Henry David Thoreau? George S. Boutwell? Taylor Caldwell? Apocryphal?
Dear 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.
- 1968, Testimony of Two Men by Taylor Caldwell, Quote Page 452, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