Mark Twain? Steven Wright? Senator Sorghum? Philander Chase Johnson? Neal O’Hara? Felix Nieto del Rio? Anonymous?
Question for Quote Investigator: A morally upright individual strives to maintain a clear conscience. Yet, satisfying this goal is not always praiseworthy:
Often a person with a clear conscience merely has a poor memory.
This quip has been credited to famous humorist Mark Twain and popular comedian Steven Wright. I am skeptical of these attributions because I have not seen convincing citations. Would you please help?
Reply from Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match for this joke located by QI appeared in 1902 within “The Evening Star” newspaper of Washington, D.C. The punchline was spoken by the fictitious Senator Sorghum. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1902 July 21, The Evening Star, Shooting Stars: A Delicate Distinction, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Washington, D.C. (Chronicling America)
A Delicate Distinction.
“That friend of yours seems to have a clear conscience.”
“No,” answered Senator Sorghum, “not a clear conscience; merely a bad memory—which with some people answers the purpose much better.”
QI hypothesizes that U.S. journalist and humorist Philander Chase Johnson crafted the above instance of the joke. He worked at the “The Evening Star”, and he created the character Senator Sorghum. Also, in 1906 he published a collection of barbs and quips under the title “Senator Sorghum’s Primer of Politics”.1906, Senator Sorghum’s Primer of Politics: Or, Helpful Hints on the Science of Not Getting the Worst of it by Philander Chase Johnson, (The phrase “clear conscience” is not present in … Continue reading However, Johnson did not place this particular remark into his book.
This jest is difficult to trace because it can be expressed in many ways. Here is an overview listing the key vocabulary employed in different versions over time:
1902 Jul: bad memory
1911 Oct: poor memory
1915 Dec: convenient memory
1917 Apr: short memory
1923 Jan: forgetful
1933 May: dumb
Mark Twain implausibly received credit by 2008. Steven Wright received credit by 1998 several decades after the joke entered circulation.
Additional details and two precursors are available in the article on the Medium platform which is located here.
Image Notes: An illustration of a brain with colorful splotches from ElisaRiva at Pixabay. The image has been resized.
Acknowledgements: Great thanks to William Ahern and Sara Cadman whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Ahern pointed to the 1911 citation together with the 1939 and 1947 citations in “The Reader’s Digest”. Cadman mentioned the modern attribution to Steven Wright. Also, thanks to Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro who conducted research for “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” and located citations beginning in 1949. Additional thanks to researcher Barry Popik who focused on the attribution to Steven Wright and found citations beginning in 1998.
|↑1||1902 July 21, The Evening Star, Shooting Stars: A Delicate Distinction, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Washington, D.C. (Chronicling America)|
|↑2||1906, Senator Sorghum’s Primer of Politics: Or, Helpful Hints on the Science of Not Getting the Worst of it by Philander Chase Johnson, (The phrase “clear conscience” is not present in this book), Henry Altemus Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link|