Contributor Question: A Favorite Witty Quote from the Revolutionary Era


September 7, 2020
by Editors Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

This month we asked our contributors for their favorite witty quote from the era of the American Revolution. The responses are widely varied and wholly entertaining.

John Concannon

Captain Sir James Wallace of the Rose: “You, Abraham Whipple, on the 10th of June, 1772, burned His Majesty’s vessel, the Gaspee, and I will hang you at the yard-arm.” To which, more curt than courteous, Whipple replied with equal brevity, dispatch and touch of dashing humor: “To Sir James Wallace, Sir: Always catch a man before you hang him.”

John L. Smith, Jr.

Abigail Adams to Mary Smith Cranch, October 12, 1786: “Ironing is very bad for you.”

David Head

No one tops the Tory Peter Oliver for acerbic insults. His Origin and Progress of the American Rebellion is chock full of venomous put downs. My favorite? When asked to describe Samuel Adams’s looks, Oliver wrote “I do not know how to delineate them stronger, than by the Observation made by a celebrated Painter in America, vizt. “‘That if he wished to draw the Picture of the Devil, that he would get Sam Adams to sit for him.’”

Jeff Dacus

Things never change. Nathanael Greene, May 20, 1777: “The Congress have so many of those talking gentlemen among them that they tire themselves and everybody else with their long labored speeching that is calculated more to display their own talents than to promote the public interest.”

Bettina A. Norton

In 1787, there was much agitation over a proposal for a bridge to be erected over the North Ferry to Beverly—principal mover being George Cabot, and “Mr. Blyth, a limner, who was noted for his ingenious play on words, said, on the occasion, that he never knew a bridge built without railing on both sides.”

Ray Raphael

Gouverneur Morris, whose family owned Morrisania, much of the present-day Bronx: “A firm government alone can protect our liberties. The rich will have the same effect here as elsewhere if we do not keep them within their proper sphere. We should remember that the people never act from reason alone. The rich will take advantage of their passions & make these the instruments for oppressing them. They always did. They always will.”

Katie Turner Getty

In 1767, Dr. Joseph Warren engaged in a war of words in the Boston Gazette with Dr. Thomas Young over the practice of bloodletting. When Dr. Young threatened to take legal action, Dr. Warren retorted, “I would just hint to you, that before you can expect to recover damages for the loss of reputation, you must prove that you had a reputation to lose.” With this zinger, Warren demonstrated that he would’ve made an equally good attorney as he did physician.

Robert S. Davis

Benjamin Franklin, on the need for unanimous congressional support of the Declaration of Independence: “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Kevin Conn

In response to New Jersey Gov. William Livingston’s August 1781 proclamation offering a reward of $200 in New Jersey scrip for his capture, Loyalist James Moody published his own reward proclamation that same month: “Whereas a certain William Livingston . . . now a lawless usurper and incorrigible rebel, stands convicted in the minds of all honest men, . . . of many atrocious crimes and offences against God and the King, . . . I do therefore hereby promise to pay the sum of two hundred guineas, true money, to the person or persons who shall bring the said William Livingston alive into New York . . . If his whole person cannot be brought in, half the sum above specified will be paid for his Ears and Nose, which are too well known, and too remarkable to be mistaken. J. MOODY”

Gregory J. W. Urwin

On July 23, 1781, Gov. Thomas Nelson wrote Lt. Gen. Charles, Second Earl Cornwallis, to enquire how Virginia planters might secure the return of runaway slaves seeking freedom with the British. Cornwallis responded with an emancipatory barb wrapped in courtly language: “Any proprietor not in Arms against us, or holding an Office of trust under the Authority of Congress and willing to give his parole that he will not in future act against His Majesty’s interest, will be indulged with permission to search the Camp for his Negroes & to take them if they are willing to go with him.”

William Welsch

Advertisement in the Pennsylvania Evening Post, November 1, 1777, during the British occupation of Philadelphia: “Wanted to live with two single gentlemen, a Young Woman to act in the capacity of housekeeper, and who can occasionally put her hand to anything. Extravagant wages will be given, and no character required. Any young woman who chooses to offer, may be further informed at the bar of the City Tavern.”

