Category Archives: Benjamin Franklin

Those Who Are Good at Making Excuses Are Seldom Good at Anything Else

Benjamin Franklin? Theodore Edward Hook? Maria Edgeworth? Arthur Wellesley? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The statesman Benjamin Franklin is often credited with the following aphorism. Here are two versions:

  • A person good at making excuses is seldom good for anything else.
  • A man who is good at making excuses is good for nothing else.

I have never seen a precise citation which makes me suspicious. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: Benjamin Franklin died in 1790, and the earliest two pertinent citations located by QI appeared in 1809. The book “Liber Facetiarum: Being a Collection of Curious and Interesting Anecdotes” included a tale ascribing the nugget of wisdom to Franklin: 1

A young American having broken an appointment with Dr Franklin, came to him the following day, and made a very handsome apology for his absence: He was proceeding, when the doctor stopped him with, “My good boy, say no more, you have said too much already; for the man who is good at making an excuse, is seldom good at any thing else.
Anecdotes of D. F.

Also, in 1809 the text of Theodore Edward Hook’s work titled “Safe and Sound: An Opera in Three Acts” was published in London. A character delivered the line while criticizing another character: 2

Lind: I assure you I did not mean——

Baron. Make no excuse—a man who is good at making excuses is seldom good at any thing else. Here come the guards—get away—get away.

Lind. Generous man

QI is unable to judge the reliability of the anecdote. Whether the opera influenced the composition of the anecdote or vice versa also remains unclear. Perhaps future researchers will identify earlier citations.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1809, Liber Facetiarum: Being a Collection of Curious and Interesting Anecdotes, Quote Page 182, Printed by and for D. Akenhead and Sons, Newcastle Upon Tyne, England. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  2. 1810 (1809 London Edition), The English and American Stage, Volume 34, Safe and Sound: An Opera in Three Acts by Theodore Edward Hook, Performed at The Lyceum Theatre in London, Start Page 2, Quote Page 40, Published by D. Longworth, New York. (Google Books Full View) link

They Who Are of Opinion that Money Will Do Everything, May Very Well Be Suspected To Do Everything for Money

Benjamin Franklin? George Savile? Apocryphal? Anonymous

Dear Quote Investigator: A popular technique in rhetoric consists of repeating a clause while permuting the words. For example:

  • Money will do everything for you.
  • You will do everything for money.

Apparently, statesman Benjamin Franklin contended that a belief in the first clause led individuals to follow the guidance of the second. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Benjamin Franklin did include a matching statement in one of his famous almanacs, but the saying was already in circulation.

The earliest evidence known to QI appeared in a 1750 volume by the English nobleman George Savile, 1st Marquis of Halifax. The book included a section called “Political, Moral, and Miscellaneous Thoughts and Reflections” that contained items such as the following. The word “everything” was written as two words. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

If Men considered how many Things there are that Riches cannot buy, they would not be so fond of them.

Money in a Fool’s Hand exposeth him worse than a pyed Coat

They who are of opinion that Money will do every thing, may very well be suspected to do every thing for Money.

Savile had died in 1695 many years before publication. A note at the beginning of the manuscript stated that the original document had been held by Savile’s grand-daughter Dorothy, Countess of Burlington.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1750, A Character of King Charles the Second: And Political, Moral, and Miscellaneous Thoughts and Reflections by the George Savile, Marquis of Halifax, Section: Of Money, Start Page 145, Quote Page 145 and 146, Printed for J. and R. Tonson and S. Draper, London. (Google Books Full View) link

If You Want Something Done, Ask a Busy Person To Do It

Lucille Ball? Benjamin Franklin? Elbert Hubbard? W. J. Kennedy? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A popular proverb suggests that when you are faced with a large task you should call upon someone with an ongoing track record of accomplishment. Here are three versions:

  • If you want something done, ask a busy person.
  • If you want anything done, ask a busy man.
  • If you want work well done, ask a busy woman.

