Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Frost’

If You’re Not A Socialist At Twenty, You Have No Heart

Posted by Elyse Bruce on December 12, 2017

Recently, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) published an article stating no one knows for certain who the first person was who coined the phrase, “If you’re not a socialist at twenty, you have no heart, and if you’re not a conservative at forty, you have no brain.”

In some respects that is true.

The phrase and its many variations have been attributed to a great many men  over the years:

  • British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (21 December 1804 – 19 April 1981) in a book of quotations published in 1997 that was compiled by Canadian educator Laurence J. Peter (16 September 1919 – 12 January 1990)
  • French politician, physician, and journalist Georges Clemenceau (28 September 1841 – 24 November 1929)
  • British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (30 November 1874 – 24 January 1965) in a 1986 edition of the Hartford Courant newspaper
  • French poet, novelist, and dramatist Victor Hugo (26 February 1802 – 22 May 1885) in a book by scientist, journalist, and politician Francisco Bulnes (4 October 1847 – 1924)
  • King Oscar II of Sweden (21 January 1829 – 8 December 1907) in a 1923 edition of the Wall Street Journal
  • Irish playwright, critic and polemicist George Bernard Shaw (26 July 1856 – 2 November 1950) in a speech given in 1933 at the University of Hong Kong
  • American poet Robert Frost (26 March 1874 – 29 January 1963)
  • American writer, historian, and philosopher Will Durant (5 November 1885 – 7 November 1981)
  • Prime Minister of France Aristide Briand (29 March 1862 – 7 March 1932)
  • British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, writer, social critic, political activist and Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell (18 May 1872 – 2 February 1970)
  • American filmmaker George Huang used it in his 1994 movie “Swimming With Sharks“and has been tagged as the originator of the phrase

Even American entrepreneur, business magnate, inventor, and industrial designer Steve Jobs (24 February 1956 – 5 October 2011) was incorrectly identified as the person who first coined the phrase!

However, the spirit of the phrase can be found in a number of variations.  In 1875, French literary figure and theater director Jules Claretie  (3 December 1840 – 23 December 1913) wrote a biography where he attributed a similar sounding quote to French jurist and politician Anselm Batbie (31 May 1828 – 12 June 1887).

« Celui qui n’est pas républicain à vingt ans fait douter de la générosité de son âme; mais celui qui, après trente ans, persévère, fait douter de la rectitude de son esprit. »

TRANSLATION: He who is not a republican at twenty compels one to doubt the generosity of his heart; but he who, after thirty, persists, compels one to doubt the soundness of his mind.

While it might seem reasonable to declare the trail for this expression begins at some point in Anselm Batbie’s life, the fact of the matter is, there’s a quote even older than that one with the spirit of the saying in question.

In 1799, John Adams (30 October 1735 – 4 July 1826) was quoted in a Thomas Jefferson (13 April 1743 – 4 July 1826) journal entry as having said this phrase that has been reworded so often. It was spoken in a conversation between Dr. Ewen and the President, and recorded in Jefferson’s journal.

A boy of fifteen who is not a democrat is good for nothing, and he is no better who is a democrat at twenty.

According to the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, John Adams’ reputation was one of a “blunt-speaking man” with an “independent mind.”

So while the CBC is technically correct in its assertion, fact checkers for Paul Kennedy’s radio program “Ideas” at CBC didn’t delve too deeply into the subject otherwise they would have attributed the spirit of the expression to the second President of the United States of America — John Adams.  Idiomation has determined the roots date back to 1799.

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