March 20, 2018

“Because it’s there.”

In March of 1923, British mountain climber George Leigh Mallory was touring the United States to raise money for an expedition to Mount Everest planned for the following year.

At that time no one had ever made it to the top of Everest — the highest mountain on the planet.

In 1921 and 1922, Mallory was a member of the first two expeditions that tried to reach the summit of the mountain. Both had failed.

During his 1923 fundraising tour, Mallory was often asked why he wanted to climb Everest.

The question seemed somewhat odd to an adventurer like Mallory, but he came up with a standard answer to use: “Because it’s there.” 

That reply became famous when it was quoted in a story in the March 18, 1923 issue of the New York Times.

The headline of the story was “CLIMBING MOUNT EVEREST IS WORK FOR SUPERMEN.”

Mallory’s standard response was included in the opening paragraph:

“Why did you want to climb Mount Everest?” This question was asked of George Leigh Mallory, who was with both expeditions toward the summit of the world’s highest mountain, in 1921 and 1922, and who is now in New York. He plans to go again in 1924, and he gave as the reason for persisting in these repeated attempts to reach the top, “Because it’s there.”

Mallory wasn’t being entirely flippant when he said, “Because it’s there.”

He went on to explain: “Everest is the highest mountain in the world, and no man has reached its summit. Its existence is a challenge. The answer is instinctive, a part, I suppose, of man’s desire to conquer the universe.”

During Mallory’s 1922 expedition, this desire to “conquer” Everest cost the lives of seven Tibetan Sherpa porters, who were killed in an avalanche.

Two years later, it cost Mallory his own life.

On June 8th, 1924, Mallory and his climbing partner, Andrew Irvine made a final push to reach the top of Everest.

Observers below saw them reach a height within a thousand feet of the summit. Then they disappeared from sight — and did not return.

In 1953, the dream of conquering Everest was finally achieved by New Zealand mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa companion Tenzing Norgay.

Forty-six years later, in 1999, an expedition funded by the TV show Nova and the BBC discovered the frozen body of George Mallory about 2,000 feet below the summit, where he appeared to have died after a fall.

Andrew Irvine’s body has yet to be found.

Over the years, some people have speculated that Mallory and Irvine may have reached the top of Everest before dying and thus may deserve credit for being the first climbers to achieve that goal, rather than Hillary and Norgay.

When asked about this in an interview in the mid-1980s, Sir Edmund Hillary responded dryly:

“If you climb a mountain for the first time and die on the descent, is it really a complete first ascent of the mountain? I’m rather inclined to think, personally, that maybe it’s quite important, the getting down. And the complete climb of a mountain is reaching the summit and getting safely to the bottom again.”

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March 04, 2018

March 4th: a good day for famous presidential quotes – until 1933…

The date for the United States presidential inauguration was not specified in the original U.S. Constitution.

In 1788, the Continental Congress set Inauguration Day as March 4. Then, in 1933, the Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution changed it to January 20, reducing the outdated four-month lag between the time a president was elected and took office.

That’s why famous quotes from inaugural addresses of presidents elected before 1933 are on a March 4th date and those of presidents elected after 1933 are on a January 20th.

The Inauguration Day speeches of all of the presidents (online here) are historically interesting and many include memorable lines. But only a handful of those lines have become famous quotes.

The earliest comes from the first inaugural address of Thomas Jefferson, which took place on March 4, 1801.

That speech includes Jefferson’s oft-cited warning against “entangling alliances.”

It’s part of a longer sentence that Jefferson said embodied his view on “the essential principles of our Government”:

“Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.”

You have to flash forward 60 years to find another truly famous quote from a president’s inaugural address.

In Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address on March 4, 1861, he coined the well-known, almost poetic phrase “the mystic chords of memory.”

It came near the end of his speech, in what was a clear plea to citizens in Southern states.

At that point, some states had already seceded from the Union, but no blatant act of war between the North and South had occurred.

Lincoln said:

     “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war...We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Six weeks later, Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. The Civil War had begun.

Four years later, when Lincoln gave his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865, the end of that bloody war was in sight.

Knowing this, Lincoln expressed his hope for reconciliation in a speech that included his famous quote about “malice towards none” and “charity for all.”

Here’s the sentence in his address those words come from:

“With malice towards none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and for his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Four weeks later, on April 9, 1865 , Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia. The Civil War was over.

Four years after that, when Grant himself became president, Northern and Southern states were fighting in the legal arena over various federal laws, such as those related to the rights of the freed African-American slaves.

In Grant’s first inaugural address on March 4, 1869, he said he would not hesitate to use his power as President to veto laws that he opposed.

But he noted that he would faithfully execute all laws “whether they meet my approval or not.”

To those comments, Grant added one of the most slyly witty quotes ever uttered by a U.S. president:

“I know of no method to secure the repeal of bad or obnoxious laws so effective as their stringent execution.”

The next famous presidential quotations from a March 4th inauguration speech came half a century later, in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural address on March 4, 1933.

One line in that speech helped popularize the term “good neighbor policy.” Speaking about his views on foreign affairs, Roosevelt said:

“In the field of world policy I would dedicate this Nation to the policy of the good neighbor — the neighbor who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so, respects the rights of others — the neighbor who respects his obligations and respects the sanctity of his agreements in and with a world of neighbors.”

But the most famous line from Roosevelt’s first inaugural address was related to domestic policy.

In 1933, America was in the midst of the Great Depression. Roosevelt wanted to generate a renewed sense of hope in the American people and inspire support for his plans to restore the economy with ambitious new government programs. But he knew that many people were afraid for their future and some were afraid that a more activist federal government would just make things worse.

So, in the first paragraph of Roosevelt’s speech, he famously addressed those fears:

“This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.”
Of course, Roosevelt did gain the support of the majority of Americans and was reelected to two more terms.

But his first inaugural address was the last presidential speech that included famous quotes spoken on the date March 4th.

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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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