Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.? John B. Finch? John Stuart Mill? Abraham Lincoln? Zechariah Chafee, Jr.?
The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.
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The right to swing my arms in any direction ends where your nose begins.
My right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins.
Strangely, these three similar statements were credited to three very different people. The first quote was attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. The second saying was credited to John Stuart Mill, and the third was ascribed to Abraham Lincoln. But I do not trust any of these attributions because no citations were provided. Could you investigate this adage and determine its origin?
Quote Investigator: The seminal reference work “The Yale Book of Quotations” presents an important citation for this saying that shows when the phrase entered the realm of scholarly legal discourse. The saying was not credited to any one of the three luminaries mentioned in the query. In June 1919 the Harvard Law Review published an article by legal philosopher Zechariah Chafee, Jr. titled “Freedom of Speech in War Time” and it contained a version of the expression spoken by an anonymous judge
Each side takes the position of the man who was arrested for swinging his arms and hitting another in the nose, and asked the judge if he did not have a right to swing his arms in a free country. “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins.”
Interestingly, the genesis of this adage can be traced back more than thirty-five additional years. Several variants of the expression were employed by a set of lecturers who were aligned with the temperance movement which favored restrictions on the sale and consumption of alcohol in the United States. The earliest instance located by QI appeared in a collection of speeches that were delivered by John B. Finch who was the Chairman of the Prohibition National Committee for several years in the 1880s and died in 1887.
The saying Finch used was somewhat longer and clumsier than later versions of the aphorism. But the central idea was the same, and Finch received credit from some of his colleagues. It is common for expressions to be shortened and polished as they pass from one speaker to another over a period of years. Here is the relevant excerpt from an oration Finch gave in Iowa City in 1882
This arm is my arm (and my wife’s), it is not yours. Up here I have a right to strike out with it as I please. I go over there with these gentlemen and swing my arm and exercise the natural right which you have granted; I hit one man on the nose, another under the ear, and as I go down the stairs on my head, I cry out:
“Is not this a free country?”
“Have not I a right to swing my arm?”
“Yes, but your right to swing your arm leaves off where my right not to have my nose struck begins.”
Here civil government comes in to prevent bloodshed, adjust rights, and settle disputes.
For decades the saying was used at pro-Prohibition rallies and meetings. Also, at the turn of the century the saying was adopted by some educators who presented it as a moral rule that children should learn about. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
The next instance dates to November 1887 and was located by Professor Jonathan Lighter of the University of Tennessee. The Atlanta Constitution newspaper published a story titled “Four Orators from Atlanta Make Stirring Speeches” about a group of speakers who were arguing in favor of prohibition laws to close barrooms and also requesting audience members to register to vote
The only leading argument urged by the anti-prohibitionists in this campaign for keeping open the bar-rooms, is personal liberty. A great man has said, “your personal liberty to swing your arm ends where my nose begins”. A man’s personal liberty to drink whisky and support barrooms ends where the rights of the family and the community begin.
This compact phrase was credited to a “great man”, but the man was not identified by the lecturer. The speaker may have been referring to the temperance advocate John B. Finch (see above) or some other person working toward the enactment of Prohibition. Alternatively, the remark may have been a rhetorical flourish.
In December 1887 a West Virginia newspaper reported on “The Temperance Meeting. At the Fourth Street M. E. Church, Last Evening” at which a lecturer named Major Camp delivered the saying. He did not ascribe the words to anyone in particular
“God made water; he never made liquor. If he had filled the Ohio with beer navigation would have stopped long ago.”
“I have no right to throw my arms out in a crowd, for I might hit somebody on the nose. My right stops where his nose begins. I have no right to drink if my drinking injures others.”
In 1894 a temperance campaigner named Rev. A. C. Dixon at the “Thirteenth International Christian Endeavor Convention” told a joke containing the aphorism. The phrase was embedded into the joke in a very natural way, and this usage arguably restated the 1882 instance and pre-figured the example legal case given fifteen years later in the Harvard Law Review
A drunken man was going down the street in Baltimore flinging his hands right and left, when one of his arms came across the nose of a passer-by. The passer-by instinctively clenched his fist and sent the intruder sprawling to the ground. He got up, rubbing the place where he was hit, and said, “I would like to know if this is not a land of liberty.” “It is,” said the other fellow; “but I want you to understand that your liberty ends just where my nose begins.”
In 1895 a biography of the temperance advocate Mary A. Woodbridge was published and it included the text of several of her speeches. One of her talks credited John B. Finch with using the aphorism though she did not say he created it
Neither in law nor equity can there be personal liberty to any man which shall be bondage and ruin to his fellow-men. John B. Finch, the great constitutional amendment advocate, was wont to settle this point by a single illustration. He said, “I stand alone upon a platform. I am a tall man with long arms which I may use at my pleasure. I may even double my fist and gesticulate at my own sweet will. But if another shall step upon the platform, and in the exercise of my personal liberty I bring my fist against his face, I very soon find that my personal liberty ends where that man’s nose begins.”
