Kites Rise Against and Not With the Wind. Even a Head Wind Is Better than None

Winston Churchill? Henry Ford? John Neal? Henry W. Davis? Chinese Proverb? Lewis Mumford? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: An individual who faces opposition can grow in strength and resilience. This notion has been brilliantly expressed via a metaphorical kite in the wind. Here are three versions:

  • Kites rise highest against the wind—not with it.
  • Opposition is a great help to a man. Kites rise against and not with the wind.
  • A kite can only rise against the wind. The best thing in a young man’s life is often adversity.

There is also a thematically related saying about an airplane:

  • When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it.

The first remark has been ascribed to the famous British leader Winston Churchill. The airplane remark has been attributed to automobile magnate Henry Ford. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: This saying is not present in the comprehensive quotation collection “In His Own Words: Churchill By Himself” compiled by Richard M. Langworth.[ref] 2013 (Kindle Edition), In His Own Words: Churchill By Himself by Winston S. Churchill, Compiled and edited by Richard M. Langworth, (No search match for “kite” or “kites”) RosettaBooks. (Verified with Kindle Ebook) [/ref] Churchill died in 1965 at age 90, and QI has located attributions to the statesman starting in 1963. However, the origins of the saying are much older than this.

In 1846 author and critic John Neal published an essay titled “Enterprise and Perseverance” in the “Weekly Mirror”[ref] 1846 January 31, The Evening Mirror, (Listing of contents for the “Weekly Mirror” of January 31, 1846 mentions: “Original Essay, — Enterprise and Perseverance by John Neal”; QI has not directly verified the essay text within a scan of the “Weekly Mirror”), Quote Page 2, Column 1, New York, New York. (Old Fulton) [/ref] of New York City. In the following days and months the popular piece was reprinted in several other periodicals including the “Portland Advertiser” in Maine. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1846 February 3, Portland Advertiser, Enterprise and Perseverance by John Neal, (Acknowledgement to N.Y. Mirror), Quote Page 3, Column 2, Portland, Maine. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]

There are people, who, having began life, by setting their boat against wind and tide, are always complaining of their bad luck, and always just ready to give up and for that very reason are always helpless and good for nothing, and yet, if they would persevere, hard as it may be, to work up steam all your life long, they would have their reward at last. Good voyages are made both ways!

A certain amount of opposition is a great help to a man. Kites rise against not with the wind. Even a head wind is better than nothing. No man ever worked his voyage anywhere in a dead calm.

Neal’s essay presented an eloquent instantiation of the metaphor which was remembered and cited by many during the ensuing years, yet the beginnings of this figurative framework can be traced further back in time.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1824 the “New England Farmer” periodical of Boston, Massachusetts printed a poem titled “New Year’s Address of the New England Farmer’s Boy To His Patrons” which included the following thematically pertinent lines although this text was not figurative:[ref] 1824 January 3, New England Farmer, New Year’s Address of the New England Farmer’s Boy To His Patrons, Quote Page 184, Column 1, Boston, Massachusetts. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

A school boy thus, to sport inclin’d,
Must drag his kite against the wind,
A long way ere he makes it rise

In February 1828 “The Foreign Quarterly Review” published an article by an unnamed author about Portugal. The following passage employed a wind-blown kite figuratively:[ref] 1828 February, The Foreign Quarterly Review, Volume 2, Article: Portugal, Start Page 175, Quote Page 186, Treuttel and Wurtz, Treuttel, Jun. and Richter, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Controversy and opposition is the element in which he lives, and his talent, like a paper kite, seems only to rise when dragged against the wind.

In March 1828 the statement above was further disseminated when an excerpt from the article was reprinted in “The Morning Chronicle” of London.[ref] 1828 March 27, The Morning Chronicle, Don Miguel’s Court Preacher, Quote Page 3, Column 3, London, England. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

In 1832 “The Times” of London employed the kite simile:[ref] 1832 August 17, The Times, Section: London, Friday, August 17, 1832, Quote Page 2, Column 3, London, England. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

They knew that the determined spirit of their countrymen rises highest, like a paper kite, when dragged against the wind, but they were not prepared to keep it up in a threatened tempest, and therefore withdrew their hand when they saw the storm approach.

In 1846 John Neal’s essay appeared in the “Weekly Mirror” of New York City and the “Portland Weekly Advertiser” of Maine as mentioned previously.

In 1848 “The American Biographical Sketch Book” by William Hunt ascribed the quotation to Neal:[ref] 1848, The American Biographical Sketch Book by William Hunt, Volume 1, Entry: Samuel H. P. Hall, Start Page 151, Quote Page 154, Published by the Author William Hunt, Albany, New York. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

In the words of that pithy writer, John Neal, “Good voyages are made both ways. A certain amount of opposition is a great help to a man. Kites rise against, not with the wind. Even a head wind is better than nothing. No man ever worked his voyage any where, in a dead calm.”

In 1857 a short item in a Colchester, England newspaper employed the kite figuratively to make a different point concerning the necessity of stability in life:[ref] 1857 April 22, The Essex Standard, Scrapiana, Quote Page 4, Column 7, Colchester, England. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

Every school-boy knows that a kite would not fly unless it had a string tying it down. It is just so in life. The man who is tied down by half-a-dozen responsibilities, and their mother, will make a higher and stronger flight than the bachelor, who, having nothing to keep him steady, is always floundering in the mud. If you want to ascend in the world tie yourself to somebody.

In 1878 a newspaper in Oshkosh, Wisconsin printed a short piece about
“Opposition” which figuratively used large birds instead of kites:[ref] 1878 September 2, The Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, Opposition, Quote Page 1, Column 7, Oshkosh, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

The man or the organization that has merit and capacity for good is helped by a certain amount of opposition. Large birds rise against the wind, not with it. A fine ship makes little progress in a dead calm. A stiff breeze purifies the atmosphere, supplying life-given principles. Man never shows his latent force until opposition faces his darling schemes.

