The Difficult We Do Immediately. The Impossible Takes a Little Longer

Charles Alexandre de Calonne? Lady Aberdeen? George Santayana? Fridtjof Nansen? Nicolas Beaujon? Baron de Breteuil? Mrs. William Tilton?

Dear Quote Investigator: There exists a family of entertaining sayings that cheerfully displays inordinate confidence:

1) If the thing be possible, it is already done; if impossible, it shall be done.

2) If it is simply difficult, it is done. If it is impossible, it shall be done.

3) The difference between the difficult and the impossible is that the impossible takes a little longer time.

4) The difficult is that which can be done immediately, the impossible that which takes a little longer.

5) The difficult we do immediately; the impossible takes a little longer.

These phrases have been linked to the French statesman Charles Alexandre de Calonne, the American essayist George Santayana, and the Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI was published in a 1794 collection of tales titled “Domestic Anecdotes of the French Nation”. The saying was ascribed to Charles Alexandre de Calonne who was the controversial Finance Minister for King Louis XVI of France and Queen Marie Antoinette. Before the excerpt below had been published, the French Revolution had swept the King and Queen from power, and both had died on the guillotine in 1793. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

When the queen asked Calonne for money, he more than once made use of this singular expression: If it is possible, madam, the affair is done; if it is impossible, it shall be done! Appropriate language for a French petit-maitre addressing his mistress, but not for a financier in whose hands was reposed the prosperity of an oppressed people!

The expression has been circulating and evolving for more than two hundred years. The popular novelist Anthony Trollope included an instance in his 1874 book “Phineas Redux” ascribing the words to a French Minister. Fridtjof Nansen spoke a version of the saying when he was a delegate to the League of Nations in 1925.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1795 “The Lady’s Magazine: or, Entertaining Companion for the Fair Sex” printed an article titled “Anecdotes of the Late Queen of France” which included an instance of the saying ascribed to Calonne. The line was reportedly spoken about a decade earlier in 1784: 2

In April 1784, her majesty applied for nine hundred thousand livres, to discharge some small debts which she had contracted. Calonne, who was then the comptroller general and her creature, entreated only time. When the queen asked Calonne for money, he more than once made use of this singular expression, “If it is possible, Madam, the affair is done; if it is impossible, it shall be done!”

In 1802 a memoir titled “Mon Voyage au Mont d’Or” was published in French. Interestingly, the saying was not ascribed to Calonne; instead, a court banker named Nicolas Beaujon was credited: 3

Il est sûr que quand M. Beaujon répondoit à la reine: Mme, si c’est possible, c’est fait; si c’est impossible, cela se fera, on devoit croire entendre plutôt le duc d’Antin parlant à la duchesse de Bourgogne.

In 1803 a multi-volume reference titled “Géographie: Mathématique, Physique & Politique de Toutes les Parties du Monde” was published, and the section about French history included a variant instance ascribed to Calonne: 4

Un seul trait suffira pour peindre ce contrôleur des finances, bien plus propre à être courtisan qu’homme d’état. Lorsque Marie-Antoinette lui demandait quelque chose de difficile, il lui répondait: Madame, si c’est possible, c’est fait; si cela ne l’est pas, cela se fera.

Joseph Weber wrote a book about Marie Antoinette that was translated into English from French and released in 1805. The author was the son of Constance Weber who was the wet-nurse of Antoinette, and the volume described him as the foster-brother of the Queen. Joseph Weber attributed the remark to Calonne: 5

How is it possible to think that the Queen could have been upon her guard against the deceitful assurances of a Minister, who, to the few demands she made of him, always replied in a manner so delicate and amiable: “If what your Majesty desires be possible, it is done; if impossible, it shall be done.”

In 1825 “The Literary Gazette and Journal of Belles Lettres” in London attributed the comment to the aristocrat Baron de Breteuil: 6

French Promises.—The Queen Marie Antoinette, said to M. de Breteuil, “Baron, I have a favour to ask of you.” “Madame,” he replied, “if the thing be possible, it is already done; if impossible, it shall be done.”

