February 18, 2018

“I know nothing!” – the memorable catchphrase of a forgotten political party


Many people associate the catchphrase “I know nothing!” with the television character Sergeant Schultz (actor John Banner).

It was one of his frequent lines in the 1960s comedy series Hogan’s Heroes, along with “I see nothing.”

However, more than a century before Hogan’s Heroes first aired in 1965, the phrase “I know nothing” was popularized by a now largely-forgotten political group that has clear similarities to some current ones.

It was typically called the “Know Nothing Party” and its members were dubbed “Know Nothings” for short.

The Know Nothings started out as an unofficial anti-immigrant movement.

Its followers were primarily white Protestants who thought of themselves as the real, true-blue “native Americans.”

They felt that the growing influx of immigrants from Europe and elsewhere undermined the American way of life, took away the jobs of “real Americans” and insidiously influenced local elections.

The Know Nothings especially hated German immigrants, Jews and Irish Catholics. But they generally feared and disliked almost every other ethnic and racial minority.

The “Know Nothing” name arose as a result of the standard answer members of the movement were told to give to any reporters (or other disreputable types) who asked about the group’s secretive meetings and activities.

They were instructed to respond by saying “I know nothing.” As a result, they came to be commonly referred to as the “Know Nothings.”

In 1843, leaders of the movement in New York formed an official political party. They named it the American Republican Party.

Within a few years, local chapters sprang up in other states. They eventually coalesced into a national group called The Native American Party.

In 1855, the group was renamed The American Party, though it was still often unofficially called The Know Nothing Party.

On February 18, 1856, the American Party held its first national convention to nominate a presidential candidate.

Former U.S. President Millard Fillmore was chosen as the party’s presidential nominee and Andrew Donelson of Tennessee was named his running mate.

Their campaign slogan, which reflected the party’s Know Nothing heritage, was: “I know nothing but my Country, my whole Country, and nothing but my Country.”

Unsurprisingly, the American Party’s political platform wasn’t geared toward creating a “big tent.”

Planks included requiring political office holders to be “native-born” Americans, limiting the annual number of new immigrants allowed to come to the United States (especially Catholics), requiring public school teachers to be Protestants, and requiring daily Bible readings in public schools.

The American Party also had a plank proposing restrictions on the sale of liquor. At the grassroots level, I suspect that one wasn’t particularly popular with most white males (who were the only legal voters at the time) regardless of how they felt about “foreigners.”

In the 1856 presidential election, Democrat James Buchanan won with 45% of the vote. Republican candidate John C. Fremont got 33%.

The Know Nothings' American Party candidate Millard Fillmore got about 22% of the vote nationally. At the state level, he lost in every state except Maryland.

Historically, 22% isn’t a bad percentage for a third party in the United States.

Nonetheless, Fillmore’s defeat took the wind out of the Know Nothing movement and the American Party quickly faded away.

They did, however, leave behind a memorable catchphrase that some observers see as a fitting description of the views of anti-immigrant movements, past and present.

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February 07, 2018

“Talk to the hand!”


If you’re not a fan of actress Fran Drescher or cutesy romantic comedies, you may have avoided seeing Drescher’s 1997 rom-com The Beautician and the Beast.

But it’s unlikely that you’ve avoided awareness of the movie’s catchphrase: “Talk to the hand!”

The line is repeated several times in the film, initially by Drescher, then by her co-star Timothy Dalton.

That use helped launch “talk to the hand” (and the upraised-hand gesture and head turn that go with it) into widespread use, as a way of telling someone “I don’t want to hear what you have to say.”

It’s also the most noted and notable thing about the movie, which was released in the U.S. on February 7, 1997.

The heavily-aired trailer for the movie helped promote the catchphrase. It was used twice in that, once by Drescher and once by Dalton.

Of course, the scriptwriter of Drescher’s movie (Todd Graff) didn’t actually coin “talk to the hand.”

As mentioned on many websites, it had previously been used by the African-American actor and comedian Martin Lawrence in his TV series Martin, which aired on the Fox network from 1992 to 1997.

