Of Deathless Remarks…

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On examination, a startling number of our most cherished sayings turn out to be of dubious provenance, the products of what the historian Daniel J. Boorstin has called “posthumous ghost-writing.” He cites, among other instances, the celebrated slogan attributed to James Otis: “Taxation without representation is tyranny!” This has become an imperishable principle in the American credo and is endlessly quoted as the rallying cry of the Revolution. But it does not appear on the record anywhere until 1820, in the notes of John Adams. Otis may have said it when he is credited with having said it, but we can’t be sure now that he actually did. “From the era of the Revolution,” Boorstin tells us, “the ringing words were those imagined to have been heard.”

Did John Paul Jones, when called upon to strike his colors on the burning and battered Bonhomme Richard , reply: “I have not yet begun to fight”? He could have, but there is no proof that he did. He himself, in his own account of the battle, doesn’t mention it, and it is unlikely that a man who got off a line like that would forget it. When the French demanded a bribe of $250,000 from the United States as the price of receiving the newly appointed American minister in 1797, did Charles Cotesworth Pinckney rise to the situation by thundering out the slogan “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute”? Well, no. What he said was: “No, no, not a sixpence!”—which, though just as emphatic, was not particularly memorable. The schoolbook-saying he is credited with was invented afterward by somebody else and transferred to Pinckney, who should have thought of it in the first place, but didn’t.

Time and again, in all ages, the key figure in a dramatic event or historic situation has failed to produce the immortal words expected of him, or if he did there was nobody on hand to record them. The gap has often been filled by some volunteer ghost writer, contemporary or posthumous, who produced his version of what ought to have been said but unfortunately wasn’t.

When, for instance, the Baron de Cambronne was called upon to surrender at the Battle of Waterloo, all France was thrilled at the report of his reply: “ La Garde meurt, mais ne se rend pas ”—“The Guards die but do not surrender.” To this day the words are inscribed on his statue in his home town of Nantes, and they have passed into other languages, including our own.

But the Baron himself repeatedly denied that he ever indulged in any such quote-book rhetoric, and the inescapable fact is that he did not die but was taken prisoner. What he actually said, he insisted, was “ Merde ,” which is still sometimes referred to in France as le mot Cambronne . A journalist who was nowhere near the battle invented the fancier version for him.

Voltaire would seem to be the last to need anyone’s help in the creation of memorable phrases. Nevertheless, the one most often associated with him is not his. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” cannot be found anywhere in his works. The words first appeared in 1906 in a book whose author considered them an accurate reflection of Voltaire’s philosophy, and they seemed so right for him that they have been taken for granted as his ever since. In the same way Galileo’s famous “ E pur si muove ”—“And yet it does move”—was put into his mouth long after his death. What he really said, if anything, after his recantation before the Inquisition on the movement of the earth around the sun is not known, but he could hardly have bettered “ E pur si muove ,” and it has become his just as irrevocably as if a shorthand stenographer had been present to take it down as it was uttered.

Despite the historian’s obsession with accuracy and his passion for “as it actually happened” and all that, embellishment and invention often prove to be superior to literal truth when it comes to historic sayings and great phrases—the words men live by. In these matters the people themselves have long since decided that mere correctness is a trifle when weighed against the essential Tightness, the poetry, the dramatic impact, of a given saying or familiar quotation.

So it makes little difference, from this viewpoint, whether William Tecumseh Sherman ever said “War is hell” in precisely those words. They are not discoverable in any of his writings or speeches. At a G.A.R. convention in Columbus, Ohio, on August 11, 1880, he said: “There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell.” The public, wielding its instinctive editorial pencil, shortened this to the more powerful and uncluttered three-word saying that is now standard and classic.