Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.? John B. Finch? John Stuart Mill? Abraham Lincoln? Zechariah Chafee, Jr.?
The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.
The right to swing my arms in any direction ends where your nose begins.
My right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins.
Strangely, these three similar statements were credited to three very different people. The first quote was attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. The second saying was credited to John Stuart Mill, and the third was ascribed to Abraham Lincoln. But I do not trust any of these attributions because no citations were provided. Could you investigate this adage and determine its origin?
Quote Investigator: The seminal reference work “The Yale Book of Quotations” presents an important citation for this saying that shows when the phrase entered the realm of scholarly legal discourse. The saying was not credited to any one of the three luminaries mentioned in the query. In June 1919 the Harvard Law Review published an article by legal philosopher Zechariah Chafee, Jr. titled “Freedom of Speech in War Time” and it contained a version of the expression spoken by an anonymous judge [ZCYQ] [ZCHL]:
Each side takes the position of the man who was arrested for swinging his arms and hitting another in the nose, and asked the judge if he did not have a right to swing his arms in a free country. “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins.”
Interestingly, the genesis of this adage can be traced back more than thirty-five additional years. Several variants of the expression were employed by a set of lecturers who were aligned with the temperance movement which favored restrictions on the sale and consumption of alcohol in the United States. The earliest instance located by QI appeared in a collection of speeches that were delivered by John B. Finch who was the Chairman of the Prohibition National Committee for several years in the 1880s and died in 1887.
The saying Finch used was somewhat longer and clumsier than later versions of the aphorism. But the central idea was the same, and Finch received credit from some of his colleagues. It is common for expressions to be shortened and polished as they pass from one speaker to another over a period of years. Here is the relevant excerpt from an oration Finch gave in Iowa City in 1882 [PVJF]:
This arm is my arm (and my wife’s), it is not yours. Up here I have a right to strike out with it as I please. I go over there with these gentlemen and swing my arm and exercise the natural right which you have granted; I hit one man on the nose, another under the ear, and as I go down the stairs on my head, I cry out:
“Is not this a free country?”
“Have not I a right to swing my arm?”
“Yes, but your right to swing your arm leaves off where my right not to have my nose struck begins.”
Here civil government comes in to prevent bloodshed, adjust rights, and settle disputes.
For decades the saying was used at pro-Prohibition rallies and meetings. Also, at the turn of the century the saying was adopted by some educators who presented it as a moral rule that children should learn about. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.