November 13, 2010

“Nothing is certain except death and taxes.”


One of the most famous quotations by Benjamin Franklin is: “Nothing is certain except death and taxes.” (Commonly heard as “Nothing is certain but death and taxes.”)

The source of this oft-cited quip is a letter Franklin wrote to French scientist Jean-Baptiste Leroy on November 13, 1789.

But there are some interesting things about the quote that are less well known.

One is that Franklin wrote the letter in French, which he spoke, read and wrote fluently.

Another is that Franklin’s famous maxim was used in reference to the Constitution of the United States of America, which had been adopted by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia two years earlier on September 17, 1787.

Two decades before the Constitution was adopted, during the height of the American Revolution, Franklin had served as the U.S. Ambassador to France. There, he played a vital role in gaining French support for the American cause, including desperately needed loans that helped fund the Continental Army.

Franklin became a huge celebrity in France during his term as Ambassador from 1776 to 1785.

But long before that he was already well known to French scientists. His groundbreaking experiments with electricity and his theories on its mysterious properties had been studied and debated in France and other European countries since the mid-1750s.

One French scientist who was an early admirer and later a friend of Franklin was Jean-Baptiste Leroy. Leroy was a physicist and member of the Academe des Sciences in Paris. Like Franklin, he was also a pioneer in the study of electricity.

Leroy and Franklin began corresponding before Franklin became the U.S. Ambassador to France. They became friends during Franklin’s tenure in Paris and kept in touch by mail after Franklin returned to the United States in 1785.

When Franklin wrote his letter to Leroy on November 13, 1789, the French Revolution had been underway in earnest for several months. Franklin had not heard from Leroy for more than a year and was concerned that he may have been killed or executed.

Franklin wrote (as translated to English):

“Are you still living? Or has the mob of Paris mistaken the head of a monopolizer of knowledge, for a monopolizer of corn, and paraded it about the streets upon a pole. Great part of the news we have had from Paris, for near a year past, has been very afflicting. I sincerely wish and pray it may all end well and happy, both for the King and the nation. The voice of Philosophy I apprehend can hardly be heard among those tumults. If any thing material in that way had occurred, I am persuaded you would have acquainted me with it. However, pray let me hear from you...a year’s silence between friends must needs give uneasiness.”

The next sentence, which mentions the relatively new U.S. Constitution, contains Franklin’s famous “death and taxes” quote. He tells Leroy:

“Our new Constitution is now established, everything seems to promise it will be durable; but, in this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.”
 
(In the original French, what Franklin wrote was: “Notre constitution nouvelle est actuellement établie, tout paraît nous promettre qu’elle sera durable; mais, dans ce monde, il n’y a rien d’assure que la mort et les impôts.” The English translations vary.)

Jean-Baptiste Leroy did indeed survive the French Revolution. He died in 1800 at the age of 80.

Quotation mavens like Barry Popik have noted that Franklin wasn’t the first person to write something about the inevitability of death and taxes. For example, in 1726, Daniel Defoe wrote in his book The Political History of the Devil: “Things as certain as death and taxes can be more firmly believed.”

However, Franklin’s formulation is clearly the best known.

In 1789, when he wrote his “death and taxes” letter to Leroy, Franklin was 83 years old and sensed that his own end was near.

In the next to last paragraph of the letter, he noted:

“My health continues much as it has been for some time, except that I grow thinner and weaker, so that I cannot expect to hold out much longer.”

Five months later, on April 17, 1790, Benjamin Franklin died. On April 21st, with an estimated 20,000 mourners looking on, he was buried in Philadelphia.

Although there continues to be heated debates about the meaning of key provisions of the U.S. Constitution, it has — as Franklin hoped – proven to be quite durable.

Further reading:

• The full (translated) text of Franklin’s letter to Jean-Baptiste Le Roy, November 13, 1789

• More about Franklin’s electricity experiments

• Bio of Jean-Baptiste Leroy

• The David Dodge Companion site (in case you’re a fan of vintage pulp fiction)

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Comments? Corrections? Post them on the Famous Quotations Facebook group.

October 16, 2010

“History will absolve me.” (“La historia me absolver.”)


Recently, Fidel Castro generated worldwide news when he told a journalist for The Atlantic magazine that the Communist model he had imposed on Cuba “doesn't even work for us anymore.”

It was a sadly ironic comment given the tens of thousands of deaths and other human suffering caused by Castro’s efforts to create and maintain his Communist regime.

Yet, somehow I suspect “El Jefe” would still stand behind the famous quote he uttered 57 years ago on this date:

       “History will absolve me.” (“La historia me absolver.”)

Castro made this claim on October 16, 1953. They were the final words of a long speech he gave at the end of his trial for leading the attack on the Moncada barracks on July 26th of that year.

