The False Attribution: Our Democratic Poetry

Every two minutes on Twitter, someone tweets, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” and wrongly attributes it to Edmund Burke. Burke never said any such thing. But the myth persists.

I’ve long wanted to write an essay on this phenomenon of wrongly attributed statements. If you dig, you often find that no one famous ever said anything like it. Obviously someone had to say it, at some point, but whoever he or she is, is lost to memory.

I first came across this phenomenon in 2000 when I was writing a piece for Lingua Franca. You know that saying (or some version thereof): Whoever is not a liberal [or a socialist or a progressive] when he is twenty has no heart; whoever is not a conservative when he is thirty has no brain? Everyone always says it was Churchill. It wasn’t. No one said it. Or least, again, no one famous. I even called the editor of Bartlett’s Quotations, whoever it was at the time (Justin Kaplan?), and he had no idea who had said it.

Since then, I’ve stumbled upon many more of these. One of my favorites is “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” General MacArthur cited it in his 1962 address at West Point and said it was from Plato. Nope. But the Imperial War Museum and Ridley Scott (Black Hawk Down) also claim Plato said it (the museum actually has the words, with the Plato attribution, carved into one of its facades). Still nope. Something sort of, kind of, like this was once said by Santayana, but not this.

At first, the whole thing annoyed me. You think someone said x, because everyone always says s/he did, and then you look it up just so you can get a citation, only to find that you can’t find the citation. So you look and look, only to find that that someone most definitely did not say x (or at least not that anyone knows of).  So then, if you’re an obsessive like me, you keep looking because at this point you want to know who said the damn thing. Only to find out that no one knows who said it. And then, and only then, do you realize, once again, but as always too late, that you’ve fallen into the rabbit hole of the Wrongly Attributed Statement (WAS).

But the more I’ve thought about the WAS the more charming I’ve found it. Because in many ways the WAS is a tribute to the democratic genius of the crowd. Someone famous says something fine—Burke did write, in his Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle”—and some forgotten wordsmith, or more likely wordsmiths, through trial and error, refashions it over time into something finer: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Which is really quite fine.

The false attribution: it’s our democratic poetry.

Update (May 6, 9:45 am)

So Santayana did in fact say “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” Thanks to commenter Bill for pointing that out. I actually had written that in the footnote of the paper to which I linked above, but for some reason I had forgotten that he in fact said exactly that. In my memory he had said a version of that. I am not immune!

Check out some of the other comments below; they’re terrific. Art Goldhammer has a great example as does Phil Scarr.

Henry Farrell emails me that apparently Robert Merton, as with so many other things, was there first. In his book On the Shoulders of Giants. From the jacket copy:

With playfulness and a large dose of wit, Robert Merton traces the origin of Newton’s aphorism, “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Using as a model the discursive and digressive style of Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Merton presents a whimsical yet scholarly work which deals with the questions of creativity, tradition, plagiarism, the transmission of knowledge, and the concept of progress.

Update (10:45 am)

On FB, Jeff Shoulson wrote this:

It’s also interesting how the WAS in its democratic form is both different from and related to the renaissance humanist posture of sprezzatura, the fashion of sprinkling your speeches with pseudo-quotations of famous writers that are deliberately inaccurate so as to convince your audience that you hadn’t looked them up the night before to impress them.

Sprezzatura!  Sprezzatura!  Cue Lee Siegel!


  1. Paul Rosenberg (@PaulHRosenberg) May 6, 2013 at 1:05 am | #

    Yes, I totally agree. Still, Buffy, The Vampire Slayer really did say, “Those of us who fail history–doomed to repeat it in summer school.”

  2. Bill May 6, 2013 at 1:59 am | #

    Santayana definitely said “Only the dead have seen the end of the war.”:

    “Only the dead are safe ; only the dead have seen the
    end of war. Not that non-existence deserves to be called
    peace ; it is only by an illusion of contrast and a pathetic
    fallacy that we are tempted to call it so. The church has
    a poetical and melancholy prayer, that the souls of the
    faithful departed may rest in peace.”

