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COMIC LEGEND: The term “What this country needs is a really good five-cent cigar” was actually coined by a cartoonist, not Vice President Thomas R. Marshall.
STATUS: I’m Going With False
Reader Elliot wrote to me awhile back to ask:
I recently read in *Veeps* by Kelter and Shellabarger that Vice President Thomas Riley Marshall’s famous quotation about “What this country needs is a good five-cent cigar” originated from the strip *Abe Martin of Brown Country*. True? I can’t really find it anywhere else.
Thomas Riley Marshall, Woodrow Wilson’s Vice President, is likely one of the country’s least remembered Vice Presidents. Sadly enough, he really IS best remembered only for a one-liner he once delivered in response to Senator Joseph Bristow listing the country’s needs. Marshall retorted, “What this country needs is a really good five-cent cigar.”
That’s pretty much his legacy. A great one-liner.
But was it even his own?
Elliot refers to Abe Martin, who was an extremely popular character created by cartoonist Kin Hubbard in the early 20th Century (1904 until Hubbard’s death in 1930).
Abe Martin was a down-to-Earth character with homespun wisdom.
Here are a few of his classic quotes:
“Don’t knock th’ weather. Nine-tenths o’ th’ people couldn’ start a conversation if it didn’ change once in a while.”
“Flattery won’t hurt you if you don’t swallow it.”
“Nobody ever forgets where he buried the hatchet.”
“Nobody can be as agreeable as an uninvited guest.”
Funny stuff. Here are two of his comics…
So the charge is that it was Hubbard who came up with the quote in one of his strips circa 1905 and not Marshall in the 1910s. And there’s definitely something to be said for that, as Hubbard DID, indeed, make many comments about “good cigars,” although I don’t think Abe Martin ever said the EXACT phrase in any of the comics. Still, Marshall was the governor of Indiana and Hubbard was from Indiana, it seems logical that Marshall would have been influenced by Hubbard. In addition, Abe Martin WAS associated enough with the line that a company even used Abe Martin to sell…five cent cigars! Here’s a cigar wrapper…
So Hubbard had a decent case when it came down to who came up with the line.
HOWEVER, the issue is moot since the phrase predated BOTH men.
As Jeffrey Graf of Indiana University notes:
The remark, however, appears well before 1905. The Yale Book of Quotations cites the Hartford Courant of September 22, 1875: “What this country really needs is a good five cent cigar – New York Mail. Other earlier sources include The New Orleans Times of September 25, 1875 which reads under the headline “Personalities”: The Danbury News isn’t a dead journal yet by any means, but continues, at intervals, to hit the nail on the head with astonishing force and precision. It says: What this country really needs is a good five cent cigar. The Saturday Evening Post of October 16, 1875 under “Facetiae” reports: The Danbury News says: “What this country really needs is a good five cent cigar.” It is safe to wager ten to one that the editor’s wife enertains an entirely different opinion.
Sooo…yeah, NEITHER guy came up with it.
Thanks to Elliot for the question and thanks to Jeffrey Graf for the definitive answer! Check out Jeffrey’s paper on the topic here for more information.
Check out some classic Comic Book Legends Revealed related to other comic strips that DID inspire parts of our culture!
What comic strip led to the nickname of the Clash’s drummer?
Okay, that’s it for this week!
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