Famous Quotations

The offspring of oft-quoted Proverbs -- of biblical or ancient origins -- famous quotations have become a staple of speeches and rhetoric since the 19th century, artfully inserted into arguments as means of support.

The earliest usage of quotations was for purely ornamental purposes, with no intention of swaying the audience or granting a statement authority. Prime examples include: Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty or give me death"; the Bible's "And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free"; Socrates' "Virtue is the beauty of the soul"; Keats' "'Beauty is truth, truth beauty' -- that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know"; and Benjamin Disraeli's "Justice is truth in action." These quotations were used for the sole purpose of buttressing ideas.

During the next few decades, a new usage of quotations emerged: inspiration. Anthologies and dictionaries of famous, uplifting quotations began to appear on bookshelves. These compilations, such as A Book of Golden Thoughts (1871) and For Thy Good Cheer: A Collection of Helpful and Beautiful Thoughts (1904) were immensely popular and encouraged optimism, happiness and motivation. Later anthologies extended these collections to quotations in all areas of philosophy.

As the years passed, the use of famous quotations took on a more polemical edge to advance an agenda. This practice manifested itself in many areas, including esteemed-authority quotations, courtesy quotations, adversary quotations, comparing an individual's past stances with his present ones for delegitimization and out-of-context quotations.

Esteemed-authority quotations operate under the assumption that the age of the quote reflects the universality of the idea. The prestige of the individual and his articulation play a vital role as well. Senator Stephen Young, in discussing the Vietnam War, quoted the Roman historian Sallust to his fellow senators: "It is always easy to begin a war, but very difficult to stop one, since its beginning and end are not under the control of the same men." Granting his statement a degree of revered antiquity, Young effectively utilized history to inform the present. The quotations of Winston Churchill, Benjamin Disraeli, Douglas McArthur and countless others that are popularly called upon indicate that the degree of prestige and eloquent formulation are essential criteria for using famous quotations in persuasive contexts.

When John F. Kennedy toured Berlin, he quoted Goethe. In Italy, he quoted Guiseppe Mazzini and in Ireland, George Bernard Shaw. This is considered a courtesy quote. A patriotic quote is common in the United States, where politicians often hearken back to the Founding Fathers to emphasize how a contemporary idea is really contingent on the foundations of America. In this respect, Republicans are more likely to quote Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln while Democrats will quote Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson to advance their views.

Another effective tactic is the use of a quotation from a recognized adversary to support a statement. This is achieved by disregarding implicit sarcasm and using it selectively and out of context. Winston Churchill once said: "We cannot tell whether Hitler will be the man who will once again let loose upon the world another war in which civilization will irretrievably succumb, or whether he will go down in history as the man who restored honor and peace of mind to the great Germanic nation and brought it back serene, hopeful and strong, to the forefront of the European family circle." Quoting only the latter half, Peter Howard, in the defense of Frank Buchman who stated: "I thank God for a man like Hitler," showed how the use of selective quotations could even make Churchill seem like a Nazi sympathizer.

Raking up past quotations to use against opponents is another popular method. Using past public statements and emphasizing the contrast to recent statements highlights an individual's inconsistency. This is usually used against politicians. One example of this is Edward Angly's book Oh Yeah about the public response of officials to the 1929 economic crash, their statements and predictions for the future, which seem ludicrous in retrospect. In November 1929, President Herbert Hoover said: "Any lack of confidence in the economic future or the basic strength of business in the United States is foolish." On February 14, 1930, Secretary of Agriculture James Davis said: " Let us be thankful that we are getting back on our feet again." Four months later he confidently stated: "The worst is over without a doubt."

In the past 200 years, famous quotations have become a central part of argument, of polemic, of inspiration and of knowledge. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: "By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote."

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Quotations for All Occasions
Catherine Frank; Catherine Frank.
Columbia University Press, 2000
The Morrow Book of Quotations in American History
Joseph R. Conlin.
William Morrow, 1984
Wisdom from the Ancients: Enduring Business Lessons from Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and the Illustrious Leaders of Ancient Greece and Rome
Thomas J. Figueira; T. Corey Brennan; Rachel Hall Sternberg; Julia Heskel.
Perseus Publishing, 2001
Wisdom from the Robber Barons: Enduring Business Lessons from Rockefeller, Morgan, and the First Industrialists
George David Smith; Frederick Dalzell.
Perseus Publishing, 2000
Key Quotations in Sociology
Kenneth Thompson.
Routledge, 1996
The Quotable Shakespeare: A Topical Dictionary
Charles Deloach.
McFarland, 1988
African American Quotations
Richard Newman.
Oryx Press, 1998
American Indian Quotations
Howard J. Langer; Howard J. Langer.
Greenwood Press, 1996
The Routledge Dictionary of Latin Quotations: The Illiterati's Guide to Latin Maxims, Mottoes, Proverbs and Sayings
Jon R. Stone.
Routledge, 2005
Quotemanship: The Use and Abuse of Quotations for Polemical and Other Purposes
Paul F. Boller Jr.
Southern Methodist University Press, 1967
Brush Up Your History! Start Quoting It Now! Mark Cohen and John Major Describe How They Approached the Task of Producing a Ground-Breaking Volume of Historical Quotations
Cohen, Mark; Major, John.
History Today, Vol. 54, No. 2, February 2004
Looking for a topic idea? Use Questia's Topic Generator