Benjamin Franklin? Theodore Edward Hook? Maria Edgeworth? Arthur Wellesley? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The statesman Benjamin Franklin is often credited with the following aphorism. Here are two versions:
- A person good at making excuses is seldom good for anything else.
- A man who is good at making excuses is good for nothing else.
I have never seen a precise citation which makes me suspicious. What do you think?
Quote Investigator: Benjamin Franklin died in 1790, and the earliest two pertinent citations located by QI appeared in 1809. The book “Liber Facetiarum: Being a Collection of Curious and Interesting Anecdotes” included a tale ascribing the nugget of wisdom to Franklin: 1
A young American having broken an appointment with Dr Franklin, came to him the following day, and made a very handsome apology for his absence: He was proceeding, when the doctor stopped him with, “My good boy, say no more, you have said too much already; for the man who is good at making an excuse, is seldom good at any thing else.
Anecdotes of D. F.
Also, in 1809 the text of Theodore Edward Hook’s work titled “Safe and Sound: An Opera in Three Acts” was published in London. A character delivered the line while criticizing another character: 2
Lind: I assure you I did not mean——
Baron. Make no excuse—a man who is good at making excuses is seldom good at any thing else. Here come the guards—get away—get away.
Lind. Generous man
QI is unable to judge the reliability of the anecdote. Whether the opera influenced the composition of the anecdote or vice versa also remains unclear. Perhaps future researchers will identify earlier citations.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
The Franklin anecdote was reprinted in various books and periodicals. For example, an instance appeared in an 1812 compilation called “The Budget of Wit and Amusement” 3 and in a February 1814 issue of “The Concord Daily Tribune” of North Carolina. 4
A different tale featuring Benjamin Franklin appeared in “The Christian Observer” of London and Boston in June 1814: 5
Dr Franklin is said to have had a servant who was never in the wrong. At length the Doctor’s patience was exhausted, and he said, “My good friend, you and I must part. I never knew a man who was good at an excuse, good for any thing else.“
An almanac for 1830 published in the state of New York included a version of the saying without attribution: 6
He that is good at making excuses, is generally good for nothing else.
The 1834 novel “Helen: A Tale” by Maria Edgeworth included an ungendered version spoken by a character who credited Franklin: 7
“And what reason does he give for his delay?”
“None, mamma, none—not the least apology. He says very cavalierly indeed, that he is the worst man in the world at making excuses—shall attempt none.”
“There he is right,” said Lady Davenant. “Those who are good at excuses, as Franklin justly observed, are apt to be good for nothing else.”
In 1857 an article in “The British Journal of Homoeopathy” ascribed the saying to the military leader Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington who had died a few years earlier in 1852: 8
It was a saying of the late Duke of Wellington, “that those who were good at excuses were seldom good at anything else.”
In 1927 “The New Dictionary of Thoughts: A Cyclopedia of Quotations” credited Franklin with an instance: 9
He that is good for making excuses, is seldom good for anything else.—Franklin.
The statement and ascription above also appeared in the “The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations” edited by Evan Esar in 1949. 10
In conclusion, this saying was ascribed to Benjamin Franklin by 1809. Yet, this was nineteen years after the statesman’s death which weakens the attribution. The saying also occurred as a line in a dramatic production in London by 1809. The linkage to Arthur Wellesley occurred decades after the saying entered circulation. Variant phrasings have proliferated over the years. Perhaps stronger evidence will be uncovered by future researchers.
(Great thanks to B. J. Pryor whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks to Stephen Goranson for pointing to a typo.)
- 1809, Liber Facetiarum: Being a Collection of Curious and Interesting Anecdotes, Quote Page 182, Printed by and for D. Akenhead and Sons, Newcastle Upon Tyne, England. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1810 (1809 London Edition), The English and American Stage, Volume 34, Safe and Sound: An Opera in Three Acts by Theodore Edward Hook, Performed at The Lyceum Theatre in London, Start Page 2, Quote Page 40, Published by D. Longworth, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1812, The Budget of Wit and Amusement: Being a Select Collection of Anecdotes, Bon Mots, &c of Celebrated Characters Quote Page 224, Published and Sold by Daniel Steele, Albany, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1914 February 9, The Concord Daily Tribune, Too Good an Excuse, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Concord, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1814 June, The Christian Observer, Volume 13, Miscellaneous: To the Editor of the Christian Observer from H. E. W, Quote Page 355 and 356, (From the London Edition) T. B. Wait and Sons, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1830, The New-York State Register for the Year of Our Lord 1830 with a Concise United States Calendar by Roger Sherman Skinner, Month: December, Quote Page 20, Printed for the Author by Clayton & Van Norder, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1834, Helen: A Tale by Maria Edgeworth, Chapter 7, Quote Page 64, Baudry’s European Library, Paris. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1857, The British Journal of Homoeopathy, Volume 15, Remarks on the Different Modes of Administering Homoeopathic Medicines with a View to the Disuse of the Globule by Stephen Yeldham, Start Page 109, Quote Page 118, Groombridge & Sons, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1927, The New Dictionary of Thoughts: A Cyclopedia of Quotations, Originally compiled by Tryon Edwards, Revised and Enlarged, Topic: Excuses, Quote Page 177, Britkin Publishing Company, Charlotte, North Carolina. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1949, The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, Edited by Evan Esar, Section: Benjamin Franklin, Quote Page 76, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper in 1989 reprint edition from Dorset Press, New York) ↩