    You can do a Ctrl + F search here if you need the mental satisfaction of seeing it with your own eyes in context:

    That’s one settled, at least!

  3. Bill May 6, 2013 at 2:05 am | #

    Those who fail to check their citations are doomed to repeat falsely attributed quotes.

  4. Freddie deBoer May 6, 2013 at 8:32 am | #

    My favorite is how Shakespeare’s “to paint the lily” got corrupted into “to gild the lily,” as arguably changing from the former to the latter is an example of gilding the lily.

  5. Art Goldhammer May 6, 2013 at 8:45 am | #

    My favorite WAS is attributed to Tocqueville: “America is great because she is good.” This has been repeated by at least 3 US presidents. The New York Times once called me to locate the source, and I was able to tell them that Laurence Guellec has demonstrated that Tocqueville never said this. There are any number of other statements wrongly attributed to Tocqueville, many having to do with the “public choice theoryish” allegation that democracy ends in bribing the people with the people’s own money. He never said that either, although less crude versions of the idea are implicit in some of his comments.

    • Clifford Smith May 6, 2013 at 11:07 pm | #

      Tocqueville says something like this in the concluding chapter of DA vol2 about democratic equality (“sa justice fait sa grandeur”)… that’s the closest I can think of the origin of that quote, but maybe that’s only because this section is freshest in my mind.

      • Clifford Smith May 6, 2013 at 11:14 pm | #

        Although upon seeing the spurious quote in its entirety I can see that it is highly unlikely to have been remotely inspired by this section.

  6. Phil Scarr May 6, 2013 at 9:08 am | #

    There’s a bunch of these that the right-wing love to attribute to Thomas Jefferson that are in no way, shape or form Jeffersonian. Crap like this:

    “When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny. The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.”


    “The strongest reason for people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.”


    “The beauty of the second amendment is that it will not be needed until they try to take it.”


    There’s a bunch of these phony quotes at the Monticello website

  7. Jhibalon May 6, 2013 at 9:10 am | #

    The only problem with all of this is that any reader of Reflections on the Revolution in France can tell you that he, Burke, *did* say it.

    • Phil Scarr May 6, 2013 at 9:41 am | #

      Except of course that he didn’t…

      QUOTATION: The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

      ATTRIBUTION: Attributed to EDMUND BURKE, but never found in his works. It may be a paraphrase of Burke’s view that “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle” (Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, April 23, 1770).—Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, 15th ed., p. ix (1980).

      • Jhibalon May 6, 2013 at 1:26 pm | #

        Please read it, that is, _Reflections_, not _Barlett’s_, and get back to me.

      • Phil Scarr May 6, 2013 at 2:39 pm | #

        Here’s the full text. Knock yourself out. The attributed quote, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” IS NOT IN THERE.

        Or, if you prefer, here’s the Project Gutenberg version:

        This is the part where you say “I was wrong.”

      • Ralph Hitchens May 7, 2013 at 12:51 pm | #

        I’ve also seen a reference to Sergei Bondarchuk’s Soviet-era film adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, in which the narrator declares “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” God knows where that came from….

    • walt May 6, 2013 at 3:15 pm | #

      Jhibalon, you may intrigued to learn that we now have a technology called “the Internet”, which contains Burke’s writings in the form of “web pages”. These “web pages” support an exotic new features called the “search”. This advanced technology will show that indeed that quote does not appear in Burke’s “Reflections”.

  8. hidflect May 6, 2013 at 9:56 am | #

    And all the quotes attributed to Einstein. Too numerous to list.

  9. Jake May 6, 2013 at 10:44 am | #

    Doing research for a book on the American founding, I had to attribute, “A penny saved is a penny earned” to Benjamin Franklin.

    Except what Franklin said is, “A penny saved is twopence cleared.”

    Arguably the same meaning but a good bit of polish.