Mary V. Thompson

George Washington, Diary entry, Tarborough, North Carolina, Monday, April 18, 1791: “We were recd. at this place by as good a salute as could be given with one piece of artillery.”

Joseph Lee Boyle

George Washington writing to Dr. John Cochran on August 16, 1779: “When the Cook has a mind to cut a figure (and this I presume he will attempt to do to morrow) we have two Beef-stake Pyes, or dishes of Crabs in addition, one on each side the center dish, dividing the space, & reducing the distance between dish & dish to about Six feet, which without them, would be near twelve a part—Of late, he has had the surprizing luckto discover, that apples will make pyes; and its a question if, amidst the violence of his efforts, we do not get one of apples instead of having both of Beef.”

Steve Leet

British staff officer Stephen Kemble, diary entry, December 1775: “They openly avow that they have a right to oppress others; but they complain; without cause, of being oppressed themselves. They acknowledge, in words, Subjection to the King; but they will not submit to his government. They will have a right to ravage and murder all that stand in their way; but the King has no right to appoint the commander in chief of his Forces Governor over them; it is arbitrary and despotic. Their flying in the face of Government and destroying private property is not so much trespass; but the King’s calling them to an Account for it is insult and oppression.”

Joseph E. Wroblewski

The Continental Cavalry’s Four Regiments had been sent from Valley Forge to Trenton for winter headquarters. Casimir Pulaski wrote to George on January 20, 1777 complaining about a lack of forage and living quarters for his men, and what he felt was a “major insult” to the Cavalry: “We have not gained much by changing our Quarters; in Camp the Cavalry received Rum from time to time—here we have none—I hope my General, that when you give orders for furnishing the infantry with means for making themselves merry, you will not leave the Cavalry in the dumps.” Washington replied: “The Scarcity of Rum is so great that the Infantry can only have it dealt to them on certain occasions—your men must therefore content themselves till times of greater plenty.”

Todd W. Braisted

Extract from a letter from Brig. Gen. John Campbell to John Dalling, Kingston, Jamaica, April 12, 1780, concerning the regiment of Jamaica Volunteers: “Dalrymple’s legionary Troops parading last Evening in a ragged line, half Cloathed and half Drunk. They Seem to possess the true complexion of Buccaneers, and it would be illiberal to Suppose, their principles were not in harmony with their faces. 100 of them were only collected together, and seemed so volatile and frolicksome, I thought it good policy to order 10 Guineas for them, to be drunk in grog on board their transports, and embarked them with three cheers, to the great Satisfaction of the Town of Kingston.”

Jett Conner

Attempting to allay colonial fears of losing trade with Great Britain if America separated from the homeland, Thomas Paine reminded colonists in Common Sense that Americans “will always have a market while eating is the custom of Europe.”

Michael Cecere

Gen. Charles Lee to Gen. John Armstrong, August 27, 1776: “The People here [in Georgia] are if possible more harum skarum than their sister colony [South Carolina]. They will propose anything, and after they have propos’d it, discover that they are incapable of performing the least. They have propos’d securing the Frontier by constant patrols of horse Rangers. When the scheme is approv’d of they scratch their heads for some days, and at length inform you that there is a small difficulty in the way; that of the impossibility to procure a single horse.—Their next project is to keep their inland Navigation clear of [enemy] Tenders by a numerous fleet of [armed boats]. When this is agreed to, they recollect that they have not a single boat. Upon the whole I shou’d not be surprised if they were to propose mounting a body of Mermaids on Alligators!”

Michael J. F. Sheehan

Recalling having been accosted by Capt. Robert Clayton, 17th Regiment of Foot, about why the guns were not firing at the oncoming Americans attacking Stony Point in 1779, Lt. John Robertsof the Royal Artillery, very insulted at being yelled at, recalled, “I believe he did not know [me] to be an Officer, from the Manner in which he spoke to me.” Evidently, even under the duress of battle, Roberts still expected some decorum among gentlemen.

