Quote or No Quote: “Liberal When You’re 25, Conservative When You’re 35”

Winston Churchill “If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain.” Quote or No Quote?

Well, well, well. Here’s a quote that seems to be as old as the hills (even though it’s only 150 years old at best, and, therefore, it’s a veritable puppy compared to the big dogs of famous quotes and mis-quotations). It’s been attributed to lots of different people — politicians, playwrights, novelists, and statesmen. It’s been cited as coming from George Bernard Shaw, François Guizot, Benjamin Disraeli, Otto von Bismarck, and Mark Twain.

“If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain.”

It’s also trotted out in the early days of election campaigns, even though the contemporary political meaning of of “liberal” and “conservative” (at least in the American sense) changes every generation or two. So, it’s hardly an enduring piece of political wisdom. Except for the fact that it can be adapted and re-adapted to every generation’s popular political understanding.

And, of course, it has drifted toward Winston Churchill, that massive, rotund planet in the quotation universe, whose gravity is so great that it pulls in most unattributed and orphaned quotes. And even those quotes that are actually attributable to their own true authors. The Churchillian gravitational pull is so strong, that the number of attributions to him dwarfs all others. The Churchill attribution also gives this quote gravitas across the generations. Finally, in some ways, this is one of the strangest Churchill attributions out there in the quotation universe, but I’m going to hold you in some suspense about that until a little later.

You’ll see the origins traced to French statesman, François Guizot, who was a central figure in French politics in the 1830s and 1840s, and served as prime minister for six months between September 1847 and February 1848. He is supposed to have said, “Not to be a republican at 20 is proof of want of heart; to be one at 30 is proof of want of head.”

Of course, “republican” in this context refers to French republicanism of the late 18th and first half of the 19th century. That is, someone opposed to the French monarchy and who believed in a representative form of government. It doesn’t refer to a member of the original American Republican Party (formed in 1854) or to the current American Republican Party.

Nevertheless, the Guizot attribution is a little weak. It appears in only one 1936 publication, and that is, at best, third hand.

Stronger is a quote cited in 1875, coming from the French academic and lawyer, Anselme Polycarpe Batbie. Batbie said, “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.”

Partly because it’s a French quotation, but mainly because Batbie was not internationally well-known then or since, the quote became “orphaned,” in Garson O’Toole, the Quote Investigator’s wonderfully apt term. And, starting in the 20th century, attributions bounced around those who I mentioned at the beginning of the show — Guizot, Disraeli, Shaw, Bismarck, and Mark Twain, before being pulled in by the Churchillian gravity.

But Professor Langworth from the Churchill Centre at Hillsdale College assures us, not only that there is no record of Churchill having said it, there’s no second hand reference to anyone having heard him say this. Furthermore, and finally, this is perhaps the weirdest of quotes to applied to Churchill because, as another historian, Professor Paul Addison wrote, “surely Churchill can’t have used the words attributed to him. He’d been a Conservative at 15 and a Liberal at 35! And would he have talked so disrespectfully of Clemmie [Mrs. Churchill], who is generally thought to have been a lifelong Liberal?”

And you can’t slam the door on any quote misattribution harder than that. Talk to you next week.

Buzzkill Bookshelf

Jonathan Rose, The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor

This strikingly original book introduces a Winston Churchill we have not known before. Award-winning author Jonathan Rose explores in tandem Churchill’s careers as statesman and author, revealing the profound influence of literature and theater on Churchill’s personal, carefully composed grand story and on the decisions he made throughout his political life.

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