Arms and Fists, Cheeks and Noses

by Jay Nordlinger

In Impromptus today, I have Part II of my notes on a wonderful book: Rich Lowry’s Lincoln Unbound. After I was finished with this installment, I was not quite satisfied with one of my notes. I’ll tell you about that in a second. First, that note:

Rich quotes a famous statement from Lincoln: “In all that the people can individually do as well for themselves, government ought not to interfere.” He also quotes this: “I believe each individual is naturally entitled to do as he pleases with himself and the fruit of his labor, so far as it in no wise interferes with any other man’s rights.”

I thought of something I learned a long, long time ago, although I have not heard it or seen it recently — “seen it,” because it has a visual component.

Democratic freedom consists of being able to extend your arm just to the point where it reaches another man’s cheek.

Okay, but I’d give him a speck more space than that . . .

I was dissatisfied with my rendering of that aphorism. I thought the aphorism really contained the word “fist.” So, I did some research — by which I mean, some Googling around. (Remember libraries and microfiches and all that? Today is a better day.)

In the course of my Googling, I discovered a site for sore eyes: the Quote Investigator. It “records the investigatory work of Garson O’Toole” (to quote the site). And he has an excellent post on the aphorism I was thinking of.

It has its origins in the temperance movement, apparently. It begins to circulate in the early 1880s. It has myriad versions, as you can imagine. And one of the smoother, snappier versions is this: “My right to swing my arm ends where your nose begins.”

By the way, Quote Investigator cites a 1919 Harvard Law Review article by a fellow with a striking name — the legal philosopher Zechariah Chafee Jr. A forebear of the Rhode Island political family? For sure. Zech was John’s uncle. (That’s “Professor Chafee” to me, I know.)

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