Also in 1895 the adage appeared in a publication from the Universalist Church in a short article signed by “Secretary Baer”
The man who votes yes because he desires “personal liberty” for himself and others needs to learn that his liberty ends where some other fellow’s nose begins, is a truth to be applied to this question of licensing the saloon. You have no more right to vote to establish a nuisance next door to my home than I have to vote to permit one to be located in your neighborhood.
In 1896 in Philadelphia the preacher Robert F. Y. Pierce used the phrase while discussing liberty
He illustrated the idea of personal liberty by the man who thought he had liberty to strike another man in the nose. That other sent the offender to jail to teach him that “your liberty ends where my nose begins.”
In 1902 the adage was mentioned by the Walter B. Hill, Chancellor of the University of Georgia at a meeting of the National Educational Association. It was also published by Hill in a periodical aimed at educators of young children called Kindergarten Magazine
Children learn at an early age the principle of the limitation of individual liberty. It can usually be fixed in the mind by the epigrammatic statement, “My right to swing my arm ends where your nose begins.”
By 1911 the expression was well-known enough within educational circles that it inspired a joke about a civics teacher
A teacher having attended an institute where one of the workers gave a talk on “Personal Rights,” was quite pleased at one of the illustrations used. Standing before the teachers and swinging his fists around the speaker said: “Now, I have a perfect right to stand here and swing my fists, but if I start down the aisle this way,” suiting the action to the word, “my rights leave off just where your nose begins.”
Endeavoring to use the same illustration in his civics class later, he began, “Now, I can stand here and swing my fists, but if I come down among you swinging my nose –” and that was as far as he got.
In 1918 an article in the Journal of the National Education Association used the phrase while discussing guidelines for discipline in a kindergarten
In discipline it is expression not repression. The children do as they please as long as they do not interfere with their neighbors. “The right to extend my hand stops where your nose begins.” Cooperative work stops quarreling.
In 1919 the article “Freedom of Speech in War Time” by Zechariah Chafee, Jr. was printed in the Harvard Law Review as noted at the beginning of this post
In 1939 the prominent lawyer Arthur Garfield Hays included the saying in a book he published titled “Democracy Works”. Hays was the general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union in the 1920s. He did not attribute the phrase to anyone in particular
In a society where interests conflict I realize there can be no absolutes. My freedom to swing my arm ends where the other fellow’s nose begins. But the other fellow’s nose doesn’t begin in my brain, or in my soul either, as the religionists would have it.
The aphorism is sometimes ascribed to the quotation magnet Oliver Wendell Holmes, but QIhas not yet found any evidence to support this assertion. For example, in 1970 a newspaper column by the humorist Bill Vaughan uncertainly credited a version of the adage to Holmes “or someone like him”. Vaughan did not specify Junior or Senior, but he probably intended the jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
“Don’t talk to me about a free country,” I told him. “As Oliver Wendell Holmes or someone like him once said, your freedom to act ends where my nose begins.”
The adage is also sometimes attached to Abraham Lincoln, but QI has not found any support for this connection. Here is an instance in 1980 in which Lincoln’s name is invoked in a letter to the editor of the Dallas Morning News
After over 30 years of erroneous liberal interpretations of our Constitution, the old Abraham Lincoln concept that your right to swing your arms ends where my nose begins, is no longer valid. For many people now think it is their right to do whatever they want regardless of anyone else.
In 1989 a politician used the expression when he argued in favor of a modern day prohibition: A city ordinance banning smoking instead of drinking alcohol. The politician credited Oliver Wendell Holmes for the remark
City Councilor Richard Chapman likes to quote the late Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes as he fights a recall campaign that began when he successfully sponsored an anti-smoking ordinance.
“He said, ‘Your right to throw a punch stops where my nose begins,"” said Chapman. “I think that’s very apropos for the smoking issue.”
In 1992 Richard Posner, the influential legal theorist, used the saying in his book “Sex and Reason”, and he connected the words to the ideas of John Stuart Mill; however, he did not claim that Mill ever used the phrase himself
Libertarianism–or, as it is sometimes called, classical liberalism–the philosophy of John Stuart Mill On Liberty, can be summed up in seven words: “Your rights end where his nose begins.” Government interference with adult consensual activities is unjustified unless it can be shown to be necessary for the protection of the liberty or property of other persons.
In conclusion, current evidence indicates that the saying under investigation began with Prohibitionist orators who expressed it using a variety of formulations during their speeches. John B. Finch communicated the earliest known instance in 1882. Ascriptions to other famous individuals such as Abraham Lincoln and Oliver Wendell Holmes (Junior or Senior) do not have any support at this time.
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(Many thanks to Professor Charles Landesman whose email inspired the formulation of this query and motivated this exploration.)
Image Notes: Public domain clip art of the liberty bell, a nose, and a fist fight.