John Adams Said it First

I’m back to inviting readers to submit quotations whose origins they want me to try to trace, using my book, The Yale Book of Quotations, and my more recent researches.

Daniel Greenwald asked:

“If a person is not a liberal when he is twenty, he has no heart; if he is not a conservative when he is forty, he has no head.’ OR
‘If my son is not a liberal when he is twenty, I will disown him; if he is not a conservative when he is forty, I will disown him then.’
And other variants, I am sure.”

One of the pleasures of compiling the Yale Book of Quotations was tracing and cross-referencing different versions and precursors of famous quotes. This one is usually credited to Georges Clemenceau, but W. Gurney Benham‘s Book of Quotations cites French premier and historian Francois Guizot (1787-1874), translating his statement as “Not to be a republican at 20 is proof of want of heart; to be one at 30 is proof of want of head.” Benham asserts that “Clemenceau adopted this saying, substituting ‘socialiste’ for ‘republicain. ‘”

But I was delighted to find that John Adams had expressed a similar idea well before Guizot entered adulthood. Thomas Jefferson preserved this quip, writing in a 1799 journal that Adams had said: “A boy of 15 who is not a democrat is good for nothing, and he is no better who is a democrat at 20.”

Do any readers have any other quotations whose origins they would like me to attempt to trace?

Leave A Comment

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.



View All Comments »
  1. Dan Schiffer says:

    Leverage is like sex, each generation thinks it invented it.

    Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0
  2. Mike K says:

    “The coldest winter I have ever experienced was a summer in San Francisco.” Mark Twain, although recently it has become en vogue for SF locals to deny that Twain had said this, though I have not yet heard a credible replacement speaker. Thanks

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
    • Eric M. Jones. says:

      As determined by what has been printed, Mark Twain never wrote it. The closest he came is in his California tale, “Roughing It”.

      Even so–Twain did give lots of talks, so he might have said it.

      Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  3. Dan Fedder says:

    The individual is unique and of primary importance and government exists to support the individual.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 3
  4. Bob says:

    I knew it with “socialist” instead of “liberal”… at 20…. and as being said by Winston Churchill, but I do not recollect where I heard or read it.

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
  5. Dan Wasson says:

    Someone said something like: “The darkness of totalitarianism is always falling over America, yet always seems to be landing on Europe first.”

    Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0
  6. Michael says:

    I asked on another post but I think I was late.

    “The best swordsman does not fear the second best, he fears the worst since there’s no telling what that idiot is going to do.”

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0
  7. Garson O'Toole says:

    Note for Dan Wasson: The best-selling author Tom Wolfe wrote the following in Harper’s magazine in July 1976:

    He sounded like Jean-Francois Revel, a French socialist writer who talks about one of the great unexplained phenomena of modern astronomy: namely, that the dark night of fascism is always descending in the United States and yet lands only in Europe.

    Note for Michael: You may wish to look under Mark Twain in the Yale Book of Quotations for the swordsman saying.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0