Winston Churchill? Voltaire? Julian Amery? Ronald Reagan? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: According to legend a political rival of Winston Churchill was once praised with the description “He is a modest man.” Churchill responded with the quip “He has much to be modest about.” Would you please investigate this tale?
Quote Investigator: Clement Attlee became the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in July 1945. In December 1945 “The New York Times” printed a group of anecdotes that were circulating in newspapers and diplomatic circles in London. One tale was about Attlee. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
Although some quarters contend that the Labor Government has gone too far too fast in instituting reforms, a considerable bloc of Prime Minister Attlee’s supporters is frankly disappointed. That explains this observation, now making the rounds: “Attlee is a modest man who has a great deal to be modest about.”
The originator of the barb was unidentified although the prefatory words suggested that the critic wished to see more reforms from Attlee’s administration whereas Churchill opposed those reforms. The phrasing of the remark has been variable, and an instance was ascribed to Churchill by April 1947 in a Canadian newspaper.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1920 the influential journalist and drama critic Heywood Broun crafted a similar gibe about the American theater: 2
Generally speaking, American critics are apt to be overmodest about American plays. It must be admitted that there has been a good deal to be modest about in our theater…
In 1927 a sports writer in “The Los Angeles Times” made a similar self-effacing remark. The term “Palomine” was simply a contraction of “pal of mine”: 3
Yea. Palomine, modesty is the best policy. And even the brassiest among us have plenty to be modest about.
In 1940 the following precursor appeared in the book “Can Christianity save Civilization?” by Walter Marshall Horton: 4
As a Roumanian student said to an Englishman, “You English are very modest fellows, but you always manage to convey the impression that you’ve a great deal to be modest about.”
In December 1945 “The New York Times” printed an instance aimed at Prime Minister Clement Attlee as previously mentioned. Five days later the anecdote was reprinted in “The Ottawa Journal” of Ontario, Canada: 5
That explains this observation, now making the rounds: “Attlee is a modest man who has a great deal to be modest about.”
Historian and Churchill quotation expert Richard M. Langworth discussed the statement in his compilation “Churchill By Himself”. The entry was based on the testimony of Clark Clifford who was an aide to U.S. President Harry Truman. The following exchange occurred between Truman and Churchill in March 1946 during a train ride to Fulton, Missouri according to Clifford: 6
Harry Truman: Clement Attlee came to see me the other day. He struck me as a very modest man.
Winston Churchill: He has much to be modest about.
QI does not know when Langworth gathered this valuable information from Clifford. The testimony may have been communicated several years after the event.
Note that the March 1946 gibe was delivered four months after the December 1945 report in “The New York Times”. Hence, Churchill may have been repeating an existing quip. Alternatively, Churchill may have originated the statement, but it circulated anonymously in 1945.
Interestingly, a variant of the anecdote appeared soon afterwards in April 1946 within the syndicated column of Peter Edson who worked for the Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA). Truman was the target of this variant spoken by an anonymous young woman: 7
The latest Truman story is hung on two government girls, overheard talking on a crowded Washington street-car. Said one: “I like Truman because he’s so modest.” Replied the other: “Well, he certainly has a lot to be modest about.”
In April 1947 another curious variant appeared in a Brownsville, Texas newspaper within a column titled “Famous Fables”. The zinger was delivered by the celebrated thinker Voltaire: 8
French writer Voltaire was listening disinterestedly to a boring statesman who was relating his experiences.
“Isn’t he wonderful!” gushed a lady seated next to the writer, “He’s so modest too!”
“He has a great dual to be modest about,” replied Voltaire.
Also in April 1947 “The Ottawa Evening Journal” of Ontario, Canada printed a set of astringent remarks from British politicians. This was the earliest published assignment of the jest to Churchill located by QI: 9
RANDOLPH CHURCHILL saying of GLADSTONE that “he holds the sceptre of the British Empire as if it burnt his fingers”; LLOYD GEORGE saying of Lord GLADSTONE (son of the G.O.M.) that “his only contribution to Liberalism is his demonstration that ability isn’t inherited”; CHURCHILL’S, remark about ATTLEE, “he is modest—he has a lot to be modest-about”…
In early July 1947 Conservative Parliamentary candidate Julian Amery employed the barb during a speech as reported in “The Lancashire Daily Post” of Lancashire, England: 10
“Mr. Attlee is a modest man—he has much to be modest about—but he has no right to be modest about the British Empire over whose destinies he has been called upon to reside,” observed Mr. Amery.
