Category Archives: Henry David Thoreau

What You Get By Reaching Your Goals Is Not Nearly So Important As What You Become By Reaching Them

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe? Henry David Thoreau? Zig Ziglar?

achieve08Dear Quote Investigator: Many self-help and inspirational books contain this guidance:

What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.

These words have been ascribed to three disparate individuals: German literary titan Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, famed transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, and popular motivational speaker Zig Ziglar. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Goethe or Thoreau employed this expression.

The earliest match located by QI appeared in the curiously titled 1974 book “Biscuits, Fleas, and Pump Handles” by Zig Ziglar. One section of the work discussed the necessity of formulating and striving for goals. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

I want to emphasize that what you get by reaching your goals is not nearly so important as what you become by reaching them. What about you? Are you sold on the necessity of having goals?

The phrasing above differed from the common modern instance, e.g., the word “reaching” appeared instead of “achieving”. Nevertheless, the statement provided a strong semantic match.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading


  1. 1974, Biscuits, Fleas, and Pump Handles by Zig Ziglar, Segment 4: Goals, Chapter 4: Reaching Your Goals, Quote Page 171, Published by Update Division of Crescendo Publications, Dallas, Texas. (Verified with scans)

Though Music Be a Universal Language, It Is Spoken with All Sorts of Accents

George Bernard Shaw? Alan Lomax? Henry Wadsworth Longfellow? Henry David Thoreau?

music14Dear Quote Investigator: I believe that the famous playwright and music critic George Bernard Shaw said something like the following:

Music may be a universal language, but it’s spoken with all sorts of peculiar accents.

I checked some quotation references and was unable to find this statement. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: In December 1890 George Bernard Shaw wrote a music review that contrasted the divergent sounds produced by orchestras in Manchester and Lancashire. The drummer in Manchester employed “mighty drum-sticks” which could perform well on the “final crescendo roll” of the “Trold King’s dance” in the Peer Gynt suite. But the drummer in Lancashire excelled in pieces that required greater delicacy. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Thus, though music be a universal language, it is spoken with all sorts of accents; and the Lancashire accent differs sufficiently from the Cockney accent to make the Manchester band a welcome variety, without counting the change from Cowen or Cusins to Hallé.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1949 (Reprint of 1932 edition), Music in London: 1890-94 by Bernard Shaw, Volume 1 of 3, (Music review dated December 10, 1890), Start Page 90, Quote Page 91 and 92, Constable and Company Limited, London. (Verified on paper)

Only Monarchs, Editors, and People with Tapeworms Have the Right to Use the Editorial ‘We’

Mark Twain? Robert Ingersoll? Edgar Wilson Nye? John Phoenix? George H. Derby? Roscoe Conkling? John Fiske? Horace Porter? Henry David Thoreau? Hyman G. Rickover

derby08Dear Quote Investigator: Some writers use “we” as a form of self-reference. For example, an author might state: We base our opinion on the highest authority. A comically reproachful remark about this practice has been attributed to Mark Twain:

Only kings, presidents, editors, and people with tapeworms have the right to use the editorial ‘we’.

Similar comments have been ascribed to humorist Bill Nye (Edgar Wilson Nye), transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, and orator Robert Ingersoll. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest pertinent citation known to QI appeared in the November 1855 issue of “The Knickerbocker” which contained an evaluation of a forthcoming book titled “Phoenixiana: Or Sketches and Burlesques” by John Phoenix. The reviewer reprinted a passage from the prospective volume by Phoenix that included a simple instance of the joke. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

It will be perceived that I have not availed myself of the editorial privilege of using the plural noun in speaking of myself. This is simply because I consider it a ridiculous affectation. I am a ‘lone, lorn man,’ unmarried, (the LORD be praised for His infinite mercy!) and though blessed with a consuming appetite, which causes the keepers of the house where I board to tremble, I do not think I have a tape-worm; therefore I have no claim to call myself ‘WE:’ and I shall by no means fall into that editorial absurdity.

John Phoenix was the pen name of the writer George H. Derby who was a Lieutenant in the U.S. Army originally from California. When his book “Phoenixiana” was released in 1856 the printed text differed slightly from the passage above with the addition of the word “whatever” to yield the phrase “no claim whatever”. 2

Derby’s early version of the quip and other important citations were identified by linguist Ben Zimmer who currently writes a wonderful column about language for “The Wall Street Journal”. The jest has metamorphosed over the years, and a wide variety of risible rationales have been presented to justify the use of the pronoun “we” including these:

A person with a mouse in his or her pocket
A king, queen, emperor, or president
A pregnant woman
A newspaper or magazine editor
A person with a tapeworm
A schizophrenic individual

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1855 November, The Knickerbocker, Editor’s Table, Page 520, Volume XLVI, Number 5, Samuel Hueston, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1856 (Copyright 1855), Phoenixiana; or Sketches and Burlesques by John Phoenix (George Horatio Derby), Phoenix Installed Editor of the San Diego Herald, Quote Page 96, D. Appleton and Co., New York. (Google Books Full View) link

Every Ambitious Would-Be Empire Clarions It Abroad That She Is Conquering the World to Bring It Peace

Henry David Thoreau? George S. Boutwell? Taylor Caldwell? Apocryphal?

boutwell10Dear Quote Investigator: George S. Boutwell was a U.S. politician who campaigned to end slavery and later became president of the Anti-Imperialist League. He objected to the annexation of the Philippines. The following statement has been attributed to him:

Every ambitious would-be empire clarions it abroad that she is conquering the world to bring it peace, security and freedom, and is sacrificing her sons only for the most noble and humanitarian purposes. That is a lie.