This notion has been attributed to top comedian Lucille Ball, statesman Benjamin Franklin, and epigrammatist Elbert Hubbard. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match known to QI appeared in a report delivered in 1856 by Reverend W. J. Kennedy who was the Inspector of Schools for Lancashire and the Isle of Man in Britain. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Just as it is almost proverbial that, if you want any business done for you, you should ask a busy man to do it, and not a man of leisure, so it is the laborious scholar, who is working hard at languages, who picks up, nay, actually reads and studies more of other subjects than the rest of his fellows at school or college.

The context revealed that the saying was in circulation before the report was produced, and its authorship was anonymous.

This valuable citation was reported by quotation expert and BBC radio broadcaster Nigel Rees in his periodical “The Quote Unquote Newsletter” in January 2012. 2

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1856, Minutes of the Committee of Council on Education, Section: Inspector’s Reports for 1855, General Report for the Year 1855 by Her Majesty’s Inspector of Schools, the Rev. W. J. Kennedy, M.A., &c., on the Church of England Schools inspected in the County of Lancaster and in the Isle of Man, Date: January 1856, Start Page 444, Quote Page 450 and 451, Printed by George E. Eyre and William Spottiswoode, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 2012 January, The Quote Unquote Newsletter, Volume 21, Number 1, Edited by Nigel Rees, Section: Answers A4319, Quote Page 9, Published and Distributed by Nigel Rees, Hillgate Place, London, Website: link

There Are Three Things Extreamly Hard, Steel, a Diamond and To Know One’s Self

Benjamin Franklin? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Recently, I came across an insightful saying about psychology:

Three of the hardest entities are steel, a diamond, and self-knowledge.

Would you please help me to determine the originator?

Quote Investigator: In 1750 statesman Benjamin Franklin included an instance in “Poor Richard’s Almanack”. The word “extremely” was spelled “extreamly”. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

There are three Things extreamly hard, Steel, a Diamond and to know one’s self.

Some the sayings propagated by Franklin were selected from previously published books and periodicals. For example, Franklin is often credited with “Time is money”, but that proverb was circulating decades earlier. Nevertheless, QI has not yet found a precursor for the saying under examination and would provisionally credit Franklin.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1750 January, Poor Richard Improved: Being An Almanack and Ephemeris of the Motions of the Sun and Moon for the Year of Our Lord 1750, (Poor Richard’s Almanac), Benjamin Franklin, Month: January, Column: 2, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Images from Historical Society of Pennsylvania; accessed at rarebookroom.org on August 30, 2017) link

Do Not Wait To Strike Till the Iron Is Hot; But Make It Hot By Striking

William Butler Yeats? William B. Sprague? Benjamin Franklin? Richard Sharp? Charles Lamb? Charles Caleb Colton? Oliver Cromwell? Peleg Sprague? Ernest Hemingway? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A popular proverb highlights the limited duration of an opportunity:

Strike while the iron is hot.

This metaphor has been astutely extended with advice for greater challenges:

Make the iron hot by striking.

This full metaphor has been credited to the English military leader Oliver Cromwell, the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, and the American novelist Ernest Hemingway. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The basic proverb appeared in one of “The Canterbury Tales” called “The Tale of Melibeus” by Geoffrey Chaucer written in the latter half of the 1300s. Here is the original spelling together with a modern rendition. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

…whil that iren is hoot men scholden smyte…
…while the iron is hot men should smite…

The earliest full match known to QI appeared in a 1782 letter from the famous statesman Benjamin Franklin to Reverend Richard Price about using the press to spread ideas. The letter was included in “Memoirs of the Life of The Rev. Richard Price” published in 1815: 2

The facility with which the same truths may be repeatedly enforced by placing them daily in different lights in newspapers which are every where read, gives a great chance of establishing them. And we now find, that it is not only right to strike while the iron is hot, but that it may be very practicable to heat it by continually striking.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading

