9 of history's best quotes
From Marie Antoinette's "Let them eat cake!" to Queen Victoria's "We are not amused", history is full of memorable one-liners. But how accurately do we remember them? Here we explore the real history behind nine famous quotes…
Neil Armstrong: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”
On 20 July 1969, as Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon, he marked the momentous event with this iconic statement.
After jumping more than three feet down from his spacecraft Apollo 11 onto the moon’s surface and issuing his immortal words, Armstrong explored the moon’s surface for two-and-a-half hours along with fellow American astronaut Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin. The pair made their mark by planting an American flag and a plaque that read, "Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon. July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind".
Interestingly, though, the words uttered by Armstrong in that historic moment are in fact a misquote. After a safe journey home Armstrong told the press that what he had actually said – or intended to – was, “That’s one small step for a man”. The indefinite article was lost over the crackling audio connection – a small omission that led to a significant change in the quote’s meaning. Armstrong acknowledged this, saying that “The ‘a’ was intended. I thought I said it”. Yet since the misquote had already been repeated the world over, Armstrong was forced to concede “I can’t hear it when I listen on the radio reception here on earth, so I’ll be happy if you just put it in parentheses”.
Marie Antoinette: “Let them eat cake!”
According to popular legend, this flippant remark was Marie Antoinette’s response to being told that the French people were starving and they could not afford bread. The quote, widely attributed to her, has become a symbol of the callous decadence of France’s monarchy on the eve of the French Revolution (1789–99).
Antoinette was famed for her extravagant lifestyle, and her exclamation of “Qu'ils mangent de la brioche" (which actually translates more literally to ‘let them eat brioche’ or a enriched, egg-based bread) was seen as damning mockery of the plight of her people.
It is now generally accepted, though, that Antoinette most likely never uttered these famous words. Instead they are thought to have been attributed to her by revolutionary propaganda keen to portray her as ignorant, distant and uncaring. Writing for History Revealed magazine, Emily Brand has suggested that the expression in fact pre-dates Antoinette. It is first referenced as the words “of a great princess” in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1766 treatise Confessions, written when Antoinette was only 11 years old. Brand argues the saying was only linked to Antoinette 50 years after her execution in 1793.
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But while this quote may not in reality have been uttered by Antoinette, the phrase had sticking power because of the popular perception, whether justified or not, of the French queen as outrageously extravagant and insensitive to the struggles of her people.
Winston Churchill: “We shall fight on the beaches… we shall never surrender”
Over the course of his political career, Winston Churchill delivered many iconic speeches in the face of war and hardship. From “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few” (1940) to “An iron curtain has descended across the continent” (1946), Churchill has been recognised as one of history’s most inspiring speakers.
Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches” quote was part of a grave yet rousing speech given by the prime minister in the aftermath the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation. Churchill’s words were arguably fundamental in transforming the event in the popular imagination from a humiliating defeat into a miraculous triumph of bravery and determination. Indeed, Churchill’s words – which are often misquoted as “we shall fight them on the beaches” – have been immortalised as an example of Britain’s plucky ‘Blitz spirit’ in the face of adversity.
A frequently misremembered fact about the “We shall fight on the beaches” speech is that Churchill did not originally read it out over the nation’s airwaves. He delivered the speech unrecorded to the House of Commons and sections of it were later read out by a BBC radio announcer. The famous recording we recognise today was not actually made until nine years later in 1949, when it was thought that Churchill's words should be set down for posterity.
Queen Victoria: “We are not amused”
The story goes that this famous line was Queen Victoria’s retort to a risqué anecdote told by a tactless guest at a Windsor dinner party. In this version of events the “we” is intended, not as the royal “we”, but as a reference to all the ladies present who were unimpressed by such vulgar behaviour. Disappointingly, though, it is not clear whether this story stems from historical fact or just appealing urban legend.
“We are not amused” has perhaps had such sticking power because it is emblematic of the public image of Victoria in her later years – a po-faced, dumpy woman dressed in black. The quote fits neatly with this straitlaced portrayal of her and also provides a handy epithet for popular ideas about Victorian society being stuffy and uptight.
The association of Victoria with the humourless quote arguably portrays the monarch in an unfair light. Writing for the Washington Post, historian Kate Williams has suggested that “dour” photos of Victoria, (the first photographed monarch) – taken before people learned how to pose – “unfairly colour our view of her”. Williams claims that Victoria was “full of passion for life, forgiving of moral peccadilloes” and “always loved laughter and jokes”. She was, in fact, often amused.
Julius Caesar: “I came, I saw, I conquered”
Translated from the Latin “Veni, Vidi, Vici”, this line is attributed to Roman emperor Julius Caesar, who supposedly used it to boast of his military success.
