Quote Origin: “I Accept the Universe” “Gad! She’d Better!”

Margaret Fuller? Thomas Carlyle? Henry James Sr.? William James? Ralph Waldo Emerson? Horace Greely? Julia Ward Howe? Apocryphal?

Engraving of Margaret Fuller from 1872

Question for Quote Investigator: A famous nineteenth-century thinker once delivered a grand affirmation of the universe:

“I accept the universe.”

Another well-known intellectual heard about this pronouncement and attempted to puncture the elevated tone of the avowal:

“Gad! she’d better!”

The expression “Gad” is a minced oath for “God”. The first line has been attributed to the teacher, journalist, and transcendentalist Margaret Fuller, and the second line has been attributed to the essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle. I have been unable to find solid evidence for these remarks. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Reply from Quote Investigator: The statements given above appeared in the 1902 book “The Varieties of Religious Experience” by influential U.S. philosopher and educator William James; however, James was not a direct witness to either statement. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:1

“I accept the universe” is reported to have been a favorite utterance of our New England transcendentalist Margaret Fuller; and when some one repeated this phrase to Thomas Carlyle, his sardonic comment is said to have been: “Gad! she’d better!” At bottom the whole concern of both morality and religion is with the manner of our acceptance of the universe. Do we accept it only in part and grudgingly, or heartily and altogether?

The earliest evidence known to QI appeared in a letter dated January 28, 1848 sent from Evert Duyckinck to his brother. The letter described a discussion about Margaret Fuller held between U.S. theologian Henry James Sr. and English historian Thomas Carlyle. The letter referred to “Margaret Fooler” instead of “Margaret Fuller” because it was representing the strong Scottish accent of Carlyle. The excerpt below begins with a remark attributed to James Sr. which is followed by a remark attributed to Carlyle:2

“When I last saw Margaret Fuller she told me she had got to this conclusion-to accept the Universe.” “God, [deleted] Accept the Universe, Margaret Fooler accept the universe! (with a loud guffaw) Why perhaps upon the whole it is the best thing she could do-it is very kind of Margaret Fooler!” And whenever Carlyle met James he told him “So! Margaret Fooler is going to accept the Universe!”

The letter excerpt above appeared in the scholarly journal “American Literature” in 1966. The author of the article referenced the copy of the 1848 letter held in the Duyckinck Collection of the New York Public Library. James Sr. gave the anecdote to Parke Godwin who relayed it to Evert Duyckinck who placed the tale in the letter. Hence, this evidence was indirect.

Henry James Sr. was the father of William James. Thus, the version of the tale in the 1902 book may have been based on the testimony of James Sr. to his son William.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Margaret Fuller died in 1850, and the posthumous “Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli” edited by fellow transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson et al appeared in 1852. A passage in the book presented Fuller’s thoughts of affirmation toward the universe while contemplating a beautiful scene of hills and wide rich fields:3

There too, in solitude, the mind acquired more power of concentration … to commune with the Divine Spirit of Creation, which cannot err, which never sleeps, which will not permit evil to be permanent, nor its aim of beauty in the smallest particular eventually to fail.

Other philosophical and religious thinkers have spoken about accepting the universe. For example, in 1853 William MacCall published a lecture in “The Reasoner and Secular Gazette” stating the following:4

… we should not be disposed to see faults and anomalies in the universe, and to get up defences of them full of sophistry and falsehood. For myself, I accept the universe not for the reason that Leibnitz gave that it is the best of all possible universes, but because it is that which I myself am—life. I do not profess to explain anything in it; I do not profess to defend anything in it; I am content to plunge into the ocean of life, and to be borne exultingly on its waves.

In 1858 prominent U.S. newspaper editor and publisher Horace Greely delivered a lecture which included a discussion of “human greatness”. A newspaper in Illinois published a synopsis.  Greely referred to the remark ascribed to Fuller although Greely did not name her:5

The second element of greatness is a cheerful assent to whatever is; to act through the instruments given us. A transcendentalist after several years of intense thought decided to accept the universe. I do not suppose that the universe was particularly delighted at it. Men are continually denouncing their hard fate, when their real misfortune is a lack of robust manhood; the misfortune that he is born to a patrimony of gluttony and sloth.

In 1862 “The Ladies’ Repository” printed a piece which attributed the remark about the universe to Fuller:6

Margaret Fuller said gravely and with an obvious condescension, “I accept the universe.” It was a terrible fact to her, no doubt, but there it stood, and she could not readily dispose of it. So under the necessities of the case she accepted it, and seemed willing to do the best she could with it.

In 1873 William Mathew, Professor of Rhetoric at the University of Chicago, published “Getting On In the World; Or, Hints On Success In Life”. He mentioned the remark and endorsed it:7

It is said that a transcendentalist, after years of profound speculation, came to the conclusion “to accept the universe,”—an example which common natures would do well to imitate.

In 1875 Hiram Fuller published a book in which he stated that Margaret Fuller’s remark was made to Carlyle:8

Men grow, and bud, and blossom, and bear fruit, or live barren, like the trees, and then, also like the trees, fade, and fall, and disappear. We have only to accept the situation; or, as Margaret Fuller said to Carlyle, “accept the universe.”

In 1881 Julia Ward Howe published an article in “The Journal of Speculative Philosophy”. Howe presented the earliest published version of the two statements from Fuller and Carlyle known to QI:9

Margaret Fuller once said that she accepted the universe, and Carlyle laughed heartily on hearing of it, and said, “I think she’d better.” But each of us has an attitude towards the universe. We partly accept and partly make ourselves accepted by it.

