Nothing Is Certain, Except Death and Taxes

Benjamin Franklin? Mark Twain? Christopher Bullock? Edward Ward? Daniel Defoe? Joseph Reed? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The due date of U.S. income taxes has been moved from April 2020 to July 2020 because of the pandemic. Thus, the payment of taxes has been delayed, but payment remains inevitable. Here are four versions of a pertinent saying:

  • Nothing is certain except for death and taxes.
  • Nothing stands fixed, but death and taxes.
  • Nothing can be depended on but taxes and death.
  • It’s impossible to be sure of anything but death and taxes.

The U.S. statesman Benjamin Franklin and the humorist Mark Twain have received credit for this remark. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Benjamin Franklin did employ this saying within a letter dated November 13, 1789 which he wrote to the French physicist Jean Baptiste Le Roy. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.

Many years before Franklin’s usage, the expression appeared in a 1716 farce called “The Cobler of Preston” by Christopher Bullock. The word “cobbler” was spelled “cobler”, and the word “lie” was spelled “lye” within the play. The quip was spoken by a character named Toby Guzzle who was described as “a drunken Cobler”. Here is an excerpt from the fourth edition of the play published in 1723: 2

You lye, you are not sure; for I say, Woman, ’tis impossible to be sure of any thing but Death and Taxes—therefore hold your Tongue, or you shall both be soundly whipt . . .

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Nothing Is Certain, Except Death and Taxes

Notes:

  1. 1817, The Private Correspondence of Benjamin Franklin, Published from the Originals by His Grandson William Temple Franklin, Second Edition, Volume 1 of 2, Letter Title: On the Affairs of France, Letter Date: November 13, 1789, Letter From: Benjamin Franklin, Letter To: Jean Baptiste Le Roy, Start Page 265, Quote Page 266, Printed for Henry Colburn, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  2. 1723, The Cobler of Preston and the Adventures of Half an Hour, As it is acted at the Theatre-Royal in Lincoln’s-Inn-Fields, Written by Mr. Christopher Bullock, The Fourth Edition, Character Speaking: Toby Guzzle (a drunken Cobler), Quote Page 13, Printed for T. Corbett, and Sold by Mr. Graves, London. (A facsimile published in 1969 by Cornmarket Press from the copy in the Birmingham Shakespeare Library, London) (Verified with scans)