J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, December 04, 2017

How Long Have Facts Been Stubborn Things?

On 4 December 1770, John Adams wound up his speech in defense of the soldiers tried for murder after the Boston Massacre by saying:
I will enlarge no more on the evidence, but submit it to you.—Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence: nor is the law less stable than the fact; if an assault was made to endanger their lives, the law is clear, they had a right to kill in their own defence; if it was not so severe as to endanger their lives, yet if they were assaulted at all, struck and abused by blows of any sort, by snow-balls, oyster-shells, cinders, clubs, or sticks of any kind; this was a provocation, for which the law reduces the offence of killing, down to manslaughter, in consideration of those passions in our nature, which cannot be eradicated. To your candour and justice I submit the prisoners and their cause.
The words “Facts are stubborn things” are among the most useful and memorable things John Adams ever said.

But Adams didn’t coin that phrase. He was repeating an adage that the jurymen had probably already heard.

Quote Investigator found a close variant on the phrase in a 1713 book titled titled Treason Unmask’d:
But Matters of Fact are stubborn Things, and no Fact can be more certain, than that his See Was full of him, while between December 6, and January 10, he had committed several Treasons, and was put into Custody for them.
And an exact version in The Political State of Great Britain, November 1717:
But Facts are Stubborn Things And therefore, when he comes to the Proof of his Charge, I have a Right to demand of him, to keep to those Four Particulars which I have just now mentioned.
Other examples from the eighteenth century include E. Budgell’s Liberty and Progress from 1732, Bernard Mandeville’s An Enquiry into the Origin of Honor, and the Usefulness of Christianity in War from the same year, a 1747 essay on Field Husbandry, and Tobias Smollett’s translation of Gil Blas, published in 1748.

Founders Online shows the adage was used in America as well. On 17 May 1764, Gov. John Penn reminded the Pennsylvania Assembly:
As Facts are stubborn Things, and Truth does not stand in Need of any Colouring or Disguise, nothing more is necessary, in order to set the Controversy between us in its true Light, than to take a short and summary Review of the Transactions which gave Rise to it.
Benjamin Franklin, responding on behalf of the Pennsylvania assembly on 30 May, repeated the phrase:
But now you chuse to pass all over with a “silent Disregard,” reflecting probably on the Maxim you had before advanced, that “Facts are stubborn Things,” and despairing, it seems, by any “Colouring” to “disguise the Truth.”
John Adams himself used the adage again in a letter to Elbridge Gerry on 6 Dec 1777:
The rapid Translation of Property from Hand to Hand, the robbing of Peter to pay Paul distresses me, beyond Measure. The Man who lent another an 100 £ in gold four years ago, and is paid now in Paper, cannot purchase with it, a Quarter Part, in Pork, Beef, or Land, of what he could when he lent the Gold. This is Fact and Facts are Stubborn Things, in opposition to Speculation.
And Samuel Hoffman wrote to Alexander Hamilton on 28 Oct 1799:
It is a common observation that “Facts are stubborn things”—& I conclude it was on this ground that Lieut. Col. Smith advised me rather to resign quietly my Commission than risk the Event of a Court Martial…
(The facts in that case being that Hoffman had hidden a ten-dollar bill from a fellow lieutenant but insisted it was just a joke. He was dismissed.)

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