Kim Burdick

French officer Jean-François Louis deClermont-Crevecoeur commented on American customs, attitudes, and women: “The Americans are tall and well built, but most of them look as though they had grown while convalescing from an illness. (There are some, however, who are big and fat, but not very vigorous.) The Americans do not live long; generally one notices that they live to be sixty or seventy, and the latter are rare. There are, however, men and women here of eighty, but it is exceedingly uncommon for them to reach that age.”

Derrick E. Lapp

In October, 1777, after a couple of letters back and forth between George Washington and William Howe, accusing one another of destroying civilian property, and following the battle of Germantown, at which the Americans gave the British a run for their money, Washington delivered the ultimate “mic-drop”: “General Washington’s compliments to General Howe. He does himself the pleasure to return him a dog, which accidentally fell into his hands, and by the inscription on the Collar appears to belong to General Howe.”

Louis Arthur Norton

Royal Navy Capt. Richard Pearson surrendered to John Paul Jones after being defeated in the famous moonlight battle off Flamborough Head. Pearson received a knighthood from the King George III for his bravery and saving other vessels, even in a losing effort. When a French officer told Jones heard of this, Jones remarked, “Let me fight him again, M. le Maréchal, I will make him a Lord!”

Roger Smith

Gen. John Stark before engaging the British and Hessian army in the Battle of Bennington: “There are your enemies, the Red Coats and the Tories. They are ours, or this night Molly Stark sleeps a widow!”

Jim Piecuch

John Adams wrote to Benjamin Rush in 1790: “The History of our Revolution will be one continued Lye from one End to the other. The Essence of the whole will be that Dr Franklins electrical Rod, Smote the Earth and out Spring General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his Rod—and thence forward these two conducted all the Policy Negotiations Legislation and War.”

Timothy Symington

Two toasts published in the Massachusetts Spy, July 24, 1776: “#13: Sore eyes to all Tories, and a Chestnut Burr for an Eye Stone. #14: Perpetual itching without benefit of scratching to the Enemies of America.”

Don Glickstein

Nathanael Greene to his wife, Caty, on December 7, 1780, upon arriving at Charlotte, North Carolina, to take command of the southern army: “I arrived here the 2d of this month and have been in search of the Army I am to command, but without much success, having found nothing but a few, half-starved soldiers who are remarkable for nothing but poverty and distress.”

Michael Jacobson

Captain James Gray, 3rd New Hampshire Regiment, to his wife Susan, May 18, 1777, on his way to Fort Ticonderoga: “when I left Exeter I forgot my coffee pot, & thot not of it until I got to Keene, so that I am now at a loss how to make use of Coffee.”

Bruce Ware Allen

United States congressman Fisher Ames, quoted by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “monarchy is a merchantman, which sails well, but will sometimes strike on a rock, and go to the bottom; whilst a republic is a raft, which would never sink, but then your feet are always in water.”

Philip D. Weaver

Pennsylvania’s Col. Anthony Wayne was named the commander of Fort Ticonderoga and Mount Independence in late November 1776. The tightly-wound Wayne, who had it in for the 3rd New Jersey ever since their arrival, was not a very popular choice. 2nd Lieutenant Elmer noted in his journal that “I hear that Col. Wayne is promoted to Brigadier-General, but believe it is a joke.”

Don N. Hagist

Anthony Wayne is remembered for his bold generalship, but his correspondence reveals quite a wit as well. In a letter to Gen. William Irvine on December 14, 1779, he wrote, “I must confess that [my soldiers] would make a better appearance had they a sufficiency of hatts—but as Congress don’t seem to think that an essential or necessary part of Uniform, they mean to leave us uniformly bare headed—as well as bare footed—& if they find that we can bare it tolerably well in the two extremes, perhaps they may try it in the Center.”