In 1902 William James published “The Varieties of Religious Experience”. He included a version of the two statements from Fuller and Carlyle as mentioned at the beginning of this article:

“I accept the universe” is reported to have been a favorite utterance of our New England transcendentalist Margaret Fuller; and when some one repeated this phrase to Thomas Carlyle, his sardonic comment is said to have been: “Gad! she’d better!”

In 1905 the New York periodical “The World To-Day” printed a version of the anecdote featuring the English thinker Harriet Martineau and Carlyle:10

The situation reminds one of the messages exchanged between Harriet Martineau and Thomas Carlyle. “Tell Mr. Carlyle,” said Miss Martineau to a friend, “that I have decided to accept the universe.” “Gad, she’d better,” replied Carlyle.

In 1919 the New York periodical “The Standard” printed a version of the anecdote featuring Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson:11

It is told of Margaret Fuller, the temperamental transcendentalist who enlivened Boston in its halcyon days, that she once enthusiastically exclaimed: “I accept the universe.” To which Emerson laconically made answer “She’d better.”

During an interview published in “Playboy” magazine in 1969 Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan was asked about his predictions concerning future technology:12

McLuhan: … As Carlyle said of author Margaret Fuller after she remarked, “I accept the Universe”: “She’d better.” I see no possibility of a worldwide Luddite rebellion that will smash all machinery to bits, so we might as well sit back and see what is happening and what will happen to us in a cybernetic world. Resenting a new technology will not halt its progress.

In 1971 best-selling author Irving Wallace presented a dramatic version of the tale in which Fuller and Carlyle spoke directly to one another during a party:13

Thomas Carlyle invited Margaret Fuller to a party at his home. There, before a roomful of fascinated guests, Margaret expounded on the beauties of Life. Carried away, she concluded on a high note. “I accept the Universe!” she exclaimed. To which Carlyle, feet firmly on the ground, snorted in reply, “Gad, you’d better!”

In conclusion, the 1848 letter provided evidence that Margaret Fuller spoke about accepting the universe although the precise phrasing she employed was not given. In 1862 Fuller received credit for the exact phrase, “I accept the universe”.

The 1848 letter indicated that Thomas Carlyle expressed derision when he heard about Fuller’s remark although the phrasing was clumsy and prolix. In 1881 he received credit for “I think she’d better”, and in 1905 he received credit for “Gad! She’d Better!”

Image Notes: Public domain engraving of Margaret Fuller from 1872 accessed via Wikimedia Commons. The image has been retouched and cropped.

Acknowledgement: This article was inspired by an article from Noah Brier who mentioned that Marshall McLuhan referred to the remarks by Fuller and Carlyle during an interview published in “Playboy” magazine in March 1969. Thanks to Fred R. Shapiro who is editor of the “The New Yale Book of Quotations”. Shapiro’s reference pointed to the crucial 1848 letter.

  1. 1902, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature by William James, Lecture 2: Circumscription of the Topic, Quote Page 41, Longmans, Green, and Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  2. 1966 January, American Literature, Volume 37, Number 4, The Origin of Lowell’s “Miss Fooler” by Heyward Ehrlich (Michigan State University), Start Page 473, Quote Page 474, Published by Duke University Press, Durham, North, Carolina. (JSTOR) link ↩︎
  3. 1851, Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli, Volume 1, Part 3: Groton and Providence, Chapter: Farewell To Groton, Quote Page 171, Phillips, Sampson and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  4. 1853 August 3, The Reasoner and Secular Gazette, Volume 15, Number 5, A Lecture: The Living God, Part 5: Conclusion by William MacCall, Start Page 70, Quote Page 71, James Watson, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  5. 1858 December 28, The Belvidere Standard, Horace Greely’s Lecture on Great Men (Note: The article begins with this description: “Chicago Journal gives the following excellent synopsis of Greely’s Lecture”), Quote Page 1, Column 6, Belvidere, Illinois. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  6. 1862 September, The Ladies’ Repository: A Universalist Monthly Magazine, Volume 31, Editor’s Table, Beards, Quote Page 144, Tompkins & Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  7. 1873, Getting On In the World; Or, Hints On Success In Life by William Mathews (Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature in the University of Chicago), Chapter: 15: The Will and The Way (continued), Quote Page 221 and 222, S. C. Griggs and Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  8. 1875, Grand Transformation Scenes in the United States Or Glimpses of Home After Thirteen Years Abroad  by H. Fuller (Hiram Fuller), Chapter: Health, Quote Page 53, G. W. Carleton & Company, New York. (Verified with scans) link ↩︎
  9. 1881 July, The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, Volume 15, Number 3, The Results of the Kantian Philosophy by Mrs. Julia Ward Howe, by Start Page 274, Quote Page 290, D. Appleton and Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  10. 1905 August, The World To-Day, Volume 9, Number 2, Events of the Month, Quote Page 820, Column 1, The World To-Day Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  11. 1919 December, The Standard, Volume 6, Number 4, On Accepting the Universe (Letter from J. G.), Quote Page 107, American Ethical Union, Cooperstown, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  12. 1969 March, Playboy, Volume 16, Number 3, Playboy Interview: Marshall McLuhan — candid conversation, Start Page 53, Quote Page 74, HMH Publishing Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  13. 1971, The Nympho and Other Maniacs by Irving Wallace, Book Two: The Heroine as a Scandal, Chapter 12: The Conversationalist, Quote Page 279, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
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