Every Ambitious Would-Be Empire Clarions It Abroad That She Is Conquering the World to Bring It Peace

Henry David Thoreau? George S. Boutwell? Taylor Caldwell? Apocryphal?

boutwell10Dear Quote Investigator: George S. Boutwell was a U.S. politician who campaigned to end slavery and later became president of the Anti-Imperialist League. He objected to the annexation of the Philippines. The following statement has been attributed to him:

Every ambitious would-be empire clarions it abroad that she is conquering the world to bring it peace, security and freedom, and is sacrificing her sons only for the most noble and humanitarian purposes. That is a lie.

I have been unable to find any documentation supporting this ascription. Oddly, the words are also sometimes credited to Henry David Thoreau. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Taylor Caldwell was a very popular author who wrote a series of bestsellers over a span of four decades. Her 1968 novel “Testimony of Two Men” was made into a television miniseries in the 1970s. This work contained the earliest evidence of the quotation known to QI. One of Caldwell’s characters was talking about the beliefs of George S. Boutwell and presented remarks from the politician of uncertain accuracy. The passage was complex because it also included a quotation attributed to Henry David Thoreau. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

I remember that Boutwell said, ‘Our war to free Cuba must not be turned into wars for Empire. If America ever does seek Empire, and most nations do, then planned reforms in our domestic life will be abandoned, States Rights will be abolished—in order to impose a centralized government upon us for the purpose of internal repudiation of freedom, and adventures abroad. The American dream will then die—on battlefields all over the world—and a nation conceived in liberty will destroy liberty for Americans and impose tyranny on subject nations.’

Boutwell also said, if I am repeating him correctly, and he quoted Thoreau: ‘If I knew a man was approaching my house to do me good, I would flee for my life.’ Then he went on to say, ‘Every ambitious would-be empire clarions it abroad that she is conquering the world to bring it peace, security and freedom, and is sacrificing her sons only for the most noble and humanitarian purposes. That is a lie, and it is an ancient lie, yet generations still rise and believe it!'”

So the quotation under examination was written by Taylor Caldwell and not by George S. Boutwell. QI has been unable to verify whether Boutwell said or wrote the words attributed to him by Caldwell’s fictional character. Perhaps future researchers will uncover supporting evidence for the Boutwell linkage. Also note that the words about empire were not written by Henry David Thoreau.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Henry David Thoreau’s famous work “Walden” emerged from several drafts and was first published in 1854. Version G of the manuscript and the published text included a strong match for the words attributed to Thoreau in Caldwell’s book; however, the phrasing was different: 2

There is no odor so bad as that which arises from goodness tainted. It is human, it is divine, carrion. If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life, as from that dry and parching wind of the African deserts called the simoom, which fills the mouth and nose and ears and eyes with dust till you are suffocated. . .

Comparison shows that Thoreau employed “coming to my house” instead of “approaching my house”, and “I should run for my life” instead of “I would flee for my life”. Also, Thoreau’s phrases “for a certainty” and “conscious design” were omitted in Caldwell’s book version.

Since Caldwell’s character altered and paraphrased the words of Thoreau it was possible that a similar transformation was applied to the words of Boutwell. Hence, locating a matching statement from Boutwell via an electronic textual search might be challenging.

In 2003 the “El Paso Times” of Texas published a letter to the editor that included an instance of the quotation attributed to Thoreau: 3

I have come across this amazing quote from Henry David Thoreau, and I must share it with my fellow Texans. This quote sums exactly how I perceive this federal congress and administration.

“Every ambitious would-be empire clarions it abroad that she is conquering the world to bring it peace, and freedom and is sacrificing her sons only for the most noble and humanitarian purposes. That is a lie, and it is an ancient lie, yet generations still rise and believe it.”

In conclusion, the statement under investigation has been attributed to three people: George S. Boutwell, Henry David Thoreau, and Taylor Caldwell. This confusion is unsurprising because the words appeared in a bestselling book by Taylor Caldwell in 1968. A fictional character attributed the words to Boutwell. In addition, the passage contained an embedded quotation that was attributed to Thoreau.

At this time, QI has found no substantive support for the Boutwell ascription and suggests that Caldwell should be credited.

Image Notes: Angel with clarion/trumpet from PeterKraayvanger at Pixabay. Portrait of Boutwell as Secretary of the Treasury from the Bureau of Engraving and Printing via Wikimedia Commons. Image of book cover for “Testimony of Two Men” presented in reduced size with low resolution.

(Great thanks to Chris, Jon Reinsch, and Ernie Garrett whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1968, Testimony of Two Men by Taylor Caldwell, Quote Page 452, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified with scans)
  2. Website: Digital Thoreau, Section Title: Walden: A Fluid Text Edition, Version Information: Version_G: Walden, Version G (1854), Author: Henry David Thoreau, Published by Digital Thoreau at The State University of New York College at Geneseo. (Accessed digitalthoreau.org on January 23, 2015) link
  3. 2003 August 11, El Paso Times, Letters, (Letter to the editor from Oscar Luevanos, East Side), Quote Page 06B, El Paso, Texas. (NewsBank Access World News)