A Person Has Two Reasons for Doing Anything: A Good Reason and the Real Reason

John Pierpont Morgan? Theodore Roosevelt? Mrs. Walter B. Helm? Anonymous?

morgan04Dear Quote Investigator: There is a wonderful quotation about the true motivations that guide the actions of people. I have seen a few different versions:

A person usually has two reasons for doing something: a good reason and the real reason.

A man always has two reasons for what he does—a good one, and the real one.

A man always has two reasons for doing anything: a good reason and the real reason.

The good reason provides an explanation for others, and the real reason produces the strongest impetus. This adage has been attributed to financier John Pierpont Morgan, President Teddy Roosevelt, and influential essayist Thomas Carlyle. I hope this query gives you a reason to explore this saying.

Quote Investigator: In 1930 the memoir “Roosevelt: The Story of a Friendship” by Owen Wister was published. Wister wrote about his long friendship with Theodore Roosevelt, and he included a quotation that he ascribed to the prominent banker John Pierpont Morgan: 1

Pierpont Morgan once said: “A man always has two reasons for what he does—a good one, and the real one.”

This is the earliest known linkage of the saying to Morgan who died in 1913, and it was also listed in the key reference “The Yale Book of Quotations”. 2

However, versions of the saying were in circulation long before this date, and it may have originated in France. Details are given below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1872 a book of biographical sketches was released titled “Triumphs of Enterprise, Ingenuity, and Public Spirit” by James Parton. The author included an instance of the saying tailored to woman though he suggested it was applicable to all people and even governments. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 3

A witty French author, descanting upon the foibles of the fair sex, remarks that a woman often has two reasons for her conduct: First, the reason; secondly, the reason that she gives.

It is no more true of women than of men. In the olden time, when diplomacy was reckoned an important and mysterious science, it was eminently true of governments, which seldom avowed the reason that actually controlled their action.

In this early precursor instance of the adage “the reason” corresponded to “the real reason” and “the reason that she gives” corresponded to the “the good reason”. In 1881 the author James Parton used the same saying again in a work titled “Illustrious Men and Their Achievements; Or, The People’s Book of Biography”. 4

In 1893 a newspaper in Sacramento, California published a column that reprinted passages from religious newspapers around the nation. An excerpt from a New York periodical included an instance of the expression comparable to the 1872 version. However, the label “real reason” was now included. Hence, the statement moved closer to the modern saying. 5

A cynical friend used to say that a man always has two reasons for a thing: one is his real reason, the other is the reason that he gives.

In 1905 an annual supper with 400 attendees was held at the Second Congregational church in Rockford, Illinois as reported in “The Rockford Daily Register-Gazette”. Mrs. Walter B. Helm was asked to respond to a facetious toast called “The Men”, and she did so with humor: 6

Some wise person says, “There is always two reasons for doing a thing: one is a good reason and the other is the real reason.” Now, the good reason I have for responding to the toast “The Men,” is because Dr. Snyder asked me, but the real reason is that I may take advantage of the chance of a life time and tell these same men what women really think about them.

In 1921 “Ghosts: A Samuel Lyle Mystery Story” by Arthur Crabb was published, and it included an instance of the saying particularized to women. The word “the” in the original text was italicized for emphasis: 7

A woman, it has been said, always has two reasons for everything—a good reason and the reason.

In 1924 a newspaper in Kansas City, Kansas printed an article about the bob hairstyle for women. The section discussing the reasons women gave for adopting the bob cut was introduced with the following adage: 8

A woman always has two reasons, the one she gives and the one she keeps to herself.

In 1930 the memoirist Owen Wister attributed the saying to Morgan as noted previously in this article: 9

Pierpont Morgan once said: “A man always has two reasons for what he does—a good one, and the real one.”

In 1931 a Salt Lake City, Utah newspaper also ascribed the saying to Morgan: 10

Which explains why J. Pierpont Morgan, the elder, once said that a man has two reasons for what he does, a good reason and the real reason.

In 1931 a book about Theodore Roosevelt called “A Mind That Was Different” by Dow Thompson attributed the saying to Roosevelt instead of Morgan: 11

He always has two reasons for doing a thing, as Roosevelt said, a “good” one and a “real” one. The good one is expressed because it is the unselfish one; it is that he is working for humanity. The real reason is selfish, and the one which he denies that he has by imputing greater sins to his adversaries.