Notes:

  1. 1860, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Edited by Thomas Wright, The Tale of Melibeus, Start Page 150, Quote Page 152, Richard Griffin and Company, London and Glasgow. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1815, Memoirs of the Life of The Rev. Richard Price by William Morgan, Volume 5, (Letter within footnote), Letter from: Benjamin Franklin, Letter to: Richard Price, Letter date: June 13, 1782, Start Page 95, Quote Page 96, Printed for R. Hunter, Successor to J. Johnson, London. (Google Books Full View) link

The Pleasure Is Momentary, the Position Is Ridiculous, the Expense Is Damnable

Lord Chesterfield? Hilaire Belloc? D. H. Lawrence? George Bernard Shaw? Alexander Duffield? Somerset Maugham? Elliot Paul? Samuel Hopkins Adams? Benjamin Franklin? P. D. James? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Lord Chesterfield reportedly crafted an outrageously humorous description of intimate relations. I’ve seen different versions that each comment on pleasure, position, and expense. Yet, I have never seen a proper citation. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, is typically referred to as Lord Chesterfield. Researchers have been unable to find the statement about eros in his writings, and the words were ascribed to him many years after his death in 1773.

The earliest close match located by QI appeared in a letter sent to the editors of “The Western Daily Press” in Bristol, England in 1902. The subject was the standardization of equipment for golf, and the word “amusement” was employed to avoid terms such as “intercourse” or “sex”. “Attitude” is a synonym for “posture”. In addition, the taboos of the era dictated the replacement of “damnable” by dashes. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

If there is to be no limit to the fancy or ingenuity of club and ball makers, I am afraid the dictum of a certain American, speaking of another amusement, will be applicable to golf, viz., “that the pleasure is momentary, the attitudes ridiculous, and the expense —–“

So, the expression was circulating by 1902, but the printed evidence is limited. Interestingly, it was credited to an American instead of an Englishman.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading

Notes:

  1. 1902 November 20, The Western Daily Press, Correspondence To The Editors of The Western Daily Press, (Letter Title: Standardisation of the Golf Ball, Letter From: W.L.B. of Clifton; Letter Date: November 17, 1902), Quote Page 3, Column 7, Bristol, England. (British Newspaper Archive)

Beer/Wine Is Proof that God Loves Us and Wants Us To Be Happy

Benjamin Franklin? Apocryphal?

vineyard08Dear Quote Investigator: The renowned statesman and scientist Benjamin Franklin has been credited with two variant statements about alcohol:

1) Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.
2) Wine is constant proof that God loves us and likes to see us happy.

Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Benjamin Franklin sent a letter written in French to his friend Monsieur L’Abbé Morellet (André Morellet) that discussed wine and God. In 1818 William Temple Franklin who was the grandson of Benjamin published a posthumous collection of the statesman’s letters based on the originals. The volume included the French text together with an English translation for the missive, but it did not specify the date. The “marriage in Cana” in the following referred to an event described in the Gospel of John. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1 2

On parle de la conversion de l’eau en vin, à la nôce de Cana comme d’un miracle. Mais cette conversion est faite tous les jours par la bonté de Dieu, sous nos yeux. Voilà l’eau qui tombe des cieux sur nos vignobles, et alors elle entre dans les racines des vignes pour-être changée en vin. Preuve constante que Dieu nous aime, et qu’il aime à nous voir heureux.

We hear of the conversion of water into wine at the marriage in Cana, as of a miracle. But this conversion is, through the goodness of God, made every day before our eyes. Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, and which incorporates itself with the grapes to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy!

The comment on wine was remembered and reprinted repeatedly. The phrasing evolved and was streamlined over the period of nearly two centuries since the above publication.

The variant mentioning beer appeared relatively recently circa 1996, and it was constructed by simply replacing “wine” with “beer”; hence, it was not supported by Franklin’s primordial remark.

