The Corner

Burkean Misqoute

Erudite Corner reader Terry Pell, head of the Center for Individual Rights, writes in to inform me, and hopefully others, that the attribution of the all but ubiquitous saying, “all it takes for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” to Edmund Burke is incorrect.

“It reminded me that last summer I had to try to find a source for this quote and learned that Edmund Burke never said it.  No one said it.  It is made up.

Here is a link to an exhaustive web page on the subject:

The key bit is this:

Anyway, the complete answer to the origins of the triumph-of-evil quote is not to be found on the Web, but in a very neat dictionary of misquotations I have discovered by Paul F Boller and John George called They never said it (Oxford University Press, 1989).

The much-quoted triumph-of-evil statement appeared in the 14th edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (1968), with a letter Burke wrote William Smith on January 9, 1795, given as the source. But the letter to Smith was dated January 29, 1795, and it said nothing about the triumph of evil. When New York Times columnist William Safire asked Emily Morrison Beck, editor of the 15th edition of Bartlett’s, about the source, she acknowledged she hadn’t located the statement in Burke’s writings “so far”, but suggested it might be a paraphrase of something Burke said in a speech he gave in Parliament, “Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents”, on April 23, 1770: “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.” Safire thought her suggestion was a ‘pretty long stretch,’ but she included it in her introduction to the new edition of Bartlett’s.

The web page author claims the real Burke quote was about the need for political parties, his in particular, to unify themselves in the face of their opponents.  Or something like that.  But nothing about a few good men stepping up to evil.


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