According to ancient accounts, Caesar sent the three-word message to Rome in 47 BC to report on his victory over Pharnaces II of Pontus in the battle of Zela. Despite being significantly outnumbered at Zela, Caesar managed to crush the Pontic forces. His five-day campaign proved a swift, decisive victory that saw Pharnaces subdued by Caesar’s military might.
According to Roman historian Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesars (AD 121) the “Veni, Vidi, Vici” slogan was also inscribed on placards during the ‘Pontic triumph’ – a public procession in celebration of Caesar’s return to Rome following his military victory.
In his Life of Caesar, Greek biographer Plutarch (c46–120 AD) writes that “In Latin the words have the same inflectional ending, and so a brevity which is most impressive”.
FDR: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”
These famous words were spoken during Franklin D Roosevelt’s first inaugural address, delivered at the United States Capitol, Washington DC on 4 March 1933. Following an election victory over republican Herbert Hoover in 1932, Roosevelt became the 32nd president of the United States. Known as ‘FDR’, he went on to become the first president to serve a total of four terms.
Elected during the depths of America’s Great Depression, Roosevelt made his 20-minute address a solemn and resolved affair. It tackled head-on the nation’s economic crisis and unemployment, blaming the “callous and selfish wrongdoing” of bankers and businessmen. This quote, which goes on to describe “fear itself” as the “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed effort to convert retreat into advance” appeared near the very beginning of Roosevelt’s address. Contemporaries understood it as a pointed attack on the damaged and pessimistic American mindset of the time, which had been dealt a heavy blow by the economic crash.
Broadcast to tens of millions of Americans over national radio networks, FDR’s speech was generally accepted as a dynamic and inspiring promise to get America back on track.
Oscar Wilde: “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about”
This remark, from Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, is just one example of reams of quotable material from the celebrated writer, conversationalist and wit.
Wilde’s comic plays made a satire of the contradictions and petty manners of polite Victorian society. Works including The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) and An Ideal Husband (1895) are full of the wry observances and witty aphorisms for which Wilde is best known. Dozens of his phrases, including “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”; “Always forgive your enemies – nothing annoys them so much” and “I have nothing to declare but my genius” have proven enduringly popular.
In 2007 Wilde was voted Britain’s greatest wit in a poll of more than 3,000 comedy fans, beating to the top spot Spike Milligan, Winston Churchill and Noel Coward. The Irish-born Wilde was wisecracking until the very end, reportedly quipping on his Parisian deathbed in November 1900, “Either those curtains go, or I do”.
Queen Elizabeth I: “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too”
This assertion of royal power from Elizabeth I was part of a rousing speech delivered by the queen in one of England’s darkest moments, as the nation faced the threat of imminent attack from the Spanish Armada. Elizabeth’s rallying cry was intended to motivate the English troops assembled at Tilbury in August 1588 as they awaited the arrival of an unprecedented Spanish invasion force. Through her words the queen clearly portrayed herself as a warrior ready to fight for her nation.
Accounts portray Elizabeth addressing her troops atop a white steed, wearing a helmet and cutlass. Despite the threat to her safety, the queen allegedly refused to return to London, instead resolving to stay at the English army camp at Tilbury. She reportedly declared that she would “not think of deserting her army at a time of danger”.
Writing for HistoryExtra in 2015, Robert Hutchinson revealed that although the speech elsewhere pledges that “shortly we shall have a famous victory over these enemies of my God, of my kingdom, and of my people’’, in reality it was probably not delivered in a moment of imminent danger. Hutchinson suggests that Elizabeth’s stirring words only reached her men after the Armada was already in retreat. The words were recorded by royal courtier Lionel Sharp and later repeated to the army.
Eleanor Roosevelt: “Women are like teabags – you don’t know how strong they are until you put them in hot water”
While her husband, Franklin D Roosevelt, was serving as US president between 1933 and 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt redefined the role of first lady through her active engagement in politics. An outspoken social campaigner and early ambassador of the United Nations, Eleanor was also engaged in human rights work, playing a significant role in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.
Many inspirational quotes have been attributed to Eleanor, including “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent”; “Do one thing every day that scares you” and “It is not fair to ask of others what you are not willing to do yourself”.
Her “Women are like teabags” quote seems to draw on several older variations of the idea, including “A man is like an egg, the longer he is kept in hot water the harder he is when taken out”, which appeared in an 1858 Boston newspaper, and “Men are like potatoes; they do not know how soon they may be in hot water”, from an 1870 Dublin newspaper.
While there is little concrete evidence that Eleanor spoke the original quote, it is now widely attributed to her. The adage is reportedly a favourite of presidential candidate Hilary Clinton, who herself recently ascribed it to Eleanor.
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in March 2016
Ellie Cawthorne is HistoryExtra’s podcast editor. She also contributes to BBC History Magazine, runs the podcast newsletter and hosts several live and virtual BBC History Magazine events.