The Smallest Good Deed Is Better Than the Grandest Good Intention

Oscar Wilde? Jacques Joseph Duguet? Claude Joseph Dorat? Henry Ward Beecher? Gaspard Dughet? H. Jackson Brown? John Burroughs? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Hoping and dreaming are not enough; taking action is crucial. Here are two pertinent statements:

  • The smallest deed is better than the greatest intention.
  • The smallest act of kindness is worth more than the grandest intention.

Would you please examine this family of sayings?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in 1863 within the French journal “Le Magasin Pittoresque” (“The Picturesque Store”) . A filler item stated the following. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Ne préférez jamais une grande bonne intention à une petite bonne action. UN AUTEUR ANGLAIS.

Here is one possible translation into English:

Never prefer a great good intention to a small good action.
AN ENGLISH AUTHOR.

The attribution did not specify the name of the English author, and QI would label the source anonymous based on current knowledge.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

A precursor appeared in lines of verse published by the French author Claude Joseph Dorat in 1769. The lines suggested that performing a worthwhile action was superior to producing a lovely work of art. The original French below is followed by an English translation: 2

Et sent qu’une belle action
Vaut mieux que le plus bel ouvrage.

A beautiful action is better than the most beautiful work.

In 1863 “Le Magasin Pittoresque” published an instance of the saying under examination as mentioned previously.

The lines from Claude Joseph Dorat were culturally memorable, and they reappeared in “Grand Dictionnaire Universel du XIXe Siècle” (“Great Universal Dictionary of the 19th Century”) in 1865: 3

Une belle action
Vaut mieux que le plus bel ouvrage.
DORAT.

In 1876 the saying appeared in English within the compilation “Human Nature: A Mosaic of Sayings, Maxims, Opinions, and Reflections on Life and Character”. The words were attributed to “Duguet”. QI is uncertain about the identity of this referent. Theologian Jacques Joseph Duguet who died in 1733 is a possibility: 4

DUGUET.
The smallest good deed is better than the grandest good intention.

In 1880 a newspaper in Kinsley, Kansas printed a miscellaneous collection of sayings without attributions which included the following four items: 5

  • A man with a wheelbarrow carries all before him.
  • Good deeds are much better than good intentions.
  • When a man gets tight the devil generally gets loose.
  • An honest man is the noblest work of God—and the scarcest.

In 1881 a columnist in a Portage, Wisconsin newspaper expressed the idea: 6

Don’t be a man who is always telling about the good deeds he is going to perform. Go and perform them. The good deed is much better for the world than the good intention.

In 1885 an instance appeared in a Belfast, Northern Ireland newspaper which acknowledged another paper: 7

As a matter of fact (says the Evening Standard), the smallest good deed is preferable to the most colossal good intention, for the former is a distinct contribution, however fractional, to the moral wealth of the world, whilst the latter, in spite of its pretensions, is of no practical value whatever.

In 1890 Cassell’s Family Magazine published a variant within a short story: 8

“You know I not only can’t write poetry, but I can’t read it.”

“That is a great misfortune for you,” she said, gravely. “But I think that a beautiful action is better than a beautiful thought, after all.”

In 1908 a thematic match was attributed posthumously to the famous minister and orator Henry Ward Beecher who had died in 1887. QI has not yet found a direct citation for these words in the speeches or writings of Beecher: 9

No matter what a man’s aims or resolutions, or professions may be, it is by one’s deeds that he is to be judged, both by God and man.—H. W. Beecher.

In 1917 the linkage to Duguet was recalled in a Wausau, Wisconsin newspaper: 10

A DAILY THOUGHT
The smallest good deed is better than the grandest good intention.
—Duguet.

In 1946 a column called “The Beehive” within the “The Bee” newspaper of Danville, Virginia printed the following version: 11

It is far better to do something than it is to plan everything. The smallest good deed counts far more than the grandest intention.

In 1958 “The New Speaker’s Treasury of Wit and Wisdom” by Herbert V. Prochnow included an instance without attribution: 12

The smallest deed is better than the grandest intention.