Lawrence is often credited with coining the phrase. A few sources credit comedian Joan Rivers. My guess is that it was street slang before any celebrities used it.

“Talk to the hand” is the short version of several longer variations that were floating around in African-American circles in the early 1990s and possibly before that. Quips like:

      “Talk to the hand, ‘cause the face ain’t listening”

      “Talk to the hand, ‘cause the face don’t want to hear it”

      “Talk to the hand, ‘cause the face don’t understand.”

Like many idioms, “talk to the hand” soon migrated from black culture into the vernacular of both Hollywood celebrities and white teens.

By the time The Beautician and the Beast was released in 1997, a now-defunct teen clothing company called Stickworld was already selling T-shirts emblazoned with “Talk to the hand!” (and other current teen slang phrases) at Sears and JC Penney.

However, for better or worse, The Beautician and the Beast deserves a good share of the credit for making the phrase part of mainstream American culture.

Within weeks after the movie was released, most people — including otherwise unhip white moms and dads — knew the line and hand gesture, even if only from seeing the movie trailer or hearing or reading the line repeated by someone else who knew about the movie.

As often happens with some idioms, broad awareness led to overuse.

Eventually “talk to the hand” became passé, unhip and annoying.

It’s not heard much today.

The Beautician and the Beast is even less remembered — except to those who know it as the movie that had that earworm of a catchphrase: “Talk to the hand!”

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January 28, 2018

“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”


The quote “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” is often mistakenly attributed to the Irish lawyer and politician John Philpot Curran and frequently to Thomas Jefferson.

In fact, Curran’s line was somewhat different. What he actually said, in a speech in Dublin on July 10, 1790, was:

       “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance.”

And, according to Jefferson scholars there is “no evidence to confirm that Thomas Jefferson ever said or wrote, ‘Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty’ or any of its variants.”

Traditionally, the most famous use of “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” that’s included in books of quotations is from a speech made by the American Abolitionist and liberal activist Wendell Phillips on January 28, 1852.

Speaking to members of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society that day, Phillips said:

Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty; power is ever stealing from the many to the few. The manna of popular liberty must be gathered each day or it is rotten. The living sap of today outgrows the dead rind of yesterday. The hand entrusted with power becomes, either from human depravity or esprit de corps, the necessary enemy of the people. Only by continued oversight can the democrat in office be prevented from hardening into a despot; only by unintermitted agitation can a people be sufficiently awake to principle not to let liberty be smothered in material prosperity.”

However, Anna Berkes, a research librarian at the Jefferson Library, has discovered uses that predate Phillips’ speech.

In a post on the Jefferson Library blog, Berkes wrote:

“Not to be mean to Mr. Wendell Phillips, but he’s about to get slightly less famous. After two days of ridiculously feverish searching, I’ve traced the purported Phillips version of this quote all the way back to 1809.  (For the record, Mr. Phillips was -2 years old at that time.)”

Berkes noted that, in a biography of Major General James Jackson published in 1809, author Thomas Charlton used the same words, just in a different order. Charlton wrote that that one of the obligations of biographers of famous people is “fastening upon the minds of the American people the belief, that ‘the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.’

Berkes also found several news articles that include the more familiar version of the line as later used by Phillips.

For example, an article in the May 2, 1833 edition of The Virginia Free Press and Farmers' Repository says:

“Some one has justly remarked, that ‘eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.’ Let the sentinels on the watch-tower sleep not, and slumber not.”

One of the news articles she found, in the January 4, 1838 edition of the Pennsylvania Inquirer and Daily Courier, uses the same quote and attributes it to Thomas Jefferson — one of the earliest sources to do so.

Berkes reiterated that the consensus of Jefferson scholars is that he never spoke or wrote the words “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”

She also concluded that, although Wendell Phillips still gets credit for the most famous use of that phrase, it was already a well-known saying prior to his speech in 1852.

Many witty variations on this old saying have been created since then.

