I Have a Higher and Grander Standard of Principle. Washington Could Not Lie. I Can Lie, But I Won’t

Creator: Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), famous humorist

Context: Understanding the humor in the following passage requires familiarity with the cherry tree legend. A young Washington received a hatchet as a gift and impetuously chopped down a cherry tree owned by his father. When the future president was confronted he said “I cannot tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.” In December 1871 Twain delivered a speech that was transcribed and printed in “The Chicago Tribune”. Twain discussed lying and compared himself to Washington: 1

A reporter has to lie a little, of course, or they would discharge him. That is the only drawback to the profession. That is why I left it. [Laughter] I am different from Washington; I have a higher and grander standard of principle. Washington could not lie. I can lie, but I won’t. [Prolonged laughter.] Reporting is fascinating, but then it is distressing to have to lie so. Lying is bad—lying is very bad. Every individual in this house knows that by experience. I think that for a man to tell a lie when he can’t make anything by it, is wrong. [Laughter.]

Notes:

  1. 1871 December 20, The Chicago Tribune, “Mark Twain”: Sketch of the Great American Humorist’s Lecture, Delivered in the Michigan Avenue Baptist Church, Quote Page 4, Column 5, Chicago, Illinois. (“fascinating” is misspelled “facinating” in the original) (Newspapers_com)