March 23, 2014

“Give me liberty or give me death!” – famous words Patrick Henry probably didn’t say...

In late March of 1775, the American Revolution had not yet started. The “shot heard ‘round the world” was still a few weeks away.

But, to a growing number of Americans, a fight seemed inevitable if Great Britain continued to try to enforce its oppressive “Intolerable Acts” and taxes.

Thus, the more militant American “Founding Fathers” — such as Patrick Henry — had begun urging local colonial governments to create militias that could be mustered to defend against or attack British troops.

Henry was a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses at the time. And, at a meeting of that legislative body in Richmond on March 23, 1775, he gave an impassioned speech in favor of mobilization.

According to legend, Henry ended his speech with these famous words:

“Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!

Henry’s rousing address played a role in the House of Burgesses’ decision in favor of creating a Virginia militia. Henry himself was appointed a Colonel of the First Virginia Regiment.

However, no one knows exactly what he said in his speech on March 23, 1775.

Henry didn’t write down the speech or any notes about it at the time — or in the years before his death in 1799. Nor was any other written record made of the speech when he gave it — or during his lifetime.

So, why is the famous quote that ends with “give me liberty or give me death” attributed to Patrick Henry? And, why do many books and websites reprint what they cite as the “full text” of Henry’s “Liberty or Death” speech?

The answer is: because another Virginia politician named William Wirt created his own reconstructed version of the speech in a biography he wrote about Henry and Wirt’s version became famous. 

Wirt decided to write the biography about five years after Henry died. Over the next ten years, he corresponded and talked with people who knew Henry, including some who were present when he made his moving speech.

One of them was Thomas Jefferson. Another was a judge named St. George Tucker, who gave Wirt extensive notes on what he remembered of the speech.

In 1817, Wirt’s book was published. He titled it Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry.

The version of Henry’s March 23, 1775 speech in that book was based heavily on Judge Tucker’s recollection. 

Obviously, of course, it would be impossible for anyone to recreate, word-for-word, any speech given 42 years earlier, based purely on other people’s memories.

Yet, what seemed to annoy a number of people who knew Henry much more than Wirt’s poetic license in recreating Henry’s speech was his overly idealized portrayal of the man.

Jefferson called Wirt’s biography “a poor book” that gave “an imperfect idea of Patrick Henry.”

John Taylor, another Virginia statesman who knew Henry, called it “a splendid novel.” 

Comments from other contemporaries of Henry were even less kind.

Nonetheless, Wirt’s book was extremely popular and, over the years, his version of the speech that Henry gave on March 23, 1775 came to be thought of and portrayed as a real transcript — until modern historians and quote mavens began to look into it.

Experts on American history and quotations who have carefully studied the facts generally dismiss the idea that Wirt’s recreation of the entire speech is or could be accurate.

One researcher quoted in
a post on the Colonial Williamsburg website concluded that “generations have been deceived into believing in the literalness” of the speech.

In The Yale Book of Quotations, editor Fred Shapiro calls the text of the speech as reconstructed by Wirt “questionable.”

Ralph Keyes, author of The Quote Verifier and many other well-researched books about quotations and language, summed up his verdict in an NPR radio interview in 2006. When asked if Patrick Henry actually said “give me liberty or give me death,” Keyes answered: “Unfortunately, he didn’t.”

Keyes said his conclusion is that “William Wirt…put ‘give me liberty or give me death’ in Henry’s mouth.”

Other experts think that Henry might have said “give me liberty or give me death” or at least uttered the phrase “liberty or death.”

Those are certainly memorable words. And, later in 1775, “LIBERTY OR DEATH” was used as a slogan on the flag of the Culpeper Minute Men Battalion, a unit of Patrick Henry’s First Virginia Regiment.

However, the rest of the alleged final sentences at the end of the speech Henry gave on March 23, 1775 — and the “full text” of the speech reprinted by many books and websites — should probably be credited to either William Wirt or St. George Tucker instead of Patrick Henry.

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Further reading: books about Patrick Henry…

March 17, 2014

“Power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.”

In the decades before World War II, Stanley Baldwin was one of the most powerful politicians in the United Kingdom.