I have been unable to find any documentation supporting this ascription. Oddly, the words are also sometimes credited to Henry David Thoreau. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Taylor Caldwell was a very popular author who wrote a series of bestsellers over a span of four decades. Her 1968 novel “Testimony of Two Men” was made into a television miniseries in the 1970s. This work contained the earliest evidence of the quotation known to QI. One of Caldwell’s characters was talking about the beliefs of George S. Boutwell and presented remarks from the politician of uncertain accuracy. The passage was complex because it also included a quotation attributed to Henry David Thoreau. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

I remember that Boutwell said, ‘Our war to free Cuba must not be turned into wars for Empire. If America ever does seek Empire, and most nations do, then planned reforms in our domestic life will be abandoned, States Rights will be abolished—in order to impose a centralized government upon us for the purpose of internal repudiation of freedom, and adventures abroad. The American dream will then die—on battlefields all over the world—and a nation conceived in liberty will destroy liberty for Americans and impose tyranny on subject nations.’

Boutwell also said, if I am repeating him correctly, and he quoted Thoreau: ‘If I knew a man was approaching my house to do me good, I would flee for my life.’ Then he went on to say, ‘Every ambitious would-be empire clarions it abroad that she is conquering the world to bring it peace, security and freedom, and is sacrificing her sons only for the most noble and humanitarian purposes. That is a lie, and it is an ancient lie, yet generations still rise and believe it!'”

So the quotation under examination was written by Taylor Caldwell and not by George S. Boutwell. QI has been unable to verify whether Boutwell said or wrote the words attributed to him by Caldwell’s fictional character. Perhaps future researchers will uncover supporting evidence for the Boutwell linkage. Also note that the words about empire were not written by Henry David Thoreau.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1968, Testimony of Two Men by Taylor Caldwell, Quote Page 452, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified with scans)

Happiness Is A Butterfly, Which When Pursued, Seems Always Just Beyond Your Grasp

Nathaniel Hawthorne? Henry David Thoreau? L.? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

monarch06Dear Quote Investigator: An ingenious and lovely simile about happiness is confusingly attributed to two prominent literary figures: Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau. Here are two versions:

Happiness is like a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.

Happiness is like a butterfly: the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.

Who do you think really originated this analogy?

Quote Investigator: QI believes that neither of these gentlemen was responsible for this figurative language. The earliest evidence known to QI was published in several periodicals beginning in 1848.

In June 1848 a newspaper called “The Daily Crescent” in New Orleans, Louisiana printed a set of sixteen definitions for terms such as “Love”, “Faith”, “Truth”, “Wealth”, and “Experience”. The article was labelled “For the Crescent”, so this article may have been the original publication. The author was only identified by the single initial “L”.

The butterfly metaphor was presented within the definition for “Happiness”. Here’s a sampling of three definitions. Emphasis by QI: 1

LOVE.—The electric spark communicating between two human galvanic batteries.

WEALTH.—The sum which gives content, whether one dollar or a million.

HAPPINESS.—A butterfly, which when pursued, seems always just beyond your grasp; but if you sit down quietly, may alight upon you.

The mistaken ascription to Nathaniel Hawthorne appeared many years later and was probably based on the misreading of an ambiguous entry in a book of quotations published in 1891. The details are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1848 June 23, The Daily Crescent, A Chapter of Definitions, (The line above the title stated “For the Crescent”; author was specified with the single letter “L.”), Quote Page 2, Column 4, New Orleans, Louisiana. (Chronicling America)

If I Had More Time, I Would Have Written a Shorter Letter

Blaise Pascal? John Locke? Benjamin Franklin? Henry David Thoreau? Cicero? Woodrow Wilson?

Dear Quote Investigator: I was planning to end a letter with the following remark:

If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.

But the number of different people credited with this comment is so numerous that an explanatory appendix would have been required, and the letter was already too long. Here is a partial list of attributions I have seen: Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, Voltaire, Blaise Pascal, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Winston Churchill, Pliny the Younger, Cato, Cicero, Bill Clinton, and Benjamin Franklin. Did anybody in this group really say it?

Quote Investigator: Some of the attributions you have listed are spurious, but several are supported by solid evidence. The first known instance in the English language was a sentence translated from a text written by the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal. The French statement appeared in a letter in a collection called “Lettres Provinciales” in the year 1657: 1 2 3

Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.