In 1825 the short item above also appeared in other periodicals such as “The Kaleidoscope: Or, Literary and Scientific Mirror” in Liverpool, England. 7

In 1873 the prolific writer Anthony Trollope released the work “Phineas Redux” in serial form, and the next year he published it as a novel. One of Trollope’s characters tentatively ascribed the saying to an unnamed French Minister. This instance included the word “difficult” which became common in modern sayings: 8

“What was it the French Minister said? If it is simply difficult, it is done. If it is impossible, it shall be done.”

In 1913 a variant expression was printed in a book that advocated alcohol prohibition called “The Anti-Alcohol Movement in Europe”. The words were ascribed to the political activist Ishbel Hamilton-Gordon who was referred to as Lady Aberdeen: 9

It is, therefore, none too soon for the Anti-saloon League and other organisations to press national prohibition to the front. To those who think this the delusion of impossibilists we can only quote the fine saying of Lady Aberdeen, “The difference between the difficult and the impossible is that the impossible takes a little longer time.”

In 1921 the saying was attributed to another political activist named Mrs. William Tilton in “The Washington Herald” newspaper: 10

“And so undaunted by difficulties let us push right on—instinctively—knowing that the only difference between the possible and the impossible is that the impossible takes a little longer.”—Mrs. William Tilton, legislative chairman of the National Congress of Mothers.

In 1925 the famous polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen addressed a group at the League of Nations. He employed a longer two part variant of the saying in the form of a definition, but he did not assume credit for the expression: 11

The President. — Dr. Nansen, delegate for Norway, will address the Assembly

Dr. Nansen (Norway): Mr. President, ladies and gentlemen — The wonderfully eloquent speech which we have just heard reminds me of the definition of the difference between the difficult and the impossible. The difficult is that which can be done at once: the impossible is that which takes a little longer.

The saying is sometimes employed in a military context. For example, in 1927 a columnist in a Louisiana newspaper extolled individuals who refused to capitulate: 12

The whole faculty of West Point couldn’t tell him when he is licked because he never is. And the only difference he knows between the possible and the impossible is that the impossible takes a little longer.

In 1936 the Episcopal minister and columnist Joseph Fort Newton attributed a version of the saying to Fridtjof Nansen although his name was misspelled as “Fridtjeof”: 13

The big things in life are not done for any reason we can define for ourselves or others; they are deeper than reason. “The difficult is that which takes a little time,” said Fridtjeof Nansen; “the impossible is what takes a little longer.”

In 1939 an instance was credited to the philosopher George Santayana in the pages of the mass-circulation periodical “Reader’s Digest”. This evidence was not very strong because the magazine did not provide a precise citation. Santayana was alive in 1939, and he would continue to live until 1952. Perhaps future researchers will find superior support: 14

The Difficult is that which can be done immediately; the Impossible that which takes a little longer.
Quoted in Reader’s Digest, Nov. 1939

By 1942 a concise instance had been adopted as a slogan by a department of the U.S. Army: 15

SLOGANS FOR THE WAR
New York Sun.

Many of the slogans that have been heard since December 7 have lacked both spontaneity and appeal. Some have been particularly lacking in home-grown qualities; they might have been manufactured anywhere in the world. Though it is obviously custom-made, the training slogan of the Ordnance Department of the Army sounds as though it were made in America. “The difficult we do immediately; the impossible takes a little longer.”

In conclusion, citations support the ascription of the saying to Charles Alexandre de Calonne. The 1794 instance was the earliest, but the 1802 and 1803 versions were the first in French. QI is not a historian, but it seems possible that the anecdote and quotation were deliberately constructed to attack Calonne and/or Marie Antoinette. QI conjectures that the entire family of sayings evolved from the French tale.

Image Notes: Portrait of Charles-Alexandre de Calonne and Marie Antoinette by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun. Livres: French coins. Image from the National Numismatic Collection, National Museum of American History. Images have been cropped, retouched, and resized; accessed via Wikimedia Commons

Update History: On June 12, 2015 the 1925 citation for Fridtjof Nansen was updated to provide additional verified details.