  10. Leo Casey May 6, 2013 at 11:51 am | #

    The false attribution lives on because it serves the ideological purposes of those who make it:

  11. marcel May 6, 2013 at 11:53 am | #

    Apropos “Whoever is not a liberal [or a socialist or a progressive] when he is twenty has no heart; whoever is not a conservative when he is thirty has no brain?”, google the following:

    Richard Norton Smith wendell willkie

    Apparently RNSmith attributed it to Willkie in his biography of Dewey (I’ve not actually checked the bio, just teh google).

    • jake Gibson May 6, 2013 at 7:57 pm | #

      Frederick Pohl attributed Whoever is not a socialist to Georges Clemenceau.
      According to Wikiquote what Clemenceau actually said was, “My son is 22 years old. If he had not become a Communist at 22, I would have disowned him. If he is still a Communist at 30, I will do it then.

  12. Bill Wolfe May 6, 2013 at 1:20 pm | #

    who said

    “We have met the enemy and he is us” (or some such)?

    • brian faux May 6, 2013 at 1:38 pm | #

      The man who is not a socialist at twenty has no heart, the man who is not a socialist at forty has no balls.
      I said that.
      (apologies for sexist language: nothing else fits so well)

      • brian faux May 6, 2013 at 1:40 pm | #

        sorry bill thats come out as a reply to your post, should have been a new comment.

    • bexley May 6, 2013 at 2:52 pm | #
    • marcel May 6, 2013 at 2:57 pm | #

      Pogo (walt Kelly)

      • Bloix May 6, 2013 at 3:53 pm | #

        Which was a riff on Commodore Perry’s letter reporting a victory in the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813, something every American school child once learned:

        “We have met the enemy and they are ours”

        often modified to eliminate the “ungrammatical” singular they to read, “We have met the enemy and he is ours.”

      • rm May 6, 2013 at 4:07 pm | #

        And it’s an echo of a military quotation that probably every schoolchild was once taught. Commodore Perry, reporting on the Battle of Lake Erie in the War of 1812: “We have met the enemy and they are ours; two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop.” I think the commander was trying a little too hard to create a famous quotation. He also said, before the battle, “If victory is to be had, I will have it,” and it sounds to me like he made sure someone wrote that down.

    • Bloix May 6, 2013 at 3:46 pm | #

      To Jhibalon:

      The full text of “Reflections on the Revolution in France” is available and word-searchable at

      Please be so good as to give us a page cite for the quotation. Or go away.

      To people who are not annoying trolls:

      In addition to the Burke quote that Prof Robin identifies, Burke also did say:

      “There is no safety for honest men, but by believing all possible evil of evil men, and by acting with promptitude, decision and steadiness in that belief.”

      From “Letter to a Member of the National Assembly,” available at id…j69SY#PPA299,M1

      So the problem of the passivity of “good” people was genuinely one of Burke’s concerns, and Burke “could” have said the quote generally attributed to him, although he apparently didn’t.

      This is unusual in the context of misattributed quotations, which are generally of four types:

      1) Most misattributions occur when someone not particularly well known says something striking, and someone else remembers the quote but not the source, and attaches it to someone more famous or more authoritative. Many such quotations attach themselves to quotable people like Lincoln, Churchill, Yogi Berra, and Mark Twain. Often the quotations are obvious misattributions (e.g., the “Einstein” quotes about insanity and bees, or the “Vonnegut commencement address” from 15 or so years ago).

      2) Someone malevolently misappropriates or forges a quotation for polemical purposes and puts it in the mouth of an appropriate source. There are several such quotations from Abraham Lincoln (“You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich”), “N. Lenin” (e.g. the “ripe fruit” quotation) and Lavrenti Beria (or alternatively Stalin), as well as the phony John Kerry quotation, “Who among us does not love NASCAR?”

      3) The person said something like the quotation, but it is modified for better effect as a stand-alone catch-phrase (“play it again, Sam” or “gild the lily”)

      4) The person who is remembered for the quotation was actually quoting someone else. The Danish physicist Niels Bohr often gets the attribution for “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future,” which is taken as a mordant commentary on the probabalistic nature of quantum mechanics. Bohr may have said it, but if he did he was likely quoting a Danish scientist and poet named Piet Hein, who also probably was not the originator.

