An Idea Isn’t Responsible for the People Who Believe In It

Don Marquis? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: One strategy for attacking an idea is to exhibit a repugnant individual who supports the idea. This method can influence the opinions of those who are susceptible to psychological manipulation, but it is logically flawed. Here is a pertinent adage:

An idea isn’t responsible for the people who believe in it.

Would you please attempt to trace this statement?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match known to QI appeared in the 1938 edition of “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations”. Popular newspaper columnist Don Marquis received credit for the statement. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

An Idea isn’t responsible for the people who believe in it.
The Sun Dial

Marquis wrote a daily column called “The Sun Dial” for “The Evening Sun” of New York for more than a decade starting in 1912. Unfortunately, QI has been unable to find a database containing digitized copies of the newspaper in the pertinent period.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1882 a short item in an Augusta, Georgia newspaper made a similar point about unwelcome political endorsements: 2

EDITOR LAMAR thinks that the heaviest burden laid upon Mr. STEPHENS yet is the endorsement of EMORY SPEER. Mr. STEPHENS is not responsible for the people who see fit to endorse him.

In 1938 the statement appeared in “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations”, and a few years later in 1943 it appeared in Edmund Fuller’s “Thesaurus of Epigrams”: 3

An Idea isn’t responsible for the people who believe in it.
—Don Marquis

In 1944 widely-syndicated journalist Walter Winchell printed the saying with an ascription to Marquis within a section of his column called “Quotation Marksmanship”. 4

In 1980 “The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Quotations” credited Marquis with the saying and pointed to “The Sun Dial” column. The reference further suggested that the column appeared in “The New York Sun”, but QI believes that “The Sun Dial” was published in “The Evening Sun”. 5

In conclusion, QI believes that Don Marquis coined this expression, but the original citation has not yet been located. The 1938 citation in “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations” probably appeared many years after the initial coinage. Future researchers may be able to determine missing details.

Image Notes: Illustration depicting an idea from TeroVesalainen at Pixabay. Image has been resized.

(Thinks to Barry Popik who previously explored this topic and found citations beginning in 1944.)

Notes:

  1. 1938, Familiar Quotations by John Bartlett, Eleventh Edition, Edited by Christopher Morley and Louella D. Everett, Entry: Donald Robert Perry Marquis (1878-1937), Quote Page 854, Column 1, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1882 May 17, The Daily Chronicle & Constitutionalist, Editorial Notes, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Augusta, Georgia. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1943 Copyright, Thesaurus of Epigrams, Edited by Edmund Fuller, Topic: Ideas, Quote Page 163, Crown Publishers, New York. (Verified with scans; HathiTrust)
  4. 1944 June 18, Akron Beacon Journal, Winchell on Broadway: Puffs and Cuffs in Entertainment by Walter Winchell, Quote Page 11A, Column 2, Akron, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1980 (Reprint 1983), The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Quotations, Edited by J. M. Cohen and M. J. Cohen, Second edition, Section: Don Marquis, Quote Page 223, Penguin Books, New York. (Verified on paper)