Gene Procknow

Joseph Plumb Martin, a chronically mischievous soldier: “Levity and Folly are twin sisters, and are restive jades when they are yoked together in the same vehicle and have Indiscretion for a driver, they will very often draw a man into wild and ridiculous scrapes, as I know by experience.”

Stephen Elliott

Maj. Gen. Robert Howe, whose handwriting is abysmal, ended a short letter that I struggled for 30 minutes trying to read with this: “P.S. Don’t Complain of my bad writing for I have done my best, but learn to read it.” It was as if Howe was taunting me, nearly 250 years later.

Jane Hampton Cook

Advertisement in the Massachusetts Spy, December 6, 1781: “PATENT MEDICINES. Vivifying Balsom, excellent against weak nerves, palpitations of the heart, over-bashfulness and diffidence; in great demand for the use by the army. Sp. Mend. Or in the true spirit of lying, extracted by a distillation of some hundreds of the Royal Gazette of New York. Other paper has been tried but it is found, after much experience, that there is a peculiar quality in the component parts of the paper and ink of the Royal Gazette, which alone can produce this spirit in true perfection.”

Derek W. Beck

When Gen. Philip Schuyler wrote to Gen George Washington of the American taking on October 18, 1775 of Fort Chambly near Montreal, Schuyler included Gen. Richard Montgomery’s inventory of the spoils. The list ended with the line: “Royal Fusileers, 83. Accoutrements, 83.” Washington replied, “We laugh at his Idea of Classing the Royal Fuzileers with the Stores: Does he [Montgomery] consider them as Inanimates or as a Treasure?

Adam Zielinski

Gouverneur Morris to John Dickinson, April 13, 1803: “In adopting a republican form of government, I not only took it as a man does his wife, for better, for worse, but, what few men do with their wives, I took it knowing all its bad qualities.”


  • Great Britain had many politicians who favored the Americans, such as William Pitt, Edmund Burke and John Wilkes.
    Wilkes was noted as the homeliest man in England, nay, the ugliest. And yet women found him fascinating. He was a notorious womanizer.
    He crossed swords with John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich and First Lord of the Admiralty during the Revolution. Montagu was also a rake and a gambler.
    Montagu told Wilkes, “Sir, I do not know if you will die on the gallows of the pox.”
    To which the sharp witted Wilkes replied,” That depends, my lord, whether I embrace your lordships principles or your mistress.”
    Once, when running for Parliament, Wilkes asked a constituent for his vote. “I would rather vote for the devil,” was the reply.
    Wilkes responded, ” Naturally, and if your friend decides against standing, can I count on your vote?”
    Wilkes fought for freedom of the press with his own newspaper. He, like Burke, favored the American cause, but was repelled by the murderous French Revolution.
    Half of Wilkes-Barre Pa is named after this friend of America

  • “they all tole me never to go into the regular service, that to volunteer, for a regular soldier lived a dogs life I entered the service in June before the battle of Gilford”
    Affidavit of Stephen Arther [R271] in support of the pension application of Abraham Childers [R1922]. Arther was born 8 March 1760 and was deposed on 28 November 1856.

  • Another one…though I seen two somewhat different versions of it. Following the Battle of the Brandywine in September 1777, British General Sir William Howe occupied Philadelphia. When told that Howe had captured the city, Benjamin Franklin (at the time abroad in France) responded “No… Philadelphia has captured Howe.”. The other version is that he told the British had taken Philadelphia and he replied ” No, Sir… Philadelphia has taken the British”.

  • One of my favorite eighteenth-century witticisms comes from “Jonathan Carpenter and the American Revolution: The Journal of an American Naval Prisoner of War and Vermont Indian Fighter” reprinted in “Vermont History,” vol. 36, no. 2, p. 84.

    While being held prisoner at Forton Prison near Portsmouth, England, Carpenter wrote of a verbal exchange between a prisoner and the British head of the prison about the Americans being subdued. The prisoner responded, “You have not done it yet nor won’t till the D[evi]l’s blind & his eyes an’t sore yet ….”

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