The Moncada attack was an attempt to start a revolution against Fulgencio Batista, the longtime Cuban dictator who had run Cuba largely to benefit himself, the Cuban elite, big international corporations and the American mobsters who controlled most of the island’s popular hotels, nightclubs and casinos.

The attempted coup failed. Seventy of the rebels involved were killed during the attack, or later. Others, including Castro, were captured by Batista’s soldiers.

Fidel and his surviving co-conspirators (which included his brother Raul) were put on trial in September. At first, the proceedings were open to the press and public. But the publicity generated more sympathy and support for Castro and his fellow rebels than for Batista. As a result, Batista ordered the final stages of the trial to be held in secret.

In his last statement to the court on October 16th, Castro delivered an amazing four-hour speech. He reviewed details of the Moncada attack, the political crimes and failures of Batista’s regime, the dismal conditions in which most Cubans lived and the legal and historical justification for rebellion against tyrants. He also outlined his vision for a future “revolutionary government” that would provide jobs, decent housing, health care and education to all Cubans.

He ended the speech, by saying:

“I do not fear the fury of the miserable tyrant who took the lives of 70 of my comrades. Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me.”

There was no record of this speech at the time, since the press and public were excluded. And, as Castro expected, his words had no real effect on the decision of the judges. They found him guilty.

But the publicity the trial had generated made Batista fearful of having Castro executed. So, instead, the court sentenced him to 15 years in prison.

For Batista — and, depending on your viewpoint, for many other people — this turned out to be a huge mistake.

In 1955, faced with international pressure, Batista freed Fidel and exiled him from Cuba.

Fidel and brother Raul went to Mexico. There, with Ernesto “Che” Guevara and other followers, they planned the Cuban Revolution.

They called it the 26th of July Movement, in honor of the attack on the Moncada barracks.

To guide the movement, Castro reconstructed the speech he made at the end of his trial in 1953. It became the manifesto of the Cuban Revolution and well known to Communists elsewhere during the Cold War era as “the ‘History Will Absolve Me’ speech.

In November of 1956, the Castro brothers and Che returned to Cuba. Their fast-growing 26th of July Movement mounted a guerilla war against the Batista government. By the beginning of 1959, Batista fled the country and Fidel Castro began what would become his own long dictatorship.

Whether historians of the future will, in fact, absolve Fidel for the results of the Cuban Revolution remains to be seen.

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Comments? Corrections? Post them on my quotations Facebook group.

Further reading…

September 18, 2010

The first Letterman “Top Ten” list debuted 25 years ago today…


If you were watching David Letterman’s show on September 18, 1985, back when it was still on NBC and called Late Night with David Letterman, you saw a bit of TV history being made.

On that night, Letterman introduced his first “Top Ten” list.

Early in the show, he commented on that fact that “top ten” lists seemed to be popping up everywhere in the media.

He showed an example in the latest issue of Good Housekeeping magazine, then said, in his trademark deadpan style:

“Because these things are so popular and such solid network television programming material, we’ve decided tonight...we’re gonna start our own top ten list. And, tonight, I think we got a pretty good one. Tonight, will be Late Night’s ‘Top Ten Words That Almost Rhyme with ‘Peas.’”

After that, Letterman’s “Top Ten” segment became a regular and hugely popular feature of the show.

He took it with him when he moved from NBC to CBS in 1993, where it’s officially called the “Late Show Top Ten List.”

And, although Letterman’s first Top Ten list did not create a specific quote or catchphrase, it did create a famous, familiar and oft-copied format.

Letterman introduces the list with some funny comments. He reads the title of the list. Then he reads the list backwards starting with ten and counting down to number one, frequently with the help of a guest who is on the show or who pops in just to read the list. (Some of my favorites were Homer Simpson, Bruno and Britney Spears.)

Of course, it’s usually a lot funnier to watch the Top Ten segment than to read it. You never know what quips Letterman or bandleader Paul Shaffer will throw in or what celebrity might show up to read the list. 

And, it all started exactly 25 years ago today, with the very first Letterman Top Ten List, the “Top Ten Things That Almost Rhyme With Peas.”

Here they are, in descending order:

10. Heats
9. Rice
8. Moss
7. Ties
6. Needs
5. Lens
4. Ice
3. Nurse
2. Leaks

And, the number one word that almost rhymes with peas is (drumroll):

1) Meats!

 

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Comments? Corrections? Post them on my quotations Facebook group.

Further reading…

September 01, 2010

“We must love one another or die.”


September 1, 1939 is now called the day when World War II started.

It was the day when German Fuhrer Adolf Hitler ordered his Nazi troops to invade neighboring Poland. He claimed it was an act of self defense, necessary to protect German citizens and the territorial rights of Germany.

“Germans in Poland are persecuted with a bloody terror and are driven from their homes,” Hitler said, in a proclamation he issued that day. “The series of border violations, which are unbearable to a great power, prove that the Poles no longer are willing to respect the German frontier. In order to put an end to this frantic activity no other means is left to me now than to meet force with force.”

