Famous Sayings: #14 — ‘Honesty Is the Best Policy’

June 12, 2016

Honesty is the best policy.

honesty is the best policy, hand, fingers crossed
Image courtesy of kibsri at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Chances are you have heard this quote in some form or another.

I stumbled upon this quote while looking up information about Benjamin Franklin in a previous post. I believe he was credited for coining the phrase, “Honesty is the best policy,” in one of my sources.

Many of us were led to believe that Franklin did indeed coin the phrase, but is that correct?


Who Really Coined This Phrase?

This quote is often attributed to Benjamin Franklin. Some sources say it can be found in Poor Richard’s Almanac. The almanac was a yearly edition Franklin first published on December 19, 1732, and published for 25 years (History.com). Franklin did use the phrase, but there is no instance of the phrase in any edition of the publication.

I found a compilation of the online Poor Richard’s Almanac, in PDF form. All the text for each edition is there. Even with a simple search, I could not find the phrase in question within the text. There were of course instances of “Honesty.” However, “best” turned up only a few times and there is only one instance of “Policy.” The words were never in the same sentence.

According to Gabriel Abend, the phrase “Honesty is the best policy,” appears in three of Franklin’s papers. These documents are: “Comparison of Great Britain and America as to Credit” (1777), a letter to Edward Bridgen (1779), and “The American Commissioners to Robert R. Livingston” (1783).

From the top of the first document, “Comparison of Great Britain and America as to Credit in 1777,” there is an outline of characteristics one can use to determine a man’s credit:

In the Affair of Borrowing Money, a Man’s Credit depends on some or all of the following Particulars:

  1. His known Conduct with regard to former Loans, in the Punctuality with which he discharg’d them.
  1. His Industry in his Business.
  1. His Frugality in his Expences.
  1. The Solidity of his Funds, his Estate being good, and free of prior Debts, whence his undoubted Ability of Paying.
  1. His well-founded Prospects of greater future Ability, by the Improvement of his Estate in Value, and by Aids from others.
  1. His known Prudence in Managing his general Affairs, and the Advantage they will probably receive from the present Loan he desires.
  1. His known Virtue, and honest Character manifested by his voluntary Discharge of Debts that he could not otherwise have been oblig’d to pay.

The instance of “Honesty is the best policy” is shown under 7. With regard to Character in the honest Payment of Debts.

These were not indeed wanting some half Politicians who propos’d stopping that Payment till Peace should be restor’d alledging that in the usual Course of Commerce and of the Credit given there was always a Debt existing equal to the Trade of 18 Months. That the Trade being for 5 Millions Sterling per Annum, the Debt must be Seven Million and an half. That this Sum paid to the British Merchants would operate to prevent the Distress intended to be brought on Britain by our Stoppage of Commerce with her…

Franklin was definitely alluding to the unfair, forced trade the colonies had with Britain, especially in terms of the Tea Act of 1773 and the Coercive Acts of 1774 in response to the Boston Tea Party (History.com). This was all in the lead-up to the American Revolution.

Here’s more:

From 7. With regard to Character in the honest Payment of Debts.

But in Answer it was alledged that Injuries from Ministers should not be reveng’d on Merchants who were our Friends; that the Credit was in consequence of private Contracts made in Confidence of good Faith; that these ought to be held sacred and faithfully comply’d with; for that whatever publick Utility might be suppos’d to arise from a Breach of private Faith, it was unjust, and would in the End be found unwise, Honesty being in truth the best Policy.

Franklin continued on, saying that America eventually paid off its debts to Great Britain, but the latter continued to lie about matters. And as a result of its dishonesty, Britain suffered.

From 7. With regard to Character in the honest Payment of Debts.

England on the Contrary, an old, corrupt, extravagant and profligate Nation, sees herself deep in Debt which she is in no Condition to pay, and yet is madly and dishonestly running deeper; despairing ever to satisfy her Creditors; and having no Prospect of discharging her Debts but by a Publick Bankrupcy.

