Nothing Is Certain, Except Death and Taxes

Benjamin Franklin? Mark Twain? Christopher Bullock? Edward Ward? Daniel Defoe? Joseph Reed? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The due date of U.S. income taxes has been moved from April 2020 to July 2020 because of the pandemic. Thus, the payment of taxes has been delayed, but payment remains inevitable. Here are four versions of a pertinent saying:

  • Nothing is certain except for death and taxes.
  • Nothing stands fixed, but death and taxes.
  • Nothing can be depended on but taxes and death.
  • It’s impossible to be sure of anything but death and taxes.

The U.S. statesman Benjamin Franklin and the humorist Mark Twain have received credit for this remark. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Benjamin Franklin did employ this saying within a letter dated November 13, 1789 which he wrote to the French physicist Jean Baptiste Le Roy. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.

Many years before Franklin’s usage, the expression appeared in a 1716 farce called “The Cobler of Preston” by Christopher Bullock. The word “cobbler” was spelled “cobler”, and the word “lie” was spelled “lye” within the play. The quip was spoken by a character named Toby Guzzle who was described as “a drunken Cobler”. Here is an excerpt from the fourth edition of the play published in 1723: 2

You lye, you are not sure; for I say, Woman, ’tis impossible to be sure of any thing but Death and Taxes—therefore hold your Tongue, or you shall both be soundly whipt . . .

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1724 “The Dancing Devils: or the Roaring Dragon: A Dumb Farce” by Edward Ward included the following lines: 3

Thus many things, we find, will slip
As Proverb says, ’twixt Cup and Lip:
Nothing is sure i’th’ course of Fortune,
But Death and Taxes, they are certain.

Nowadays, Daniel Defoe is famous for publishing “Robinson Crusoe”. He also published a lesser-known work in 1726 titled “The Political History of the Devil” which included the following: 4

. . . not the Man in the Moon, not the Groaning-Board, not the speaking of Fryar Bacon’s Brazen-Head, not the Inspiration of Mother Shipton, or the Miracles of Dr. Faustus, Things as certain as Death and Taxes, can be more firmly believ’d . . .

In 1769 an edition of “Tom Jones: A Comic Opera” by Joseph Reed was published, and the following line was included: 5

I may be mistaken, it’s true; because, as the man says, we can be sure of nothing in this world but death and taxes . . .

In 1770 “A Burlesque Translation of Homer” was published, and the version of “The Iliad” included this line: 6

Nothing stands fix’d, but death and taxes.

In 1783 “The Gentleman’s Magazine” of London published a letter to the editor containing the saying with a reversed ordering “taxes and death”: 7

We have often heard, that nothing was to be depended on but taxes and death; but taxation seems to be run hard, when it condescends to take three-pence from a dead person.

There is some evidence that Mark Twain used the expression within a letter dated 1884. QI has not yet verified this information. The introduction to “The Annotated Huckleberry Finn” was written by researcher Michael Patrick Hearn, and he presented the line from the body of a letter Twain wrote to a friend: 8

“I changed publishers once – – and just as sure as death and taxes I never will again,” he vowed. (38)

(Footnote 38) In a letter to Frank Fuller, October 18, 1884, transcript courtesy the Mark Twain Papers.

In conclusion, Benjamin Franklin did employ this quip within a private letter in 1789. Franklin’s grandson published selections from his illustrious forebear’s correspondence in 1817. Thus, Franklin’s usage helped to popularize the expression. However, it was circulating many years before 1789. It appeared in a farce by Christopher Bullock which was published by 1723.

Image Notes: Illustration of part of a U.S. tax form.

(Great thanks to Luther Mckinnon whose tweet on this topic led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Mckinnon pointed to the 1789 letter by Benjamin Franklin. Thanks also to Dave Hill who participated in the tweet thread. In addition, thanks to previous researchers such as Fred Shapiro who identified the Christopher Bullock and Edward Ward citations.)

Notes:

  1. 1817, The Private Correspondence of Benjamin Franklin, Published from the Originals by His Grandson William Temple Franklin, Second Edition, Volume 1 of 2, Letter Title: On the Affairs of France, Letter Date: November 13, 1789, Letter From: Benjamin Franklin, Letter To: Jean Baptiste Le Roy, Start Page 265, Quote Page 266, Printed for Henry Colburn, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  2. 1723, The Cobler of Preston and the Adventures of Half an Hour, As it is acted at the Theatre-Royal in Lincoln’s-Inn-Fields, Written by Mr. Christopher Bullock, The Fourth Edition, Character Speaking: Toby Guzzle (a drunken Cobler), Quote Page 13, Printed for T. Corbett, and Sold by Mr. Graves, London. (A facsimile published in 1969 by Cornmarket Press from the copy in the Birmingham Shakespeare Library, London) (Verified with scans)
  3. 1724, The Dancing Devils: or, the Roaring Dragon: A Dumb Farce by Edward Ward, Quote Page 43, Printed and Sold by A. Battesworth at Red Lion, J. Bately at the Dove, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  4. 1726, The Political History of the Devil: As Well Ancient as Modern: In Two Parts by Daniel Defoe, Part 2 of 2, Chapter 6, Quote Page 269, Printed for T. Warner, at the Black Boy in Pater-noster Row, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  5. 1769, Title: Tom Jones: A Comic Opera: As It Is Performed at the Theatre-Royal in Covent-Garden Author: Joseph Reed, Act I, Scene: A Genteel Apartment, Speaker: Mrs. Honour Mattocks, Quote Page 3, Printed for W. and W. Smith, G. Faulkner, P. and W. Wilson, Dublin, Ireland. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1770, A Burlesque Translation of Homer, Author: Thomas Bridges, Third Edition, Volume 2 of 2, Chapter: Homer’s Iliad – Book 9, Quote Page 92, Printed for S. Hooper, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  7. 1783 November, The Gentleman’s Magazine, Volume 53, Communication Sent to Editor Sylvanus Urban, Quote Page 931, Column 1, Printed by J. Nichols for D. Henry, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 2001, The Annotated Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Edited with and introduction and notes by ‎Michael Patrick Hearn, Section: Introduction, Quote Page xxxvii, W. W. Norton & Company, New York. (Google Books Preview)