Nobody could know at the time that this was the beginning of what would be a horrific worldwide conflict in which 60 million people would die.

But many people who heard the ominous news recognized it as the start of something bad.

British author and poet W.H. Auden (1907-1973) was in New York when he heard about it. It led him to write a famous poem about his thoughts that day.

The poem was initially titled “September: 1939,” but changed to “September 1, 1939” when it was first published in New Republic magazine on October 18, 1939.

One line in this poem became a familiar and oft-used quotation: “We must love one another or die.”

It comes at the end of the next to last verse:

       “All I have is a voice
        To undo the folded lie,
        The romantic lie in the brain
        Of the sensual man-in-the-street
        And the lie of Authority
        Whose buildings grope the sky:
        There is no such thing as the State
        And no one exists alone;
        Hunger allows no choice
        To the citizen or the police;
        We must love one another or die.”

“September 1, 1939” is an eloquent condemnation of totalitarian governments and war; a plea for human empathy and peace.

Soon after being published, it became famous. But Auden himself soon decided it was sappy and self-indulgent, calling it “the most dishonest poem I have ever written.”

By the 1950s, he began refusing to allow it to be reprinted in poetry anthologies.

The poem — especially the line “We must love one another or die” — remain famous nonetheless.

NOTE: A version of Auden’s famed line was infamously used in Lyndon Johnson’s “Daisy” ad.

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Comments? Corrections? Post them on my quotations Facebook group.

August 09, 2010

“Our long national nightmare is over.”


In August of 1974, faced with Congressional hearings, a mountain of bad press and the looming threat of impeachment over the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon became the first president in U.S. history to resign.

His official letter of resignation was delivered at 11:35 a.m. Eastern Time on August 9, 1974.

A half-hour later, Nixon’s Vice President Gerald Ford took the Presidential Oath and was sworn in as the 38th president of the United States.

After the swearing-in ceremony, Ford gave a brief acceptance speech that was broadcast live on radio and television.

He acknowledged that he was taking office “under extraordinary circumstances” and urged Americans to “go forward now together.”

He then made a remark that became — and remains — a famous political quotation:       

       “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.”

Following that, Ford alluded to another famous political quote.

“Our Constitution works.” he said. “Our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule.”

The phrase “a government of laws, and not of men” reflects a political idea that dates back as far as the ancient Greeks.

But it was enshrined in quotation history by John Adams in one of his Novanglus letters, published in the Boston Gazette in 1774.

Written anonymously under the pen name “Novanglus,” these letters argued that Great Britain’s treatment of American colonists violated their rights under British law.

In the seventh Novanglus letter, Adams wrote that “the British constitution is much more like a republic than an empire...a government of laws, and not of men.”

By the 20th Century, British monarchs had virtually no real power.

In contrast, American presidents have many significant powers under the law. One of them is the power to pardon criminals, both after and apparently before they are convicted.

On September 8, 1974, President Ford announced that he had granted Richard Nixon a “full, free, and absolute” pardon for any crimes he “has committed or may have committed” while president.

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Related reading…

August 07, 2010

August 7, 1988 – Nike’s “Just do it” takes on “Reeboks let U.B.U.”


During the summer of 1988, Reebok and Nike both unveiled new ad slogans to promote their athletic shoes.

The Reebok slogan was “Reeboks let U.B.U.”

It’s still being used by Reebok today.

However, it isn’t quite as well known as the Nike ad slogan that was also launched in the summer of ‘88.

Nike’s became one of the most famous slogans in advertising history.

It was a memorable phrase created by the Wieden & Kennedy ad agency of Portland, Oregon:

       “Just do it.” 

Nike first began using this slogan in an ad campaign launched nationwide on August 7, 1988.

It was initially used in a series of Nike TV commercials that featured sports celebrities like Bo Jackson, Charles Barkley, Andre Agassi and New York marathon winner Priscilla Welch.

Several of the ads were directed by high profile directors, including Spike Lee, Barry Sonnenfeld and Joe Pytka.

Of course, with great fame comes great spoofability.

Over the years, “Just do it!” has been snarkily parodied in countless ways.

For example, you’ve probably seen the black-and-white TV ad in which Tiger Woods, one of more recent Nike sports celebrities, stares dolefully at the camera while we hear a thoughtful voiceover by Tiger’s father.

This ad was apparently designed to show that Tiger is contrite about the sex scandal he was involved in, which blew up his marriage and almost blew up his career.

In the real version of that commercial, Tiger’s father ends it by saying: “Did you learn anything?”

In a parody version posted on YouTube, Tiger’s (fake) dad says: “Clean up your act, stop being a jackass, get out there and just do it — not her!”

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Comments? Questions? Corrections?
Post them on my quotations Facebook group.

(To see some other funny take-offs on “Just do it,” check out this post on my QuoteCounterquote.com site.)

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