Quote: For evil men to accomplish their purpose, it is only necessary that good men do nothing (attrib Charles F. Aked 1920 June)
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Thu Nov 4 12:25:46 UTC 2010
All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.
This celebrated quotation is also famed for being misattributed. No
one has traced this saying to Edmund Burke though he is typically
assigned credit for the remark in the mass media, popular books, and
internet quotation databases. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations
lists this adage in the 'Misquotations" section. The ODQ also provides
links to two properly attributed quotes that express a conceptually
similar idea: one by Edmund Burke and one by John Stuart Mill.
The Yale Book of Quotations notes that this prominent quotation has
not been traced to Burke, and it also provides pointers to the two
conceptually similar quotes. Importantly, YBQ contains a citation to
the Washington Post in 1950 that attributes the maxim to Burke. Here
are the Burke and Mill quotations:
1770, Edmund Burke, Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents
When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall,
one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.
1867, John Stuart Mill, "On Education"
Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends than that good men
should look on and do nothing.
William Safire investigated the quote in a New York Times "On
Language" column dated March 9, 1980. He noted that Bartlett's
Familiar Quotations, 14th Edition (1968), included the saying and
attributed it to Edmund Burke. After a challenge based on the efforts
of Hamilton Long the attribution was removed from Bartlett's as noted
in a column dated April 5, 1981.
Below I present three citations plus a cite from Barry Popik. The
first cite contains a saying attributed to Rev. Charles F. Aked. The
statement is close to the modern version, but the first half recalls
the quotes of Burke and Mill. The term "evil men" is used instead of
The maxim is in a periodical called "100%: The Efficiency Magazine",
and it occurs twice: once in the subhead of an article and once in the
body. The piece claims that the words are already being used as a
slogan by another unnamed publication [EMCA]:
Subhead of article: Are We Helping the Radicals?
"For evil men to accomplish their purpose, it is only necessary that
good men do nothing." Perhaps the "do nothing" attitude is responsible
for much of the industrial unrest
Text from the body of the article:
The slogan of a recently established constructive publication is "For
evil men to accomplish their purpose, it is only necessary that good
men do nothing," quoting the Rev. Charles F. Aked. While this is
recognized as true of municipal politics, is it not also being
evidenced as an actual condition in American industry?
In July 1920 a different version of the saying appears anonymously in
a magazine for railway carmen. This variant uses the term "bad men"
and occurs in isolation at the beginning of an editorial section
For bad men to accomplish their purposes it is only necessary that
good men do nothing.
On July 5, 1920 the temperance crusader Sir R. Murray Hyslop of Kent,
England, delivered an address at a church conference, the Fourth
International Congregational Council. The address was published in
1921, and it contained a version of the now famous statement which
Hyslop attributed to Burke. This important citation was found by Barry
Popik in November 2009 and is presented on his website [CCB]:
Burke once said: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is
that good men should do nothing." Leave the Drink Trade alone and it
will throttle all that is good in a nation's life. Let it alone, that
is all that is required. Cowardice will suffice for its triumph.
Courage will suffice for its overthrow.
At the end of July a business digest periodical that lists articles
published in other magazines includes an entry for the piece in 100%
magazine. The subhead for the article being cited is reproduced, so
the maxim appears in this digest magazine also [BDP]:
Are We Helping the Radicals? "For Evil Men to Accomplish Their
Purpose, It Is only Necessary That Good Men Do Nothing." Perhaps the
"Do Nothing" Attitude Is Responsible for Much of the Industrial
Unrest. By Charles H Norton, General Manager Collins Service. 100%
June '20 p. 64. 1000 words.
The figure Charles F. Aked mentioned in 100% magazine might refer to
Charles Frederic Aked who was a prominent pastor and lecturer
originally born in Nottingham, England. He moved to the United States
and successively had congregations in New York, San Francisco, and
[EMCA] 1920 June, "100%: The Efficiency Magazine", "Are We Helping the
Radicals?" by Charles H. Norton, Page 64, Efficiency Company, Chicago.
[RCBA] 1920 July, Railway Carmen's Journal, Editorial Notes, Page 366,
Brotherhood Railway Carmen of the United States and Canada, Kansas
City, Missouri. (HathiTrust) link
[CCB] 1921, Volume of Proceedings of the Fourth International
Congregational Council, Held in Boston Massachusetts June 29 - July 6
1920, Address Delivered July 5, 1920 to the International
Congregational Council, "Some Present Features of the Temperance
Crusade" by Sir R. Murray Hyslop, J. P., Page 166, [The National
Council of the Congregational Churches of the United States, New
York], The Pilgrim Press, Boston. link
[BDP] 1920 July 30, "Business Digest and Investment Weekly" editor
Fremont Rider, Labor, Page 75, Arrow Publishing Corporation, New York.
(Google full view) link
The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org
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