My personal favorite is by the novelist Aldous Huxley. In an  introduction to the 1965 radio version of his novel Brave New World, Huxley said: “Eternal vigilance is not only the price of liberty; eternal vigilance is the price of human decency.”

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January 07, 2018

“We don’t need no stinking badges!” – the misquote that became a famous quote


“We don’t need no stinking badges!” is one of the few famous lines that is both a famous quote and a misquote.

It’s also the source of many variations about stinkin’ things we don’t need.

The evolution of this line began in 1927 with the publication of the novel The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a tale of greed, betrayal and madness written by the mysterious author and leftist/anarchist B. Traven (c. 1890-1969). 

The main characters are three American prospectors searching for gold in Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains: Fred C. Dobbs, Bob Curtin and an old-timer named Howard.

In a scene later made famous by the movie version, the prospectors run into a group of shady-looking, heavily-armed Mexicans, who they suspect are bandits. 

Indeed, the Mexicans are bandits and the meeting ends up in a gunfight. But just before the shooting starts, the leader of the bandits tells the prospectors that they are federales — the local “mounted police.”

Dobbs says skeptically of that claim: “If you are the police, where are your badges?”

In Traven’s book, the bandit leader replies angrily (and colorfully):

“Badges, to god-damned hell with badges! We have no badges. In fact, we don’t need badges. I don’t have to show you any stinking badges, you god-damned cabron and ching’ tu madre!”

The answer given by the head bandido in the 1948 movie adaptation of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a bit different than that.

Most notably, it leaves out the English and Spanish profanities. (You can look up the meaning of cabron and ching’ tu madre on this web page.)

The famed film was released in the U.S. on January 7, 1948. Some sources say January 6th, but I believe that is either a local premiere date or simply wrong.

In the movie, Fred Dobbs is played by Humphrey Bogart and he asks the same question as in the book: “If you are the police, where are your badges?”

The bandit leader, called “Gold Hat” in the script and played by actor Alfonso Bedoya, responds sneeringly:

      “Badges? We ain’t got no badges! We don’t need no badges!
       I don’t have to show you any stinking badges!”

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre became one of the most highly-praised and popular movies ever made. So, it’s no surprise that Bedoya’s famous “no badges” lines spawned some humorous parodies.

What is unusual is that one of the parody versions became far better known than the lines in the original film.

In fact, many people mistakenly think it comes from the 1948 movie.

That renowned version is, of course:

       “Badges? We don't need no stinking badges!”

If you’re a Mel Brooks fan, you know those lines are in his hilarious movie, Blazing Saddles, which was released on February 7, 1974.

What you may not know is that the same lines were first spoken by Micky Dolenz in 1967, in the TV comedy show The Monkees.

Mickey says it in the episode titled “It’s A Nice Place To Visit” (the first episode of Season 2), which originally aired on September 11, 1967.

In that episode, Mickey and two of his Monkees bandmates, Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith, dress up as Mexican bandits to rescue their singer Davy Jones from a “real” Mexican bandit who has taken him prisoner.

Before they leave to save Davy, Nesmith says: “Wait a minute, don’t you think maybe we oughtta take something out with us, like a club card or some badges?”

Dolenz replies with a heavy Mexican accent (about 9 minutes in): “Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges!”

I don’t know if Mel Brooks was a Monkees fan, but seven years later he made those words immortal by putting them in the script for Blazing Saddles.

In a now famous scene in that movie, the corrupt State Attorney General Hedley Lamarr, played by Harvey Korman, has a sheriff’s badge given to one of his Mexican bandit henchmen, played by Rick Garcia

Korman says to Garcia: “Be ready to attack Rock Ridge at noon tomorrow. Here’s your badge.”

Garcia contemptuously throws the badge on the ground and replies with a thick Spanish accent: “Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges!”

Few people know those same words had been previously used in a Monkees episode.

But because of the huge popularity of Blazing Saddles, they became a famous movie quotation and sparked countless satirical variations based on the linguistic formula “We don’t need no stinking [fill in the blank].”

