Liberty Don’t Work as Good in Practice as It Does in Speech

Will Rogers? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The popular American humorist Will Rogers once made a memorable remark about liberty. Unfortunately, the precise phrasing was not memorable enough. Here are several versions:

  • Liberty don’t work as good in practice as in speech.
  • Liberty don’t work as good in practice as it does in speech.
  • Liberty don’t work as good in practice as it does in speeches.
  • Liberty doesn’t work as well in practice as it does in speeches.
  • Liberty don’t work near as good in practice as it does in speeches.

Would you please help me to determine whether Will Rogers really delivered one of these lines?

Quote Investigator: In 1927 a collection of pieces by Will Rogers was published under the title “There’s Not a Bathing Suit in Russia & Other Bare Facts”. Rogers composed the following adage. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Liberty don’t work as good in practice as it does in Speech.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The statement from Rogers was prompted by his visit to the Soviet Union, and the previous page included this observation:

If Socialists worked as much as they talked, they would be the most prosperous style of Government in the World.

The paragraph before the adage discussed the general incompetence of governments. The phrase “hitting on all six” referred to the six cylinders of a typical car engine. When an engine is not hitting on all six it is malfunctioning. The misspellings were in the original text:

You know, I dident have to go to Russia to find comedy or chaos in Governments. If I was looking for governments that wasent just exactly hitting on all six, why, I left one and went through a dozen more going to Russia, so anybody better not start heaving too many rocks at Russia’s government—I don’t care which country you come from—till you have looked your own over.

Liberty don’t work as good in practice as it does in Speech.

In 1949 the adage appeared in the posthumous “Autobiography of Will Rogers” edited by Donald Day. The statement about prosperity was also included although “Socialists” was changed to “Communists”: 2

If the Communists worked just as hard as they talked, they’d have the most prosperous style of government in the world.

Liberty, [he warned] don’t work as good in practice as in Speech. You got to figure that bunch of fellows are playing with the biggest toy in the world (and the most dangerous).

In 1960 “The Greenville News” of South Carolina published an editorial piece titled “Will Rogers, Politics and Russia” that reprinted Rogers’s statement: 3

Liberty don’t work as good in practice as in speech.

In 1961 a newspaper in Fayetteville, Arkansas reviewed “The Will Rogers Book” by Paula McSpadden Love and shared some bon mots about government. The saying was slightly altered to use “speeches” instead of “speech”: 4

The Government – “The Government has never been accused of being a business man” or “Always remember this, that as bad as we sometimes think our government is run, it’s the best run I ever saw” or “Liberty don’t work as good in practice as it does in speeches.”

In 1969 the compilation “Will Rogers: Wise and Witty Sayings” included a version with the word “near”: 5

Liberty don’t work near as good in practice as it does in speeches.

In 1974 the “Instant Quotation Dictionary” printed a version with “doesn’t” instead of “don’t”: 6

Liberty doesn’t work as well in practice as it does in speeches.
Will Rogers

In conclusion, Will Rogers should receive credit for the statement he wrote in the 1927 collection “There’s Not a Bathing Suit in Russia & Other Bare Facts”. The variant forms were derived from the initial remark.

Image Notes: Picture of young Will Rogers with a rope; accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Picture of the Liberty Bell from the National Park Service photo gallery at nps.gov. Public domain image credited to NPS. Images have been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Donna Halper whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Halper mentioned some of the different versions she had encountered.)

Notes:

  1. 1927, There’s Not a Bathing Suit in Russia & Other Bare Facts by Will Rogers, Chapter 5, Quote Page 101 and 102, Albert & Charles Boni, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  2. 1949, Autobiography of Will Rogers, Selected and Edited by Donald Day, Chapter 11: Letters of a Self-Made Diplomat to His President, July 29 (First of Will’s Daily wires), Start Page 131, Quote Page 132 and 133, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1960 October 2, The Greenville News, Will Rogers, Politics and Russia, Quote Page 2D, Column 2, Greenville, South Carolina. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1961 September 8, Northwest Arkansas Times, Rogers’ Sayings Collected in New Book: Will Still Makes Lots of Sense (Review of “The Will Rogers Book” by Paula McSpadden Love), Quote Page 12A, Column 5, Fayetteville, Arkansas. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1969, Will Rogers: Wise and Witty Sayings of a Great American Humorist by Will Rogers, Selected by Art Wortman, Section: On Truth and Talk, Quote Page 57, Hallmark Editions, Kansas City, Missouri. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1974, Instant Quotation Dictionary, Compiled by Donald O. Bolander, Dolores D. Varner, Gary B. Wright, and Stephanie H. Greene, Topic: Liberty, Quote Page 168, Career Institute, Mundelein, Illinois. (Verified with scans)