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Tracing origin of famous quotations

January 29, 2007

Re "The greatest thing Andrew Jackson never said," Opinion, Jan. 26

Professor Daniel Feller's article does an excellent job of tracing the quotation "One man with courage makes a majority" back to James Parton's 1860 biography of Andrew Jackson, which prominently used the epigraph "Desperate Courage Makes One a Majority."

In the course of compiling the recently published Yale Book of Quotations (Yale University Press), I developed innovative techniques of researching quotation origins. Using these techniques, I find an earlier usage of "Desperate courage makes one a majority." This sentence appeared in an anonymous article, titled "Physical Courage," in the Atlantic Monthly in November 1858.

It seems from this and other early usages that the "desperate courage" line was a proverbial saying current in the mid-1800s.



Yale Book of Quotations

New Haven, Conn.

The writer is associate librarian for collections and access and a lecturer in legal research at Yale Law School.


Feller's caveat regarding historical quotes is certainly a valid point.

Even more compelling, however, would be to recognize the poor, uncredited and probably underpaid speechwriter who put most of the famous words in the politician's mouth in the first place. Imagine how brain-numbingly insipid political speeches would be, and how thin Barlett's would become, without their efforts.


Palm Desert

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