In 1943 a collection compiled by Edmund Fuller titled “Thesaurus of Epigrams” credited Morgan with the expression: 12

A man always has two reasons for doing anything—a good reason and the real reason. —J. P. Morgan

Another compilation in 1943 titled “Esar’s Comic Dictionary” included an instance of the maxim without attribution: 13

reason. A man always has two reasons for doing something: a good reason and the real reason.

In 1944 a newspaper in Kingston, Jamaica printed an advertisement with the saying ascribed to a fictional “Sweepstake Gal”: 14

“A woman always has two reasons for doing anything .. a good reason, and the real reason.” Says Smart Sal — the Sweepstake Gal

In 1964 a collection titled “Distilled Wisdom” included a rephrased version of the saying ascribed to Morgan: 15

A man generally has two reasons for doing a thing; one that sounds good, and a real one.
—J. P. Morgan

In conclusion, precursor expressions were in circulation in the 1800s. A strong match for the saying appeared in a speech delivered in 1905. At that time the adage was attributed to “some wise person”. J. P. Morgan died in 1913 and in 1930 the saying was credited to him. In modern times, Morgan is the most common ascription.

Image Notes: The illustration showing Uncle Sam and J.P. Morgan is form a 1911 political cartoon printed in Puck Magazine. The Young J.P. Morgan image is from 1908. Both files are from Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to Professor Jonathan Lighter who initiated a discussion about this saying on the ADS mailing list, and thanks to the other discussants. Special thanks to correspondent Andrew Steinberg who located the valuable 1893 citation.)

Update History: On May 22, 2014 the 1893 citation was added.

Notes:

  1. 1930, Roosevelt: The Story of a Friendship: 1880-1919, by Owen Wister, Quote Page 280, The Macmillan Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  2. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section J. P. Morgan, Quote Page 537, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1872, Triumphs of Enterprise, Ingenuity, and Public Spirit by James Parton, Chapter: “Life, Trial, and Execution of Algernon Sidney”, Start Page 601, Quote Page 607, Virtue & Yorston, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1881 copyright, Illustrious Men and Their Achievements; Or, The People’s Book of Biography by James Parton, Chapter: Algernon Sidney, Start Page 807, Quote Page 813, The Arundle Print, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1893 December 8, Sacramento Daily Record-Union, In Religion’s Realm: Expressions From the Various Religious Newspapers, (Acknowledgement to the “New York Examiner (Bapt.)”) Quote Page 5, Column 2, Sacramento, California. (California Digital Newspaper Collection)
  6. 1905 February 11, The Rockford Daily Register-Gazette, Society Notes, Quote Page 7, Column 3, Rockford, Illinois. (GenealogyBank)
  7. 1921, Ghosts: A Samuel Lyle Mystery Story by Arthur Crabb, Quote Page 48, The Century Co., New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1924 May 11, Kansas City Star, Why They Bobbed, Quote Page 3D, Column 2, Kansas City, Kansas. (The typo phrase “side gives” in the original text has been replaced by “she gives” in the presented excerpt)(NewspaperArchive)
  9. 1930, “Roosevelt: The Story of a Friendship: 1880-1919” by Owen Wister, Quote Page 280, The Macmillan Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  10. 1931 May 24, Salt Lake Tribune, Curtis Balks G.O.P. Queries On Vote Plans, Quote Page A3, Column 1, Salt Lake City, Utah. (NewspaperArchive)
  11. 1931, A Mind That Was Different by Dow Thompson, Quote Page 111, Harlow Publishing Company, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (HathiTrust Full View)
  12. 1943, Thesaurus of Epigrams, Edited by Edmund Fuller, Quote Page 249, Crown Publishers, New York. (HathiTrust Full View)
  13. 1943, Esar’s Comic Dictionary by Evan Esar, Quote Page 230, Harvest House, New York. (Verified on paper)
  14. 1944 February 18, The Daily Gleaner (Kingston Gleaner), (Advertisement for a Sweepstake Contest), Quote Page 6, Column 7, Kingston, Jamaica. (NewspaperArchive)
  15. 1964, Distilled Wisdom, Compiled and Edited by Alfred Armand Montapert, Section: Business Advice, Quote Page 46, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified with scans)