A couple weeks later in July 1947 “The Christian Science Monitor” of Boston, Massachusetts credited Churchill with the following instance: 11
And did we later on hear Mr. Churchill muttering on his old quip about Premier Attlee, “Mr. Attlee is a very nice modest little man who has a great deal to be modest about”?
In October 1947 the widely-syndicated columnist Leonard Lyons ascribed the following version to Churchill: 12
When Winston Churchill was told that Clement Attlee is a modest man, he said: “No doubt he is. And Mr. Attlee has plenty to be modest about.”
In 1954 the “Chicago Sunday Tribune” published a review of a memoir by Attlee, and the reviewer mentioned the expression: 13
Winston Churchill is credited with gibing at Attlee as “a sheep in sheep’s clothing” and a “modest man who has a good deal to be modest about.”
In 1961 “Speaker’s Encyclopedia of Humor” compiled by Jacob M. Braude included a version of the joke without attribution: 14
They were discussing a mutual acquaintance. “I admire the man’s unusual modesty,” said one. “Yes,” agreed the other, “but you must admit he has a great deal to be modest about.”
In 1968 Ronald Reagan who was at that time the Governor of California employed the quip during a speech: 15
Reagan, in ad-libs at the banquet, also took on Vice President Humphrey, saying: “Hubert Horatio Humphrey—there’s a modest man, with a great deal to be modest about. He got into the campaign late, so he’s decided to stand on the record. That’s to keep us from taking a look at it.”
In conclusion, this quip was circulating anonymously in the earliest citation dated December 9, 1945. It was employed by Winston Churchill in March 1946 according to scholar Richard M. Langworth based on the testimony of Clark Clifford. It was publicly ascribed to Churchill by April 1947.
Image Notes: Cropped image of Winston Churchill at the Cairo Conference in 1943. Original image from National Archives and Records Administration. Cropped image of Clement Attlee from a picture of Attlee with Australian Labor Party leaders circa 1946.
(Thanks to previous researchers Richard M. Langworth, Nigel Rees, Ralph Keyes, and Fred R. Shapiro for their pioneering efforts. Special thanks to Stephen Goranson of the Duke University library system for identifying and verifying the 1940 citation.)
Update History: On September 6, 2017 the 1940 citation was added.
- 1945 December 9, The New York Times, Section: New York Times Magazine, What London Is Laughing At, Quote Page 21, Column 2, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1920 November 7, Oakland Tribune, Seeing Things at Night by Heywood Broun (Dramatic Critic of the New York Tribune, Reviewer for Collier’s Weekly, and Dramatic Correspondent of the Oakland Tribune), Quote Page D3, Column 5, Oakland, California. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1927 May 12, The Los Angeles Times, Section 3: Sports, Joshua Little On Inferiority Complexes, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1940 Can Christianity save Civilization? by Walter Marshall Horton, Footnote number 31, Quote Page 205, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1945 December 14, The Ottawa Journal, Side Lights (Acknowledgment to New York Times Magazine), Quote Page 8, Column 3, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 2013 (Kindle Edition), In His Own Words: Churchill By Himself by Winston S. Churchill, Compiled and edited by Richard M. Langworth, Chapter 20: People, RosettaBooks. (Kindle Location 11115) ↩
- 1946 April 27, Dunkirk Evening Observer, Edson’s Washington Column by Peter Edson (NEA Washington Correspondent), Quote Page 6, Column 2, Dunkirk, New York. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1947 April 11, The Brownsville Herald, Famous Fables, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Brownsville, Texas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1947 April 26, The Ottawa Evening Journal, Attlee to Churchill, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1947 July 5, The Lancashire Daily Post (Lancashire Evening Post), Mr. Julian Amery: Workers’ Right to Share in Profits, Quote Page 2, Column 5, Lancashire, England. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩
- 1947 July 18, Christian Science Monitor, More British Coal But Not Enough by Peter Lyne (Parliamentary Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor), Quote Page 12, Column 7, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1947 October 2, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Section: Daily Magazine, Lyons Den by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 4, Column 3 and 4, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1954 June 27, Chicago Sunday Tribune, Section: Magazine of Books, The So Austere, So Safe Clement Attlee by William Henry Chamberlin, (Book Review of Clement R. Attlee’s “As It Happened”), Quote Page B3, Column 2, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1961, Speaker’s Encyclopedia of Humor, Compiled by Jacob M. Braude, Topic: Modesty, Quote Page 147, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1968 May 13, Los Angeles Times, Rumor of ‘Deal’ With Rockefeller Hurting Reagan by Carl Greenberg (Times Political Editor), Start Page 3, Quote Page 32, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest) ↩