Thanks to a forum participant at Snopes and to a volunteer editor at Wikiquote who mentioned the letter above. Also, thanks to top researcher Barry Popik who explored this topic.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1818, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Benjamin Franklin, Published by His Grandson, William Temple Franklin, (From the Originals), Letter from Benjamin Franklin to the Monsieur L’Abbé Morellet (no date given in text), (French with translation into English), Start Page 347, Quote Page 348 and 349, Printed for Henry Colburn, Conduit Street, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1819, The Posthumous and Other Writings of Benjamin Franklin: Published from the Originals by His Grandson, William Temple Franklin, Volume 1 of 2, Third Edition, Letter from Benjamin Franklin to the Monsieur L’Abbe Morellet (no date given in text), (French with translation into English), Start Page 286, Quote Page 287 and 290, Printed for Henry Colburn, Conduit Street, London. (Google Books Full View) link

Either Write Things Worth Reading or Do Things Worth the Writing

Benjamin Franklin? Thomas Fuller? Apocryphal?

franklin15Dear Quote Investigator: If you wish to be remembered by posterity in a literate culture you have two options:

1) Write something that people wish to read.
2) Do something grand that inspires people to write.

The famous statesman Benjamin Franklin has a secure place in history for both of these reasons. Apparently, he crafted a remark that was similar to the one above although he was more eloquent. Would you please locate this adage?

Quote Investigator: Franklin published a series of almanacs in the 1700s that were very popular, and many of the statements that are credited to him today were printed in these almanacs. The pertinent adage appeared in the 1738 edition of “Poor Richard’s Almanac” whose more complete title was “Poor Richard, An Almanack For the Year of Christ 1738, Being the Second after LEAP YEAR.”

The phrases of the expression were interleaved with astronomical facts concerning the month of May 1738. QI has underlined the adage in red in the image below which shows part of Franklin’s book: 1

If you wou’d not be forgotten
As soon as you are dead and rotten,
Either write things worth reading,
or do things worth the writing.

franklinworth02

Many of the sayings in the almanacs were not coined by Franklin. He read several contemporary compilations and sometimes selected statements he found interesting. He also rewrote existing adages and even combined sayings.

The core of the adage under investigation appeared earlier in a collection titled “Introductio ad Prudentiam: Or, Directions, Counsels, and Cautions, Tending to Prudent Management of Affairs in Common Life” by Thomas Fuller which was published in 1727. Adage number 686 was the following: 2

If thou wouldest win Immortality of Name, either do things worth the writing, or write things worth the reading.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1738, Poor Richard, An Almanack For the Year of Christ 1738, Being the Second after Leap Year (Poor Richard’s Almanac), Benjamin Franklin, Month: May, Column: 2, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Images from Historical Society of Pennsylvania; accessed at rarebookroom.org on April 27, 2016) link
  2. 1731, Introductio ad Prudentiam: Or, Directions, Counsels, and Cautions, Tending to Prudent Management of Affairs in Common Life, Compiled by Thomas Fuller, M.D., Third Edition, Quote Page 40, Saying Number 686, Printed for W. Innys at the West-End of St Paul’s, London. (First edition was published in 1727; the quotation was verified with scans of the 1731 third edition)(HathiTrust) link link

Those Who Love Deeply Never Grow Old

Benjamin Franklin? Dorothy Canfield Fisher? Arthur Wing Pinero? Abigail Van Buren? Anonymous?

love10Dear Quote Investigator: I recently saw an illustration of two people embracing above the following caption:

Those who love deeply never grow old; they may die of old age, but they die young.

At least three different people have been credited with this saying: Dorothy C. Fisher, Benjamin Franklin, and Arthur W. Pinero. Would you please trace this expression?

Quote Investigator: In 1897 the five act comedy “The Princess and The Butterfly; or, The Fantastics” by Arthur Wing Pinero was staged in London and in New York. The two primary characters were named Princess Pannonia and George Lamorant and were referred to as The Princess and The Butterfly, respectively.

