jules Claretie. A section about a prominent jurist and academic named Anselme Polycarpe Batbie included the following passage. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
M. Batbie, dans une lettre trop célèbre, citait un jour, pour expliquer ses variations personnelles et bizarres, ce paradoxe de Burke: « Celui qui n’est pas républicain à vingt ans fait douter de la générosité de son âme; mais celui qui, après trente ans, persévère, fait douter de la rectitude de son esprit. »
Here is one possible translation to English.
Mr. Batbie, in a much-celebrated letter, once quoted the Burke paradox in order to account for his bizarre political shifts: “He who is not a républicain at twenty compels one to doubt the generosity of his heart; but he who, after thirty, persists, compels one to doubt the soundness of his mind.”
Batbie was probably referring to the statesman Edmund Burke who was noted for his support of the American Revolution and later condemnation of the French Revolution. However, QI has not located the quotation under investigation in the writings of Burke. Anselme Batbie lived between 1828 and 1887.
The same quotation with an ascription to Batbie appeared in volume five of the “La Grande Encyclopédie” which was published circa 1888. The title in English of this 31 volume work was “The Great Encyclopedia”, and the statement was printed within the entry for Batbie. 2
This saying is often attributed to the French statesman and historian François Guizot who died in 1874. However, this ascription was based in an entry in “Benham’s Book of Quotations Proverbs and Household Words” which was published many years after the death of Guizot; hence the supporting data is not very strong. Details are given further below in the 1936 citation.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1905 a French history journal called “Revue d’Histoire Moderne et Contemporaine” published a review that included a version of the saying using a different phrasing. The words were attributed to an unnamed man: 3
« Nous entendions dire dans notre enfance par un homme qui avait connu l’existence et qui n’etait pas sans esprit: « Celui qui n’est pas républicain à vingt ans révèle une bien vilaine âme; mais celui qui l’est encore à trente est un imbécile ». Aujourd’hui nous pourrions ajouter: ou un coquin ».
In 1916 a book about developments in Mexico by Francisco Bulnes attributed an instance of the saying to the celebrated French literary figure Victor Hugo: 4
One of the revolutionists, an honest, intelligent and perfectly sincere man, a real reformer, took up the well-known phrase of Victor Hugo: “If a man is not a republican at twenty, it is because he has no heart, and if he is one at forty, it is because he has no brains.” 
[Footnote 1] Madero par una de sus intimos p. 144.
In 1923 the “Wall Street Journal” credited King Oscar II of Sweden with a version of the remark using the word “socialist” instead of “républicain” or “republican”. The quote appeared as a freestanding short item under the title: “The truth in its proper use”: 5
A man who has not been a socialist before 25 has no heart. If he remains one after 25 he has no head.—King Oscar II of Sweden
In 1927 an instance appeared in a letter written to a columnist in the “Boston Herald” newspaper of Boston, Massachusetts: 6
The late King Oscar II of Sweden is supposed to have said—or it may have been some one else: “If a man is not a Socialist at 20 be has no heart, but if he remains one at 30 he has no head.” What is your opinion?
By 1929 the saying had inspired the title of a play: “Before You’re 25” by Kenyon Nicholson which opened in New York and received a lukewarm review by a well-known drama critic: 7
Another new play of the week is called “Before You’re 25,” based on some observing cynic’s remark that before you are 25 if you are not a Socialist you have no heart and after you’re 25 if you are a Socialist you have no head. Which is one of those yes and no conclusions dependent largely upon the sort of Socialist you happen to be.
If you don’t begin to be a revolutionist at the age of twenty then at fifty you will be an impossible old fossil. If you are a red revolutionary at the age of twenty you have some chance of being up to date when you are forty
In 1936 a revised edition of “Benham’s Book of Quotations Proverbs and Household Words” was published, and it included an instance of the statement which was attributed to François Guizot. This is the earliest linkage to Guizot known to QI. This saying did not appear in the previous edition in 1924. The compiler of the book was Sir Gurney Benham, and he also stated that there was a variant expression ascribed to Georges Clemenceau: 10
N’être pas republicain à vingt ans est preuve d’un manque de coeur; l’être après trente ans est preuve d’un manque de tête.—Not to be a republican at twenty is proof of want of heart; to be one at thirty is proof of want of head.
