Samuel Foote? 4th Earl of Sandwich? James Quin? John Wilkes? William Gladstone? Benjamin Disraeli?
Dear Quote Investigator: The sharpest and funniest retort I know of was said in response to a harsh insult:
You, sir, will certainly either die upon the gallows or of a social disease.
That depends, sir, upon whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.
Can you tell me who spoke these lines?
Quote Investigator: Many versions of this dialog have been presented in books and periodicals over a span of more than two hundred years. In addition, the participants in this verbal thrust and parry have varied in different renditions. Here are five pairs of antagonists that have been proposed:
(1) 4th Earl of Sandwich and Samuel Foote.
(2) A Nobleman and James Quin.
(3) 4th Earl of Sandwich and John Wilkes.
(4) William Ewart Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli.
(5) 4th Earl of Sandwich and Charles James Fox.
The earliest evidence located by QI was published in a London periodical called “The European Magazine” in 1784. A bracing encounter between Lord Sandwich and Samuel Foote was described. Boldface has been added to excerpts below: 1
Bon Mot of the late Sam. Foote—Sam. was invited to a convivial meeting at the house of the late Sir Francis Blake Delaval. Lord Sandwich was one of the guests upon the same occasion. When the Comedian entered, the Peer exclaimed, “what are you alive still?” “Yes, my Lord,” replied Foote. “Pray Sam,” retorted his Lordship, “which do you think will happen to you first, the experience of a certain disease, or an intimate acquaintance with the gallows?” “Why,” rejoined the Comedian, “that depends upon circumstances, and they are these, whether I prefer embracing your Lordship’s mistress, or, your principles.”
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.