On the whole it appears, that from the general Industry, Frugality, Ability, Prudence and Virtue of America, she is a much safer Debtor than Britain. To say nothing of the Satisfaction generous Minds must have in reflecting, that by Loans to America they are opposing Tyranny and aiding the Cause of Liberty which is the Cause of all Mankind.

The quote was also attributed to William Shakespeare. From the Rusty Bee website, I learned that the quote was often cited from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. Here is the misattributed quote (from Act 1, Scene IV): “Honesty is the best policy. If I lose my honor, I lose myself.”

Here is the exchange I found between Octavia and Mark Antony, near the beginning of the scene. They were in a room in Mark Antony’s house:

OCTAVIA

O my good lord,
Believe not all; or, if you must believe,
Stomach not all. A more unhappy lady,
If this division chance, ne’er stood between,
Praying for both parts:
The good gods me presently,
When I shall pray, ‘O bless my lord and husband!’
Undo that prayer, by crying out as loud,
‘O, bless my brother!’ Husband win, win brother,
Prays, and destroys the prayer; no midway
‘Twixt these extremes at all.

MARK ANTONY

Gentle Octavia,
Let your best love draw to that point, which seeks
Best to preserve it: if I lose mine honour,
I lose myself
: better I were not yours
Than yours so branchless. But, as you requested,
Yourself shall go between ‘s: the mean time, lady,
I’ll raise the preparation of a war
Shall stain your brother: make your soonest haste;
So your desires are yours.

William Shakespeare was a wordsmith. He has coined numerous phrases, including those we may see in some films. But he didn’t coin this phrase.

Now, the first source I used led me once again to The Phrase Finder as the definitive source on this. According to Gary Martin, the earliest known source of “Honesty is the best policy” (or its origin) can be found in a 1599 work. Sir Edwin Sandys, an English politician and colonial entrepreneur, wrote this in Europae Speculum:

Our grosse conceipts, who think honestie the best policie.

Here’s the entire blog of text containing the fragment that I found via the University of British Columbia’s website, on Page 131 of a PDF:

All these things considered, it hath made me to mitigate my former imagination and to deem it not unpossible, that this over-politick and too wise Order may reach a note higher than our grosse conceipts, who thinke honestie the best policie, and truth the only durable armour of proufe; and may find by their refined observations of 5 experience, that newes make their impression upon their first reporting, and that then if they be good, they greatly raise up the spirits, and confirme the minds, especially of the vulgar, who easily believe all that their betters tell them; that afterwards when they happen to be controlled, mens spirits being cold are not so sensible as before, and either little regard it, or impute it to common error and uncerteintie of things; yea and that 10 the good newes commeth to many mens eares, who never heare of the check it hath.

The whole passage is quite amazing when you think about it.


What Does “Honesty Is the Best Policy” Mean?

It has a literal meaning. The Rusty Bee source say, “…telling the truth is always the best option.”

I don’t know how to say it better than that but the phrase has always alluded to business for me. While it has certain applications for dealing with people on a personal level, I think of correspondence and diplomacy first. Maybe that’s just me.

In any case, it pays to be honest to people. Sometimes, it literally pays.

However, what if one person isn’t being honest but gives the appearance of being honest? Hmm…


How Can We Apply This Idiom to Our Daily Lives?

As I said above, this can help on a personal level, as well as the professional.

Kids should learn this. Do you have a memory when you were a kid and did something that would get you in trouble? For example, did you break something, like a lamp or anything with glass? Did you lie about it in fear that you would get punished?

If you did lie and your parents found out eventually, what did they say? They probably told you that you should have told the truth. While your parents might have been mad (and you would have been disciplined), your punishment was worse because of the lying. Perhaps they would not have punished before; maybe all you had to do was clean up the mess you made, albeit with a little scolding. That’s why they say the cover up is worse than the crime. (I might use that for another Featured Post.)