F. Guizot (1787-1874). (French statesman under Louis Philippe.) M. Clemenceau adapted this saying, substituting “socialiste” for “republicain.”
In 1943 the play mentioned in the 1929 citation was given a new staging, and the work was reviewed in the “Los Angeles Times”: 11
A bright little comedy of errors is Kenyon Nicholson’s “Before You’re Twenty-five,” now being presented at the Bliss-Hayden Theater by a zestful young cast…
Kenyon Nicholson rather predicates his play upon the theory that if you’re not a leftist or socialist before you’re 25, you have no heart; if you are one after 25 you have no head!
In 1944 the industrious anecdote collector Bennett Cerf presented an entertaining tale featuring Georges Clemenceau: 12
An excited supporter burst into the private chambers of the old tiger Clemenceau one day and cried, “Your son has just joined the Communist Party.” Clemenceau regarded his visitor calmly and remarked, “Monsieur, my son is 22 years old. If he had not become a Communist at 22, I would have disowned him. If he is still a Communist at 30, I will do it then.”
In 1946 the periodical “Commonweal” presented an instance of the saying and labeled it an aphorism: 13
There is a foolish aphorism to the effect that “If you aren’t a socialist at twenty, you have no heart, and if you are a socialist at forty, you have no head.” Something like that. A facile saying, whipped up in a moment of inspiration by some ex-socialist press agent for the status quo.
In the 1960s student protests were rocking the universities in the U.S., and in 1970 a volume titled “Student Unrest: Threat or Promise?” was published. A version of the expression using the word “liberal” instead of “socialist” or “republican” was presented: 14
Adolescent rebellion has been tolerated, and even sanctioned, as a “normal” stage of human development. After all, “if you aren’t a liberal when you’re young, you have no heart, but if you aren’t a middle-aged conservative, you have no head.”
In 1977 the popular compilation “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” included the saying with an ascription to a famous nineteenth-century British statesman: 15
A man who is not a Liberal at sixteen has no heart; a man who is not a Conservative at sixty has no head.
—Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881)
In 1984 the “Wall Street Journal” reproduced the information provided in Laurence J. Peter’s book: 16
“A man who is not a liberal at 16 has no heart,” ventured British statesman Benjamin Disraeli, and “A man who is not a conservative at 60 has no head.” It is often true that younger citizens tend to be more liberal and that the older and more successful people become, the more conservative they become.
By 1986 the saying had implausibly moved to the lips of Winston Churchill as indicated by the following excerpt from the “The Hartford Courant” of Hartford, Connecticut: 17
Winston S. Churchill supposedly once observed that anyone who was not a liberal at 20 years of age had no heart, while anyone who was still a liberal at 40 had no head. If there’s any truth to the observation, one wonders what to make of today’s college students.
In 2013 the political scientist Corey Robin wrote an engaging article in “The Chronicle Review” that discussed the perplexity of wrongly attributed statements and used the quotation being examined here as an example of the problem. 18
In conclusion, the earliest citation located by QI points to Anselme Batbie as the creator of this saying. Yet, the context indicated that Edmund Burke provided the inspiration for Batbie’s words. QI has not yet located this expression in the writings of Burke, and it is possible that Burke’s changing political behavior inspired the saying and not his words.
“Republican” is a translation of the French “républicain”. The versions of the expression using the words “socialist” and “liberal” were almost certainly derived directly or indirectly from the statement that was in circulation by 1875.
The support for ascriptions other than Anselme Batbie is weaker because it is typically later and/or indirect. Of course, the expression may have been employed by multiple individuals.
Image Notes: Anselme Batbie from Histoire de la Révolution de 1870-71, Paris, 1874. Portrait of François Guizot by Jean-Georges Vibert. Oscar II of Sweden painted by Oscar Björck. All three images are in the public domain and were obtained from Wikimedia Commons. Cropped and retouched.
(Great thanks to Barry Popik for his valuable work examining this quotation. Many thanks to Dennis Lien for accessing and examining the 1936 and 1924 editions of “Benham’s Book of Quotations”. Special thanks to Steve Perisho and T.F. Mills for supplying translations from French to English. Any errors are the responsibility of QI. Additional thanks to T.F. Mills for supplying historical background information. Thanks to Victor Steinbok for pointing out additional citations and ascriptions. Great thanks to Corey Robin.)