In 1964 the compilation “Distilled Wisdom” attributed the saying to Gaspard Doughet (Dughet), a French painter who died in 1675: 13

The smallest good deed is better than the grandest good intention.
—Gaspard Doughet

In 1968 the ascription to Duguet continued to circulate when it appeared in the pages of “The Forbes Scrapbook of Thoughts on the Business of Life”: 14

The smallest good deed is better than the grandest good intention. — Duguet

In 1988 the best-selling author H. Jackson Brown Jr. published a book containing quotations from his father, H. Jackson Brown. A variant statement using the word “kindness” was included in the compilation: 15

The smallest act of kindness is worth more than the grandest intention.
— Dad

In 2008 the saying about kindness was implausibly attributed to the famous wit Oscar Wilde who had died in 1900: 16

Oscar Wilde said: “The smallest act of kindness is worth more than the grandest intention.” Aren’t we fortunate that Arlington has a multitude of volunteers whose many acts of kindness have transformed their grand intentions into wonderful events.

In 2009 the syndicated newspaper feature “Crypto-Quote” credited the saying under examination to naturalist John Burroughs who had died in 1921. QI has not yet found any substantive support for this attribution: 17

Yesterday’s Answer “The smallest deed is better than the greatest intention.” — John Burroughs

In conclusion, this article presents a snapshot of current research. The saying about good deeds remains anonymous. It was circulating in French by 1863. Interestingly, it was credited to an unnamed English author. The variant expression about acts of kindness was credited to H. Jackson Brown by his son in 1988. The second statement probably evolved from the first statement.

Image Notes: Painting of “Charity Relieving Distress” from Thomas Gainsborough who died in 1788. Image has been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to William Eaton whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Eaton mentioned both statements together with attributions to Oscar Wilde and John Burroughs.)

Notes:

  1. 1863, Le Magasin Pittoresque (The Picturesque Store), Volume 31, (Filler item), Quote Page 396, Column 1, Aux Bureaux D’Abonnement et de Vente, Paris, France. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1769, Collection d’Héroïdes et pièces fugitives De Dorat, Colardeau, Pezay, Blin, De Sain-More & autres, By Claude Joseph Dorat, Tome II, Epitres, A. M. Helvetius: Pendant son sejour à Berlin, Start Page 141, Quote Page 143, A Francfort & à Leipsig. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1865, Grand Dictionnaire Universel du XIXe Siècle Boutades, Plaisanteries, Excentricités by Pierre Larousse, Volume 1, Quote Page 992, Column 2, Administration du Grand Dictionnaire Universel, Paris. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1876, Human Nature: A Mosaic of Sayings, Maxims, Opinions, and Reflections on Life and Character, Selected and Arranged by David W. Mitchell, Chapter 20, Topic: Doing Should Follow Knowing, Quote Page 293, Smith, Elder & Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1880 June 3, Edwards County Leader, All Sorts, Quote Page 1, Column 6, Kinsley, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1881 April 2, The Wisconsin State Register, On Reforming, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Portage, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1885 May 27, The Belfast News-Letter, Good Resolutions, Quote Page 7, Column 6, Belfast, Antrim, Northern Ireland. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1890, Cassell’s Family Magazine, What Happened at Ridgeway-On-Sea Start Page 766, Quote Page 729, Cassell & Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  9. 1908, A Dictionary of Thoughts: Being A Cyclopedia of Laconic Quotations from the Best Authors of the World, Both Ancient and Modern by Tryon Edwards, Topic: Deeds, Quote Page 108. Column 1, F. B. Dickerson Company, Detroit, Michigan. (Google Books Full View) link
  10. 1917 July 17, Wausau Daily Record-Herald, A Daily Thought, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Wausau, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 1946 November 9, The Bee, The Beehive, Quote Page 4, Column 6, Danville, Virginia. (Newspapers_com)
  12. 1958, The New Speaker’s Treasury of Wit and Wisdom by Herbert V. Prochnow, Topic: Deeds, Quote Page 117, Harper & Row, New York. (Verified with scans)
  13. 1964, Distilled Wisdom, Compiled and Edited by Alfred Armand Montapert, Topic: Deeds, Quote Page 95, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified with scans)
  14. 1968, The Forbes Scrapbook of Thoughts on the Business of Life by Forbes Magazine, Quote Page 152, Published by Forbes, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper)
  15. 1988, A Father’s Book of Wisdom by H. Jackson Brown, Topic: Kindness, Quote Page 73, Rutledge Hill Press, Nashville, Tennessee. (Verified with scans)
  16. 2008 November 11, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Group Marks Veterans Day With WWII-Era Remembrances by Faye Reeder, Quote Page 3B, Column 6, Fort Worth, Texas. (Newspapers_com)
  17. 2009 June 20, The Gazette, Crypto-Quote by Tom Underwood, Quote Page 9D, Column 5, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Newspapers_com)