We are told that we need to be honest in job interviews. If there is something on our record, we have to be upfront about it and find a way to address it with the person who is interviewing us.

This is especially true about military service or criminal records. No one should lie about serving in the military, which is illegal anyway. And if someone has a past arrest, it might be discovered later, so it’s best to discuss it as soon as possible. While a lie in this case is understandable — there is a stigma attached to people who have served time in prison, or have been arrested in most cases — dishonesty in this case may lead to termination.

Now, let’s come back to Sir Edwin Sandys’ passage. He alludes to the idiom being abused by certain people. For instance, some people will only take good news or the first news they hear as truth. Not only is that confirmation bias, but it is extremely lazy. Unfortunately, it’s a problem that we are still dealing with.

In particular, I think about our press and how unreliable it has become. That is a topic for another day and time…


Works Cited

Abend, Gabriel. The Moral Background: An Inquiry into the History of Business Ethics. Princeton University Press; Princeton, New Jersey. 2014. Print. p89.

“Boston Tea Party.” History.com. Web. Retrieved 12 June 2016. <http://www.history.com/topics/american-revolution/boston-tea-party>.

Craft, Jon. Poor Richard’s Almanac. Via UNSV. 1999. PDF. Retrieved 12 June 2016. <http://www.unsv.com/voanews/specialenglish/scripts/2010/11/07/0040/Poor_Richard’s_Almanack_by_Franklin_Benjamin.pdf>.

Franklin, Benjamin. “Comparison of Great Britain and America as to Credit, in 1777.” Packard Humanities Institute: The Papers of Benjamin Franklin. Web.  Retrieved 12 June 2016. <http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes.jsp?vol=24&page=508a>.

Henley, Mary Ellen. “Sir Edwin Sandys’s Europae Speculum: A Critical Edition.” The University of British Columbia; Vancouver, Canada. Apr 2001. PDF. Retrieved 12 June 2016. <https://open.library.ubc.ca/media/stream/pdf/831/1.0090420/1>.

Hylton, Jeremy. “Antony and Cleopatra: Entire Play.” The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Operated by The Tech (MIT). Web. Retrieved 12 June 2016. <http://shakespeare.mit.edu/cleopatra/full.html>.

kibsri. “Hand” FreeDigital Photos.net. 15 March 2013. Photograph. Retrieved 12 June 2016. <http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/images/Gestures_g185-Hand_p147371.html>.

Martin, Gary. “Honesty is the best policy – meaning and origin.” The Phrase Finder. n.d. Web. Retrieved 12 June 2016. <http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/honesty-is-the-best-policy.html>.

“The Moral Background: An Inquiry into the History of Business Ethics – Gabriel Abend.” Google Books. Web (Preview). Retrieved 12 June 2016. Big ol’, ugly-looking link.

“Poor Richard’s Almanac is Published – December 19, 1732.” History.com Web. Retrieved 12 June 2016. <http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/poor-richards-almanack-is-published>.

“Phrase Origins: Honest is the Best Policy.” Rusty Bee. 18 Jan 2011. Web. Retrieved 12 June 2016. <http://rustybee.com/phrase-origins-honesty-is-the-best-policy/>.

Shakespeare, William. Antony and Cleopatra. 1607-1623. Play.

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5 thoughts on “Famous Sayings: #14 — ‘Honesty Is the Best Policy’

  1. I would add Honest Abe Lincoln to the historical legend of this phrase. Saying you are honest often means little to me. You can often tell if one believes in honesty by looking in their eyes.

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    1. For me, it takes some time to know if someone believes in honesty. Eventually, they make it obvious by what they say, how they say it, and what they do.

      But sometimes, I can tell upon the first meeting. It might be the inflection of the voice or the look in their eyes, as you said. Something seems off and that’s only confirmed later on.

      Beyond that, instincts can only go so far. I have to proceed with caution regardless.

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  2. Pingback: Verifying Internet Research | Louise Bergin

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