Lamorant proposed marriage to Pannonia, but he also expressed uncertainty about the match to another character named Fay Zuliani who delivered the following advice. Dialectical spelling was employed to depict an Italian accent; “those” was written as “dose”, and “they” was written as “dey”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

FAY: [Slowly coming to the table.] Dose who love deep never grow old, I have ‘eard it said. Dey may die of age, but dey die young. You ought to love de Princess.

Note that the original line used “die of age” and not “die of old age”. Also, the word “deep” was spoken instead of “deeply”.

During a later scene in the play the initial statement was emphasized by being spoken again by both Lamorant and Pannonia though the phrasing was slightly different: 2

SIR GEORGE: That those who love deeply cannot age—
PRINCESS: That those–who love deeply–cannot age?
SIR GEORGE: Yes
PRINCESS: If it were so!
SIR GEORGE: Nor perceive age in those they love.
PRINCESS: What a blessed creed!
SIR GEORGE: Yes.

QI believes that playwright Pinero should be credited with the remark under investigation. The linkages of the quotation to Benjamin Franklin and Dorothy Canfield Fisher were not supported with substantive citations.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1898, The Princess and The Butterfly or, The Fantastics: A Comedy in Five Acts by Arthur W. Pinero (Arthur Wing Pinero), The Fifth Act, Start Page 208, Quote Page 218, Published by William Heinemann, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1898, The Princess and The Butterfly or, The Fantastics: A Comedy in Five Acts by Arthur W. Pinero (Arthur Wing Pinero), The Fifth Act, Start Page 208, Quote Page 234, Published by William Heinemann, London. (Google Books Full View) link

The Person Who Never Makes a Mistake Will Never Make Anything

Theodore Roosevelt? Albert Einstein? Benjamin Franklin? Samuel Smiles? Josh Billings? Mr. Phelps? G. K. Chesterton? Robert Smith Surtees? Joseph Conrad? Will Rogers? Anonymous?

samsmiles11Dear Quote Investigator: Mistakes are unavoidable in the life of an active and vital person. Several adages highlight this important theme:

1) A man who never makes a mistake will never make anything.
2) The person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.
3) A fellow who never makes a mistake must get tired of doing nothing.

Many famous names have been linked to sayings of this type including Benjamin Franklin, Theodore Roosevelt, and Albert Einstein. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: This is a large and complex topic. Below is a summary that presents a list of expressions that fit into this family together with dates and attributions:

1832: He who never makes an effort, never risks a failure. (Anonymous)

1859: He who never made a mistake, never made a discovery. (Samuel Smiles)

1874: The man who never makes enny blunders seldum makes enny good hits. (Josh Billings)

1889: A man who never makes a mistake will never make anything. (Attributed: Mr. Phelps)

1896: It’s only those who do nothing that make no mistakes. (Joseph Conrad)

1900: The only man who never makes a mistake is the man who never does anything. (Solid Attribution: Theodore Roosevelt)

1901: Show me a man who has never made a mistake, and I will show you one who has never tried anything. (Anonymous)

1903: The man who does things makes many mistakes, but he never makes the biggest mistake of all—doing nothing. (Poor Richard Junior’s Philosophy)

1911: The fellow who never makes any failures, never makes any successes either. (Anonymous)

1927: Every man makes mistakes; they say a man who never makes mistakes never makes anything else. (G. K. Chesterton)

1936: The man who does things makes many mistakes, but he never makes the biggest mistake of all—doing nothing. (Flawed Attribution: Benjamin Franklin)

1969: The man who never makes a mistake must get plenty tired of doing nothing. (Anonymous)

1993: The man who never makes a mistake must get tired of doing nothing. (Weak Attribution: Will Rogers)

1995: A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new. (Weak Attribution: Albert Einstein.)

Here are selected citations in chronological order.

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