He was the leader of Britain’s Conservative Party from 1923 to 1937 and served as Prime Minister three times during those years.

However, in 1931, Baldwin’s control of the Conservative Party was threatened by attacks from the newspapers owned by two wealthy press barons who wanted him ousted, Lord Beaverbrook and Lord Rothermere.

His ability to maintain majority support hinged on whether the March 20th election for the St. George’s Westminster seat in Parliament was won by his supporter, Duff Cooper, or by Beaverbrook and Rothermere’s man, Sir Ernest Petter.

In the weeks leading up to the vote, the Beaverbrook and Rothermere newspapers turned up the heat on Baldwin, hoping to throw the election to Petter.

Among other things, they accused Baldwin of running an “insolent plutocracy” and of being clueless on how to improve the country’s faltering economy.

Three days before the election, on March 17, 1931, Baldwin counterattacked in a public address he gave to voters in St. George’s.

“The newspapers attacking me are not newspapers in the ordinary sense,” Baldwin said. “They are engines of propaganda for the constantly changing policies, desires, personal vices, personal likes and dislikes of the two men. What are their methods? Their methods are direct falsehoods, misrepresentation, half-truths, the alteration of the speaker's meaning by publishing a sentence apart from the context...What the proprietorship of these papers is aiming at is power, and power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.

Baldwin’s speech was widely reported by British newspapers that weren’t owned by Beaverbrook and Rothermere on the following day. That’s apparently why some books of quotations use March 18, 1931 as the date for his “power without responsibility” quote.

The scathing verbal counterattack on the rich press barons resonated with voters and turned the tide in the local election. Cooper won and Baldwin held on to control of the Conservative Party.

His memorable harlot zinger also became a famous quotation. However, Baldwin didn’t coin it himself.

As later noted by many sources, Baldwin actually got it from his cousin, the great British writer Rudyard Kipling.

Ironically, the origin of the quip was a conversation between Kipling and Beaverbrook, who was Kipling’s friend when he was still known by his original name, Max Aitken, and not yet a British Lord.

Baldwin’s son Oliver recounted the story in 1971, in an address to members of the Kipling Society:

“As told me by my father…Kipling was attracted by the charm and enthusiasm of a rich young Canadian imperialist whose name was Max Aitken, later to become Lord Beaverbrook. They became friends. When Aitken acquired the Daily Express his political views seemed to Kipling to become more and more inconsistent, and one day Kipling asked him what he was really up to. Aitken is supposed to have replied: ‘What I want is power. Kiss ‘em one day and kick ‘em the next’ and so on. ‘I see’, said Kipling, ‘Power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.’ So, many years later, when [Stanley] Baldwin deemed it necessary to deal sharply with such lords of the press, he obtained leave of his cousin to borrow that telling phrase.”

Kipling’s famed definition of power without responsibility is still cited and repurposed today. To read some witty modern uses, see this post on the blog.

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Related reading…


March 07, 2014

The awful origin of “The pen is mightier than the sword.”

On March 7, 1839 the play Richelieu: or, the Conspiracy, by the British politician and author, Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, premiered at the Covent Garden Theatre in London.

Few people today have heard of this play. But everyone knows one of the lines in it: “The pen is mightier than the sword.”

The basic meaning of this famous quote — that the written word can be mightier than physical force or military power — was not originated by Bulwer-Lytton. There are similar lines in earlier works by various authors.

But Bulwer-Lytton’s play Richelieu is the origin of the version that became a familiar saying.

Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, a.k.a. the 1st Baron of Lytton, is renowned as a writer, but not for being a good writer. He’s renowned for being one of the worst writers in history.

His novels and plays — including Richelieu — are infamously pompous, long-winded and full of badly-constructed language.

The most notorious example is the oft-quoted opening line of his historical novel Paul Clifford (1830), which begins: “It was a dark and stormy night...”

The complete opening line of Paul Clifford is:

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents-except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

That line and the novel are so memorably bad that “It was a dark and stormy night...” became a cliché and joke, even though most people don’t know what it came from.

It has even inspired an annual contest, The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, in which entrants compete to submit the most convoluted and inane opening sentence for a fictional work of fiction.

