Famous Sayings: #6 — ‘Nothing Is Certain Except…’

April 17, 2016

Nothing is certain except death and taxes.

nothing is certain, death and taxes, except death and taxes, Benjamin Franklin
Joseph Duplessis [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Before I delve into this topic I need to point out my mistake last week. Off-topic, but I forgot to post Episode 29 of my “Things I Don’t Like about Television” series. I went back and uploaded the post on Friday (and back-dated it), so please give it a read.

Now, let me tell you this: I think of the sayings I want to use on my own and I try to be timely with them. I’m already thinking weeks ahead. For example, I’m already thinking of a post for this Christmas. And, oh boy, is this post timely. I was already thinking about Tax Day in the United States (which is tomorrow), but it turns out that April 17th is the anniversary of Benjamin Franklin’s death. Considering his quote, what a coincidence that is…

Who Is Responsible for This Quote?

The original source for the general saying is pretty much unclear. While the actual quote is often credited to Benjamin Franklin, it looks like he might have been influenced [by other works]. He wasn’t the first to use the phrase “death and taxes,” but his is the best known.

During my search I found The Phrase Finder again. If it shows up in a search, I’m gonna look at it. However, I will always want to have more than one source. Gary Martin’s discussion of this quote goes over a few sources for the saying, including Benjamin Franklin, Daniel Defoe, and Margaret Mitchell, but he never really delves into the quote’s origin or the context.

Daniel Defoe, as was cited as using the quote in his 1726 book The Political History of the Devil:

Things as certain as death and taxes, can be more firmly believed.

The passage was a little bit different when I found it on the Internet Archive, which you can read here. It’s on page 269, near the bottom.

An Aside: It should be noted that Dafoe was an English author who was responsible for such works as Robinson Crusoe (1719-22) and Moll Flanders (1722). He was a Nonconformist and Dissenter whose later works were influenced by his imprisonment in 1703 (Mutter).

Margaret Mitchell was mentioned since she had a line mentioning “death and taxes” in her 1934 Civil War-Era epic Gone with the Wind:

Death, taxes and childbirth! There’s never any convenient time for any of them.

This time, The Phrase Finder was clearly the weakest source for this topic and it wasn’t the first source I visited anyway.

My search for this quote really started on the Freakonomics website. There, Fred Shapiro lists two earlier sources [besides Franklin]: Christopher Bullock and Edward Ward.

Christopher Bullock was a playwright who wrote The Cobler of Preston. From that 1716 work comes this line:

Tis impossible to be sure of any thing but Death and Taxes.

Edward Ward is cited for The Dancing Devils (1724). From that work comes this line:

Death and Taxes, they are certain.

What about Franklin in Particular?

The best source by far that I found was on the This Day in Quotes website. There, Robert Deis goes over Benjamin Franklin’s quote but provides an amazing amount of context for it.

Of course, Benjamin Franklin was one of the United States’ Founding Fathers. He helped to draft both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. In fact, when he penned this quote, he mentioned the Constitution by name.

Some more background information: The quote comes from a 1789 letter Benjamin Franklin wrote to French scientist Jean-Baptiste Leroy. The Frenchman was also a pioneer in the study of electricity, for which Franklin achieved the greatest amount of fame in European circles. What’s more is that Franklin served as Ambassador to France from 1776 to 1785, during which he secured important funds for the Colonial Army during the American Revolution. Franklin and Leroy had correspondence before since Leroy was an early admirer. During Franklin’s work as ambassador, the two become friends and would continue their correspondence after 1785.

The latter Franklin wrote was written in French, which he read, spoke, and wrote in often. It was also penned during the French Revolution and it had been over a year since Franklin had been able to contact Leroy. Here’s the important passage:

Are you still living? Or has the mob of Paris mistaken the head of a monopolizer of knowledge, for a monopolizer of corn, and paraded it about the streets upon a pole. Great part of the news we have had from Paris, for near a year past, has been very afflicting. I sincerely wish and pray it may all end well and happy, both for the King and the nation. The voice of Philosophy I apprehend can hardly be heard among those tumults. If any thing material in that way had occurred, I am persuaded you would have acquainted me with it. However, pray let me hear from you…a year’s silence between friends must needs give uneasiness. Our new Constitution is now established, everything seems to promise it will be durable; but, in this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.

Here is the last sentence in the original French:

Notre constitution nouvelle est actuellement établie, tout paraît nous promettre qu’elle sera durable; mais, dans ce monde, il n’y a rien d’assure que la mort et les impôts.

What Is the Meaning of “Nothing Is Certain…”?

The meaning is pretty much apparent, context or not.

In context: Franklin was worried about the longterm life of the Constitution. He was also alluding to his own failing health; he had lost weight and became weaker, as he said in his letter to Leroy. Franklin would die a few months afterward.

In life, death is guaranteed. So are taxes — for most people. Those are the only two things one can be sure of. Governments may change, people may change, and so can entire landscapes, but death and taxes are generally unavoidable. And heck, people pay once someone is born and when they die. It’s a pretty cynical statement, but a true one at that.

Does This Saying Still Hold Meaning Today?

Of course it does. Here’s a spoiler: It will never stop holding meaning until the world ends. To examine:

Death is the one of the most-feared things in life, with good reason. Depending on a person’s beliefs, once people die they stop existing [on this plane]. People fear the great unknown and the thought of oblivion is even scarier.

Governments need tax revenue in order to run, and for some services to be carried out so those will continue be collected. It’s a necessary evil, no matter how much we hate it.

However, it does seem a bit excessive. As I shared in an earlier post, Americans have many reasons to hate their worldwide tax system. No matter where you are, the IRS will find you and collect. You will have a 3-year window to clear up the agency’s mistakes and collect, but you can owe the government forever.

That’s very true even if you’re an expatriate. Those who renounce their U.S. citizenship have to pay an Expatriate Tax and even that’s complicated. According to IRS code 877 and 877a, this even applies to anyone who lost their legal resident status.

On top of that, every taxpayer even has to pay in order to have their income taxes done. :/ That said, Happy Tax Day!

Works Cited

Deis, Robert (a.k.a. “SubtropicBob”). “Nothing is certain except death and taxes.” This Day in Quotes. Subtropic Productions LLC. 13 Nov 2010. Web. Retrieved 17 Apr 2016. <http://www.thisdayinquotes.com/2010/11/nothing-is-certain-except-death-and.html>.

“Expatriation Tax.” Internal Revenue Service. United States. Web. Retrieved 16 Apr 2016. <https://www.irs.gov/Individuals/International-Taxpayers/Expatriation-Tax>.

Martin, Gary. “Nothing is certain by death and taxes.” The Phrase Finder. Web. Retrieved 15 Apr 2016. <>.

Mutter, Reginald P.C. “Daniel Defoe | English author. Encylopædia Britannica. Last updated 22 Apr 2015. Web. Retrieved 17 Apr 2016. <http://www.britannica.com/biography/Daniel-Defoe>.

“The political history of the devil, as well ancient as modern : in two parts ; part I. Containing a state of the devil’s circumstances, and the various turns of his affairs … ; part II. Containing his more private conduct, down to the present times …” Internet Archive. Web. Retrieved 17 Apr 2016. <https://archive.org/stream/politicalhistory1726defo#page/268/mode/2up/>.

Shapiro, Fred. “Quotes Uncovered: Death and Taxes.” Freakonomics. 17 Feb. 2011. Web. Retrieved 15 Apr 2016.<http://freakonomics.com/2011/02/17/quotes-uncovered-death-and-taxes/>.

Have any thoughts on the subject? Time’s yours.

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