- 1875, Portraits Contemporains by Jules Claretie, Volume: 1, Chapter Topic: M. Casimir Périer, Start Page 51, Quote Page 55, Published by Librairie Illustrée, Paris. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- La Grande Encyclopédie: Inventaire Raisonné Des Sciences, Des Lettres et Des Arts, (The Great Encyclopedia: A Systematic Inventory of Science, Letters, and the Arts), by Société de Savants et de Gens de Lettres, Tome Cinquième (Volume 5), From Bailliébe to Belgiojoso, (Date: the 31 Volumes were published between 1886 and 1902; volume 5 was published circa 1888), Entry: “Batbie, Anselme-Polycarpe”, Start Page 705, Quote Page 705, Column 2, Published by H. Lamirault, Paris. (The quotation was nearly identical: “persévère” in 1875 was expanded to “persévère encore” in 1888)(Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1905/1906, Revue d’Histoire Moderne et Contemporaine (1899-1914), Volume 7, Number 10, Les trois coups d’Etat de Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte. I. Strasbourg et Boulogne by André Lebey, Review by P. Caron, Article Start Page 788, (Footnote 2), Quote Page 791, Published by: Societe d’Histoire Moderne et Contemporaine. (JSTOR) link ↩
- 1916, The Whole Truth about Mexico: President Wilson’s Responsibility by Francisco Bulnes, (Authorized Translation by Dora Scott), Quote Page 32, M. Bulnes Book Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1923 February 17, Wall Street Journal, The truth in its proper use, (Short freestanding item), Quote Page 2, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1927 May 23, Boston Herald, Everyday Questions Answered by Dr. S. Parkes Cadman, Quote Page 13, Column 3, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1929 April 28, Springfield Sunday Union and Republican (Springfield Republican), Plays and Players: Stage Needs Better and Newer Sawdust Babies by Burns Mantle, Quote Page 13F, Column 1, Springfield, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1933 April 8, Montana Standard, A New Yorker at Large by Mark Barron, Quote Page 9, Rightmost column, Butte, Montana. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: George Bernard Shaw, Quote Page 705, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1936, Benham’s Book of Quotations Proverbs and Household Words, Compiled by Sir Gurney Benham, Completely Revised and Enlarged Edition, Quote Page 751a, Column 1, Published by Ward, Lock & Co., London. (Special note: The 1936 edition does not have the year directly listed in its text. The preface states: “The present edition is the first complete revision since 1924.” The number of pages matches bibliographic data for the 1936 edition. The volume examined was not the 1948 edition because the 1948 volume was released by a different publisher.) (Verified with scans; thanks to Dennis Lien and the University of Minnesota library system) ↩
- 1943 February 26, Los Angeles Times, Nicholson Play Amuses by Katherine Von Blon, Quote Page 8, Column 4, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1944, Try and Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Quote Page 258, Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1946 September 20, Commonweal, Volume 44, Number 23, Book review by John C. Cort, (Book under review: “Tour of Duty” by John Dos Passos), Quote Page 556, Column 1, Commonweal Publishing Company, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1970, Student Unrest: Threat or Promise?, Edited by Richard L. Hart and J. Galen Saylor, Prepared by the ASCD Council on Secondary Education, NEA, The Student Movement and School Reform by Mario D. Fantini (Program Officer, Ford Foundation, New York), Quote Page 46 and 47, Published by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Washington, D.C. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1977, “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” by Laurence J. Peter, Section: Conservatives, Quote Page 131, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1984 January 25, Wall Street Journal, Political Notes: Reagan & Co. Seek an Elusive Theme for Speech; Mondale Roasts in Florida; Glenn Stalls in North” by Robert W. Merry Staff (Reporter of The Wall Street Journal), Quote Page 62, Column 3, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1986 November 8, The Hartford Courant, Section: Editorials, Youth’s Narrow Vision, Quote Page B8, Column 1, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest) ↩
- 2013 September 16, The Chronicle Review, (The Chronicle of Higher Education website), “Who Really Said That?” by Corey Robin, (Professor of political science at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York and the CUNY Graduate Center)(Accessed chronicle.com on February 24, 2014) link ↩