Here is one possible modern day translation of Pascal’s statement. Note that the term “this” refers to the letter itself.

I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.

An English translation was created in 1658 and published in London. Here is an excerpt from that early rendition of the letter. The spelling differed in 1658, and the phrases “longer then” and “shorter then” occurred in this text instead of “shorter than” and “longer than”: 4

My Letters were not wont to come so close one in the neck of another, nor yet to be so large. The short time I have had hath been the cause of both. I had not made this longer then the rest, but that I had not the leisure to make it shorter then it is.

Pascal’s notion was quite memorable, and it was discussed in a French book about language. That work was translated and published in London in 1676 as “The Art of Speaking”: 5

These Inventions require much wit, and application; and therefore it was, that Mons. Pascal (an Author very famous for his felicity in comprising much in few words) excused himself wittily for the extravagant length of one of his Letters, by saying, he had not time to make it shorter.

In 1688 a religious controversialist named George Tullie included a version of the witticism in an essay he wrote about the celibacy of the clergy: 6

The Reader will I doubt too soon discover that so large an interval of time was not spent in writing this discourse; the very length of it will convince him, that the writer had not time enough to make a shorter.

Below are listed several variations of the expression as used by well known, lesser known, and unknown individuals. The philosopher John Locke, the statesman Benjamin Franklin, the transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, and the President Woodrow Wilson all presented statements matching this theme and the details are provided.

Mark Twain who is often connected to this saying did not use it according to the best available research, but one of his tangentially related quotations is given later for your entertainment.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading


  1. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: Blaise Pascal, Page 583, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  2. 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Page 119-120, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper)
  3. Oxford Dictionary of Quotations edited by Elizabeth Knowles, Section: Blaise Pascal, Oxford Reference Online, Oxford University Press. (Accessed March 27, 2012)
  4. 1658, Les Provinciales, or, The Mystery of Jesuitisme by Blaise Pascal, [Translated into English], Second Edition Corrected, Page 292, Letter 16: Postscript, [Letter addressed to Reverend Fathers from Blaise Pascal], Printed for Richard Royston, London. (Google Books full view) link
  5. 1676, The Art of Speaking, Written in French by Messieurs Du Port Royal: In Pursuance of a former Treatise, Intitled, The Art of Thinking, Rendred into English, Page 8, Printed by W. Godbid, London. (Google Books full view) link
  6. 1688, An Answer to a Discourse Concerning the Celibacy of the Clergy by George Tullie, Preface, [Page 2 of Preface; unnumbered], Oxford, Printed at the Theater for Richard Chiswell, London. (Google Books full view) link

What Lies Behind Us and What Lies Before Us are Tiny Matters Compared to What Lies Within Us

Albert Jay Nock? Ralph Waldo Emerson? Oliver Wendell Holmes? Henry David Thoreau? Henry Stanley Haskins? William Morrow? Expelled Wall Street Stock Trader?

graduate09Dear Quote Investigator: I attended a graduation ceremony last year and was genuinely impressed by a quotation used in the keynote address:

What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.

The speaker credited Ralph Waldo Emerson and that sounded plausible to me, but when I searched on the internet to find a specific reference I was surprised to discover substantial disagreement. Some websites do attribute the words to Emerson, but other websites favor Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and yet others credit Henry David Thoreau. Also, I found the wording varies somewhat. Not one of the attributions has a strong justification. Too many websites simply copy information from other repositories of unconfirmed data. Could you overcome this confusion?

Quote Investigator: This popular motivational saying has been ascribed to a diverse collection of individuals. Expert Ralph Keyes wrote in the Quote Verifier: 1

This quotation is especially beloved by coaches, valedictorians, eulogists, and Oprah Winfrey. It usually gets attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson. No evidence can be found that Emerson said or wrote these words.

The earliest appearance of this adage located by QI is in a book titled “Meditations in Wall Street” that was produced in 1940 by the publishing house William Morrow & Company with an introduction by economics writer Albert Jay Nock. The word “before” is used instead of “ahead” in this initial saying: 2

What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.

When the book was originally released the name of the author was kept a mystery although the wordsmith was described as a Wall Street financier. However, that did not prevent eager quotation propagators from fabricating attributions. The maxim has been assigned to the introduction writer, Nock, and it has even been credited to the head of the publishing house, William Morrow.

In 1947 the New York Times printed the author’s identity: Henry S. Haskins, a man with a colorful and controversial background as a securities trader. QI believes that Haskins originated this popular saying which has in modern times been reassigned to more famous individuals.

Here are selected citations in chronological order.
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  1. 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Quote Page 253-254, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1940, Meditations in Wall Street by Anonymous, With an Introduction by Albert Jay Nock, (“Anonymous” was Henry Stanley Haskins), Quote Page 131, William Morrow & Company, New York. (HathiTrust Full View)