Bulwer-Lytton’s “dark and stormy night” is his most famous bad sentence. But he wrote plenty of others that are equally odd, contorted and hard to fathom.

For example, here’s the full quotation in Act II, Scene II of Richelieu that includes the “pen is mightier” line:

“Beneath the rule of men entirely great,
The pen is mightier than the sword. Behold
The arch-enchanter’s wand — itself a nothing,
But taking sorcery from the master-hand
To paralyze the Caesars, and to strike
The loud earth breathless! Take away the sword,
States can be saved without it!”

If that strikes you as amazingly confusing and pretentious, then you’re not alone.

However, we have to give Bulwer-Lytton his due. He did create several famous quotes, including “the pen is mightier than the sword” — words that are still used and repurposed today.

Of course, as you probably know, his pen and sword aphorism is also the basis for a popular nudge-nudge, wink-wink pun.

If you don’t know the pun I’m talking about, never mind. It’s not actually that funny, even though a lot of us sniggered at it when we were kids.

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Comments? Questions? Corrections? Post them on the Famous Quotations Facebook page.

Related reading: books of and about puns…

March 03, 2014

“It ain’t a fit night out for man or beast!”

I’ve posted this before but is seems worthy of reposting, since the quote involved is something many people might have been thinking on a lot of nights during the current harsh and snowy winter…

As a kid growing up in Ohio in the 1950s, I remember that on rainy or snowy nights my late father and his old Army buddies used to say to each other “It ain’t a fit night out for man or beast!”

Every time they said it, they’d laugh.

I’d laugh along, too. But I didn’t really know where they got the line or why it was funny to them until years later, when I saw the movie that popularized the line — The Fatal Glass of Beer, starring the great comic actor W.C. Fields.

This famous two-reel “short subject” was first released to movie theaters nationwide on March 3, 1933.

It was produced by Mack Sennett, the Canadian-born Hollywood mogul who produced many classic silent and early “talkie” comedies from 1911 until the mid-1930s, including the Keystone Cops films, and films by legendary comedians like Fields, Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle.

If you’ve seen The Fatal Glass of Beer then you know that the line “It ain’t a fit night out for man or beast” is used repeatedly in it for comic effect. (If you haven’t seen the film, you can watch it on YouTube and other sites.)

The film is set in the Yukon during winter. W.C. Fields plays a local prospector named Mr. Snavely, who lives in a remote, rustic cabin with his wife.

Six different times in the movie, Fields opens the cabin door, looks outside and intones: “It ain't a fit night out for man or beast.”

Every time he does, a fake gust of wind blows a fake cloud of snow into his face.

The audience can see that it’s obviously a bucketful of “snow” being thrown at Fields from off screen. It’s clearly hokey, as intended.

The Fatal Glass of Beer was a send-up of earlier, badly-produced films and vaudeville shows.

It also mocks the moralistic tone of some early movies and older anti-drinking temperance shows.

The title of the film comes from a fake temperance song Fields sings during the first few minutes, at the request of his friend, a local Canadian Mountie (played by Richard Cramer). Fields pulls out what the Mountie calls a “dulcimer” (actually a zither) and strums it, while wearing big furry mittens and singing off-key.

The song, credited to vaudeville comedian Charlie Case, tells the tale of a young country boy who goes to the big city and visits a bar, where a group of rowdy city boys talk him into drinking “the fatal glass of beer.”

That single drink immediately causes the poor boy to have delirium tremens, go wild and crazy and break a Salvation Army worker’s tambourine.

The moral of the song, as given in the lyrics: “Don’t go ‘round breaking people’s tambourines.”

Yes, the song and movie are as kooky as that sounds. It’s almost as surreal as a Monty Python skit.

The Fatal Glass of Beer wasn’t a big hit when it came out. But it eventually became a cult classic, giving my father and millions of other people a funny line to say when the weather is nasty.

By the way, Fields says “man or beast,” not “man nor beast.” The latter is a common misquote.

As I recall, my father said it correctly. I think he was as much of a W.C. Fields fan as I eventually turned out to be.

This one’s for you, Dad.

RELATED POST: “Any man who hates dogs and babies can’t be all bad.”

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

W.C. Fields – further reading, listening and viewing…

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