(Great thanks to Terry Teachout whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Nigel Rees for his research on this topic recorded in “Cassell’s Humorous Quotations”, to Fred Shapiro for his efforts recorded in “The Yale Book of Quotations”, and to Barry Popik for his work recorded at his website here. Many thanks to Stephen Goranson for verifying the 1925 Nansen citation.)

Notes:

  1. 1794, Domestic Anecdotes of the French Nation During the Last Thirty Years: Indicative of the French Revolution by Isaac Disraeli, Chapter: The Queen, Start Page 376, Quote Page 404, Printed for C. and G. Kearsley, Fleet Street, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1795 April, The Lady’s Magazine: or, Entertaining Companion for the Fair Sex, Anecdotes of the Late Queen of France, Start Page 180, Quote Page 181, Printed for G. G. & J. Robinson, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1802, Mon Voyage au Mont d’Or: Par l’Auteur du Voyage a Constantinople par l’Allemagne et la Hongrie by Comte de C.-M. d’Yrumberry Salaberry (Charles Marie d’Yrumberry de Salaberry), Letter V: Start Page 23, Quote Page 24, Published by Maradan, Paris. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1803, Géographie: Mathématique, Physique & Politique de Toutes les Parties du Monde, Volume 6, Section: Histoire de France par C. F. Donnant, Start Page 375, Quote Page 426, Authors: Edme Mentelle, Malte-Brun, Publisher: H. Tardieu, Laporte, Paris, France. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1805, Title: Memoirs of Maria Antoinetta, Archduchess of Austria, Queen of France and Navarre: Including Several Important, Periods of the French Revolution, From Its Origin to the 16th of October, 1793, the Day of Her Majesty’s Martyrdom, Author: Joseph Weber, Translator: R. C. Dallas (from French to English), Volume 1, Quote Page 450, Printed for C. Rickaby, Fleet-Street, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1825 January 22, Literary Gazette and Journal of Belles Lettres, Arts, Sciences &c., Facetiae, Quote Page 62, Column 2, Published for the Proprietors at the Literary Gazette Office, London. Printed by Whiting & Branston, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1825 February 22, The Kaleidoscope, Or, Literary and Scientific Mirror, Volume 5, Number 243, Miscellanies, Start Page 286, Quote Page 287, Column 1, Printed and Published by E. Smith & Co., Liverpool, England. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1874, Phineas Redux by Anthony Trollope, Quote Page 224, Harper & Brothers, New York. (HathiTrust) link link
  9. 1913, The Anti-Alcohol Movement in Europe by Ernest Gordon (Ernest Barron Gordon), Chapter IX: For the Death Sentence, Start Page 282, Quote Page 290, Published by Fleming H. Revell Company, New York and London. (Google Books Full View) link
  10. 1921 December 4, The Washington Herald, Statements Show World Seeks Permanent Peace, Quote Page 8, Column 7, Washington, District of Columbia. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 1925, Verbatim Record of the Sixth Assembly of the League of Nations, Eighteenth Plenary Meeting, Date: September 26, 1925, Time: 9:30 A.M., Speaker: Dr. Nansen of Norway, Quote Page 10, Column 2, Published in Geneva, Switzerland. (Verified on paper; great thanks to Stephen Goranson and the Duke University library system)
  12. 1927 November 9, The Monroe News-Star, Right Angles by Dr. Alexander Cairns, Quote Page 4, Column 6, Monroe, Louisiana. (Newspapers_com)
  13. 1936 April 29, Cedar Rapids Gazette, Everyday Living: Do You Agree? By Dr. Joseph Fort Newton, Quote Page 1, Column 3, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive)
  14. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: George Santayana, Quote Page 664, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  15. 1942 March 3, The Morning Herald, Slogans for War, Quote Page 6, Column 2, Uniontown, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)