Grace Hopper? Cardinal Barberini? Earl of Peterborough? David Hernandez? Helen Pajama? St. Benedict? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: People who are eager to initiate a task often cite the following guidance. Here are two versions:
- It’s easier to ask forgiveness than to get permission.
- It’s easier to apologize than to get permission.
This notion has been credited to Grace Murray Hopper who was a U.S. Navy Rear Admiral and pioneering computer scientist. Would you please explore this saying?
Quote Investigator: Grace Hopper did employ and help to popularize the expression by 1982, but it was already in circulation.
The earliest match located by QI appeared in 1846 within a multivolume work called “Lives of the Queens of England” by Agnes Strickland. The ninth volume discussed marriage advice offered by a powerful church official. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
But, in truth, the cardinal Barberini … did frankly advise the duchess of Modena to conclude the marriage at once; it being less difficult to obtain forgiveness for it after it was done, than permission for doing it.
A footnote listed the source of the passage above as “Earl of Peterborough, in the Mordaunt Genealogies”. Strictly speaking, the statement was not presented as a proverb; instead, it was guidance tailored to one particular circumstance.
In 1894 a newspaper in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania printed a thematically related adage within a story about mischievous children: 2
The boys, let me add, every one had respectable parents and who would not, for an instant, have allowed such a prank had they known of its existence; but it is easier to beg forgiveness after the deed is performed.
Another match occurred in the 1903 novel “A Professional Rider” by Mrs. Edward Kennard, but the form was not proverbial: 3
Once married, it would be infinitely easier to ask her father’s forgiveness, than to beg his permission beforehand.
In 1966 “Southern Education Report” printed an instance of the proverb spoken by David Hernandez who was a project director working for the U.S. government program Head Start: 4
Hernandez began advertising for bids on the mobile classrooms even before the money to pay for them had been approved. ‘It’s easier to get forgiveness than permission,’ he explained.
The above citation appeared in “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” from Yale University Press.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1970 “A Door Will Open” by Helen Pajama printed the adage. The book presented the story of big band trumpet player Randy Brooks who spoke extensively to Pajama: 5
Sometimes it’s easier to be forgiven than to get permission. So, we made the move and then notified those concerned where he would be. There wasn’t much criticism to my knowledge.
In February 1971 “The Reader’s Digest” printed an anecdote in a section called “Humor in Uniform” that included a remark attributed to an anonymous military man: 6
. . . “Soldier, don’t you know you are not supposed to be using this vehicle for such a purpose?”
Taking a nervous gulp, the young GI replied, “Yes, sir. But sometimes forgiveness is easier to obtain than permission.”
Capt. David L. Benton III (Fort Sill, Okla.)
In September 1971 a newspaper in Rochester, New York reported the observation of an unhappy government planner: 7
Town Planning Board Chairman Harry Ewens, a guest at yesterday’s luncheon, echoed Strong’s sentiments and complained that he’s found people unwilling to obtain building permits before beginning construction.
“They’ve found it a lot easier to get forgiveness than to get permission,” Ewens said.
In 1978 the adage was attributed to St. Benedict by an environmental activist who was quoted in a St. Louis, Missouri newspaper: 8
David D. Comey, head of Citizens for a Better Environment, a Chicago-based environmental group, said the process illustrates the wisdom of St. Benedict.
It was Benedict who observed more than 1400 years ago that “It is easier to beg forgiveness than to seek permission.”
In 1980 “Murphy’s Law Book Two” compiled by Arthur Bloch contained the following entry: 9
STEWART’S LAW OF RETROACTION:
It is easier to get forgiveness than permission.
In 1982 the “Chicago Tribune” of Illinois reported on a speech delivered by Grace Hopper at Lake Forest College which included the following: 10
“Always remember that it’s much easier to apologize than to get permission,” she said. “In this world of computers, the best thing to do is to do it.”
In conclusion, this article presents a snapshot of current research. The proverbial form was in use by 1966 as shown by the statement from David Hernandez. QI hypothesizes that it was circulating before that date and was anonymous.
(Great thanks to Claudia, William Flesch, and Nick Rollins whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Some citations were previously shared by QI in 2010 on the Freakonomics website. Thanks to Barry Popik, Bill Mullins, Fred Shapiro, and Herb Stahlke for their research and comments. Further thanks to Stephen Goranson for finding the 1903 citation and for verifying the February 1971 citation.)
- 1846, Lives of the Queens of England from the Norman Conquest with Anecdotes of Their Courts by Agnes Strickland, Volume 9, Chapter 1: Mary Beatrice of Modena, Quote Page 39, Henry Colburn Publisher, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1894 February 4, The Pittsburgh Press, Section: Press Young Folks League, The Boys’ Surprise Party, Quote Page 12, Column 6, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1903, A Professional Rider by Mrs. Edward Kennard, Chapter 2: “As You Make Your Bed, So Must You Lie”, Quote Page 31, Anthony Treherne & Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Quote Page 85, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Citation provided for quotation – Date: August 29, 1966, Title: Southern Education Report 2, Number: 1, Article title: Panzer Division in the Poverty War, Article author: Keith Coulbourn)(QI has verified the text in the “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” but has not directly examined the 1966 citation) ↩
- 1970 Copyright, A Door Will Open by Helen Pajama, As told to her by Randy Brooks, Chapter 9, Quote Page 88, House of Falmouth Inc., Portland, Maine. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1971 February, Reader’s Digest, Humor in Uniform, Quote Page 138, Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified with scans; thanks to the Duke University library system and Stephen Goranson) ↩
- 1971 September 1, Democrat and Chronicle, Seneca Falls Planner Claims: Zone Law Updated but Still Unenforced by Carol Ritter (Regional News Service), Quote Page 2B, Column 5, Rochester, New York. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1978 January 8, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, True of False Quiz On Nuclear Regulation by E. F. Porter Jr. (Post-Dispatch Staff), Start Page 1C, Quote Page 3C, Column 4, St. Louis, Missouri. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1980, Murphy’s Law Book Two: More Reasons Why Things Go Wrong, Compiled and Edited by Arthur Bloch, Quote Page 28, Price/Stern/Sloan Publishers Inc., Los Angeles, California. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1982 December 9, Chicago Tribune, Section: Daily Suburban Trib, Witty high-tech pioneer’s a hit on campus by Lynn Orr, Quote Page 6, Column 2, Chicago, Illinois. (Newspapers_com) ↩