In 1904 the “San Francisco Chronicle” of California printed part of a speech by religious figure Henry W. Davis:[ref] 1904 May 16, San Francisco Chronicle, Henry W. Davis Talks Before Young Men: Dwells Upon the Necessity for Men to Cultivate Strength and Manhood, Quote Page 5, Column 3, San Francisco, California. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

A kite can only rise against the wind. The best thing in a young man’s life is often adversity. To overcome this he must develop strength and manhood.

In 1919 “The Journal of the New York State Teachers’ Association” printed an anonymous filler item containing the word “highest” that partially matched the saying later attributed to Churchill:[ref] 1919 November, The Journal of the New York State Teachers’ Association, Volume 6, Number 7, (Filler item), Quote Page 260, Column 2, Published by the New York State Teachers’ Association, Rochester, New York. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Kites rise highest against strong winds, and men attain the greatest eminence as they surmount the greatest difficulties.

In 1920 the “San Francisco Examiner” of California printed a piece by Reverend F. W. Clampett which employed the ascension of an airplane as an inspirational metaphor:[ref] 1920 October 7, San Francisco Examiner, Week Nears End, Boys Remain: Fight Makes Man, Shows Writer by The Rev. F. W. Clampett, Quote Page 15, Column 2, San Francisco, California. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

The aviator “takes off” against the wind and thus more quickly reaches a higher altitude.

The strongest men living started out with everything against them, but, instead of turning their backs, they grit their teeth, clenched their fists and pressed forward.

John Neal was not forgotten. In 1927 “The New Dictionary of Thoughts: A Cyclopedia of Quotations” included the following entry with a condensed version of Neal’s words:[ref] 1927, The New Dictionary of Thoughts: A Cyclopedia of Quotations, Originally compiled by Tryon Edwards, Revised and Enlarged, Topic: Enterprise, Quote Page 163, Column 1, Britkin Publishing Company, Charlotte, North Carolina. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Kites rise against, not with the wind.—No man ever worked his passage anywhere in a dead calm.—John Neal.

In 1940 a pertinent statement about an airplane aviator appeared in a LaFayette, Alabama newspaper in a column by D. W. Haskew:[ref] 1940 June 19, The LaFayette Sun, Moral Echoes by D. W. Haskew D.D, Quote Page 2, Column 5, LaFayette, Alabama. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

Great happiness, like an able aviator, takes off against a head wind. Drive through your opposition, my friends, until you can feel and hear your heart singing because of your mastery.

In 1955 the syndicated cartoon “Country Parson” printed an illustration of a man watching an airplane accompanied with this caption:[ref] 1955 September 6, The Greensboro Record, Country Parson (cartoon caption), The Register and Tribune Syndicate, Quote Page A2, Column 5, Greensboro, North Carolina. (GenealogyBank) [/ref]

When everything seems to be goin’ against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it.”

In 1963 “The El Paso Times” of Texas printed a set of miscellaneous sayings under the title “Words Of The Wise” including a remark ascribed to Churchill. Several other newspapers printed the same remark and credit in 1963:[ref] 1963 June 11, The El Paso Times, Words Of The Wise, Quote Page 4, Column 5, El Paso, Texas. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

Kites rise highest against the wind—not with it. —(Winston Churchill)

In 1975 a newspaper in Lawton, Oklahoma described a short version of the saying as Chinese:[ref] 1975 July 6, The Sunday Constitution (The Lawton Constitution), Kites Rise Against The Wind, Quote Page 6A, Column 5, Lawton, Oklahoma. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

There is an old Chinese proverb, “Kites rise against the wind.” The blast against Sen. Williams illuminates as it elevates his record of complete integrity.

In 1988 a Ridgewood, New Jersey newspaper printed the airplane saying together with an implausible ascription to Henry Ford who had died many years earlier in 1947:[ref] 1988 June 16, The Ridgewood News, Quote of the day, Quote Page 1, Column 5, Ridgewood, New Jersey. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

Quote of the day “When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it.” HENRY FORD
Submitted by Michael Sissler of Glen Rock

In 2011 a message posted to the Google Group “Carl’s Quote of the Day” implausibly credited an instance of the saying to literary and architectural critic Lewis Mumford who was born in 1895:[ref] 2011 September 5, Google Groups discussion message, Google Group: Carl’s Quote of the Day, From: “Carl Henning”, Subject: Subject: Carl’s Quote of the Day 09/05/11. (Google Groups Search; Accessed March 17, 2019) link [/ref]

A certain amount of opposition is a great help to a man. Kites rise against, not with, the wind.
–Lewis Mumford

In conclusion, John Neal should receive credit for the words he wrote in 1846. The metaphorical framework based on kites and wind evolved over time, and it was in use before Neal crafted his essay. The evidence linking Winston Churchill to this set of expressions is weak. Also, Neal’s essay was written before Churchill was born.

The airplane saying also evolved over time and was probably based on the kite saying. The attribution to Henry Ford is unsupported.

Image Notes: Illustration of kite from OpenClipart-Vectors at Pixabay. Image has been resized and retouched.

(Great thanks to George Thompson who notified QI about a mailing list dialog concerning this family of sayings which led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Nelly Lambert sent a quotation inquiry to a mailing list which was devoted to the 18th Century. John Sullivan replied by pointing to Neal’s 1846 essay “Enterprise and Perseverance” as the source. He also uncovered the 1848 citation. Thanks to Les Booth who asked about the Henry Ford attribution.)

Update History: On March 26, 2021 the citations dated 1920, 1940, 1955, and 1988 were added, and the conclusion was updated.

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