  13. Bart May 6, 2013 at 3:08 pm | #

    How about “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. The party left me”?

    Many names come to mind, but I hate to enter them into the Google.

    • Phil Scarr May 6, 2013 at 3:33 pm | #

      It’s attributed to Ronald Reagan. But the best reference I can find for it was in a quote by Charlie Crist in reference to his leaving the Republican party.

      “Half a century ago, Ronald Reagan, the man whose relentless optimism inspired me to enter politics, famously said that he didn’t leave the Democratic Party; the party left him. I can certainly relate. I didn’t leave the Republican Party; it left me.”

  14. y81 May 6, 2013 at 10:19 pm | #

    Fred Shapiro (a Yale librarian) has done heroic work in the WAS field. Some of his most interesting work appears, alas, only in the Yale Alumni Magazine, rather than some more widely disseminated publication.

    • Bloix May 7, 2013 at 10:00 am | #

      Shapiro’s essays are a available free online. Google Yale Alumni Magazine and type Fred R. Shapiro in the search box.

  15. charliebucket May 7, 2013 at 1:22 am | #

    Another common one from the right wing is attributed to Ben Franklin:

    “Democracy is two wolves and a sheep deciding what to have for lunch.”

    Ben never said this or anything like it, and the term ‘lunch’ didn’t come into use until about 20 years after Franklin’s time.

  16. sshaver May 7, 2013 at 11:44 am | #

    Any quotation from a (real) poet that has even one word out of place is a wrong quotation.

  17. Chris Borthwick May 9, 2013 at 2:09 am | #

    I have to confess that I included one of those wobbly quotes in an article, checked it and found that it was airily unsupported, and used it anyway because it was so useful, with just a ‘reportedly’ to take the curse off;

    Wittgenstein is reported to have asked why people had ever thought the sun went round the earth. Because, his straight man replied, it looks as if the sun went round the earth. “Really?” said Wittgenstein. “And what would it look like if the earth went round the sun?”

    I fully expect it to come up again attributed to Einstein.

    Noel Coward used to be a quote magnet, but has rather fallen off. Wilde still vies with Twain and D. Parker (Twain, any quote 1860-1890; Wilde, 1890-1914; D. Parker, 1918-1935).

  18. Chris Borthwick May 9, 2013 at 2:51 am | #

    Actually, is there a political system where the combination of two wolves and one lamb would have a different outcome? It’s hard to see that democracy would make the situation worse. Indeed, remembering Survivor tactics, the lamb might be able to take one wolf aside and say “If you vote to eat me you’ll have to face a tougher opponent in the next round’, thus extending their lifespan by a day.

    And – this one really is by Twain – Cannibalism in the Cars,;
    “MR. RADWAY moved that the House now take up the remaining candidates, and go into an election for breakfast. This was carried……

    • jcc2455 May 13, 2013 at 11:08 pm | #

      Great piece, but you have to add the single greatest misquote in the history of American literature: “The Ugly American.” People use that phrase millions of times a day to refer to boorish behavior by Americans overseas, utterly oblivious to the fact that they are attributing to it precisely the opposite meaning that its authors intended. Burdick and Lederer made the “ugly” American the hero of their runaway 1958 bestseller. The ugly American, an engineer named Atkins, is physically plain in contrast to well-groomed, well-dressed Ivy League-educated diplomats. But he is the true American — humble, practical, handy, energetic, open. He eschews the posh diplomatic living quarters and lives among ordinary people, engaging them in daily problem-solving as an equal.

      The critique of the foreign service and intelligence agencies contained in the novel, especially when applied to media and other elites overseas, is just as trenchant as it was nearly 50 years ago. And the very people whom the authors made bitter fun of now use the title to refer to anyone but themselves.

Leave a Reply