I’ve posted some of my favorite variations in a post on my Quote/Counterquote blog.

You can also click this link to see some recent examples from news stories and blogs — unless, of course, you don’t need no stinking examples.

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December 29, 2017

“Bury my heart at Wounded Knee.”


On December 29, 1890, U.S. Seventh Cavalry troopers gunned down more than 200 Lakota Indians — including men, women and children — at Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

The Army initially called it “The Battle of Wounded Knee.”

In truth, it wasn’t a battle.

Today, it’s generally called what it really was — the Wounded Knee Massacre.

The famous quote that’s now associated with this tragic event is “Bury my heart at Wounded Knee.”

But those words were not originally written with the infamous massacre in mind.

They come from the poem “American Names,” written by American poet Stephen Vincent Benét and first published in the October 1927 issue of the Yale Review.

Benét’s poem is a patriotic ode expressing his love for American place names.

As he explained in the first verse:

        “I have fallen in love with American names,
       The sharp names that never get fat,
       The snakeskin-titles of mining-claims,
       The plumed war-bonnet of Medicine Hat,
       Tucson and Deadwood and Lost Mule Flat.”

Books of quotations often include this first verse from “American Names” and the final verse, which contains the famous line about Wounded Knee.

They usually omit the fourth verse, which blithely drops the N-word:

       “I will fall in love with a Salem tree
       And a rawhide quirt from Santa Cruz,
       I will get me a bottle of Boston sea
       And a blue-gum nigger to sing me blues.
       I am tired of loving a foreign muse.”

Benét’s seemingly nostalgic use of the old racial slur “blue-gum nigger” and other lines in the poem indicate that he was enamored with the romantic sound of many American place names and was oblivious to (or didn't care about) any potential negative connotations they might have.

The poem’s mention of Wounded Knee is simply as one of those good old American place names, which Benét deems superior to “foreign” names.

In the last verse he suggests that the spirits of American soldiers killed in Europe during the First World War could not find peace in their burial grounds over there.

Speaking in the voice of a dead American soldier, Benét ended the poem with these lines:

        “I shall not rest quiet in Montparnasse.
       I shall not lie easy at Winchelsea.
       You may bury my body in Sussex grass,
       You may bury my tongue at Champmedy.
       I shall not be there. I shall rise and pass.
       Bury my heart at Wounded Knee.”

It was long after the publication of “American Names” that its final line became associated with the Wounded Knee massacre.

That literary connection was made in 1970, when American historian and novelist Dee Brown used Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee as the title of a groundbreaking book that tells the history of the American West from the Indians’ perspective.

Buffy Sainte-Marie singingAfter the publication of Brown’s book, the phrase “Bury my heart at Wounded Knee” became forever linked to the massacre that took place at Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890.

It has also been used to poetically encapsulate a broader sense of loss, sadness and outrage over the historic mistreatment Indians in North America.

Perhaps the most poignant use was by the great Canadian Cree singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie.

In 1990, she wrote a song titled “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” which comments on the continuing abuse of Indians and Indian rights by governments and big corporations.

The chorus goes:

      “Bury my heart at Wounded Knee
       Deep in the earth
       Cover me with pretty lies
       Bury my heart at Wounded Knee.”

You can read the full lyrics of Buffy’s deeply emotional song here and see a video of her performing it live by clicking this link or the photo of her at right.

“Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” was originally on her album Coincidence and Likely Stories (1992) and is also included on her compilation album Up Where We Belong (1996).

I think it’s one of the greatest protest songs ever written, by one of the greatest of the many great singer/songwriters who started out in the 1960s folk music scene.

I understand that Stephen Vincent Benét is considered to be a great poet and that many people like his poem “American Names.”

Personally, I am moved far more by Buffy Sainte-Marie’s song “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” and by Dee Brown’s book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.

If you listen to that song and read that book, or watch the HBO adaptation of the book, you will have a better understanding why some people view Benét’s gushingly patriotic poem as “pretty lies.”

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