Quote Origin: Never Retract. Never Explain. Get It Done and Let Them Howl

Benjamin Jowett? Nellie McClung? Elbert Hubbard? Lionel Arthur Tollemache? James Kay-Shuttleworth? Ralph Lingen? George Otto Trevelyan? Wilbur F. Storey? Benjamin Disraeli? John Arbuthnot Fisher? Anonymous?

Quote Investigator®
10 min readJan 20, 2023

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Public domain illustration of a wolf howling

Question for Quote Investigator: Accomplishing a difficult task when facing strong opposition takes a forceful personality. Here are three pertinent guidelines for persevering:

(1) Never retract. Never explain. Get it done and let them howl.
(2) Don’t explain, don’t argue, get the thing done and let them howl.
(3) Never explain, never apologize. Get the thing done and let them howl.

The first statement has been attributed to scholar Benjamin Jowett who was a Master of Balliol College, Oxford. The second has been ascribed to U.S. essayist and aphorist Elbert Hubbard. The third has been credited to activist Nellie McClung who successfully campaigned for women’s suffrage in Canada. Are any of this linkages accurate? Would you please explore this topic?

Reply from Quote Investigator: The earliest full match located by QI appeared in 1895 within an article in “The Journal of Education” of London by the English writer Lionel Arthur Tollemache. The piece presented Tollemache’s memories of Benjamin Jowett who had died a couple years earlier at age 76. Boldface added to excerpts by QI

On another occasion he said to me: “A friend of mine of great practical ability told me that he has laid down for himself three rules of conduct. Never retract. Never explain. Get it done and let them howl.” Jowett repeated these paradoxical maxims with a characteristic laugh, which seemed at any rate not to mark disapproval.

Jowett helped to popularize the remark, but he disclaimed credit for it. Hence, the name of the creator remains uncertain. QI believes the remark evolved over time, and it was assembled from preexisting fragments. Elbert Hubbard mentioned the saying, but he credited Jowett. Nellie McClung employed the third statement during a speech in 1924, but the saying was already in circulation.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

From 1846 to 1854 Benjamin Jowett was concerned with university and civil service reform. He was a friend of English civil servant Ralph Lingen who became the Permanent Secretary of the Education Office. According to the 1897 book “The Life and Letters of Benjamin Jowett”, Lingen wrote down a remark he heard from politician James Kay-Shuttleworth which partially matched the saying under examination. Jowett may have heard this remark from Lingen or Shuttleworth. Unfortunately, the book did not give a precise date for the remark:²

Sir J. Kay-Shuttleworth had said to Lingen, who was serving under him, with reference to some change, ‘Get it done; let the objectors howl.’

In 1860 Benjamin Jowett wrote a letter to the poet Alfred Tennyson’s children. The text suggested that Jowett enjoyed the repetition of phrases with the word “never”:³

I shall add two pieces of advice to you in large letters that you may remember them:

NEVER FEAR.
NEVER CRY.

In 1864 the prominent English poet Robert Browning employed a staccato series “never” phrases in a poem within the collection “Dramatis Personae”:⁴

Speak your mind though it vex some friend to hear,
Never brag, never bluster, never blush, —

In 1869 the “New York Tribune” used a sequence of phrases with the word “never” while criticizing “The Times” of London for reversing an editorial position without openly admitting the change:⁵

It never apologizes, never retracts, never allows its readers to remember that it is eating its own words . . .

In 1871 British statesman George Otto Trevelyan delivered a speech in Manchester. Trevelyan employed part of the saying under examination while praising a colleague. This citation provides more evidence that the phrase with the word “howl” was in circulation at the time:⁶

He knows well that the only motto for a public man is “Get it done, and let them howl.” (Cheers and laughter.) And he will get it done — (cheers) . . .

“The Life and Letters of Benjamin Jowett” included a section dated 1873 to 1876 which contained a list of adages from Jowett using the word “never”:⁷

In 1889 U.S. Senator Charles B. Farwell told an anecdote about his mistreatment by a Chicago, Illinois newspaper that was owned by journalist and publisher Wilbur F. Storey. The newspaper accused him of corruption in the whiskey business. Farwell went to Storey and asked him for redress. Storey replied by using “never” in a series:⁸

“He advised me to let it drop ‘Don’t even publish a denial’ he said. ‘I have found the best way to kill such things is to let them alone. They will die of their own poison. Never publish an explanation about anything. We never retract. We never explain. We simply ignore. That is what we shall do in this case, and you will be better off if you adopt the same course.’ I have taken Mr. Storey’s advice,” concluded the Senator, “and make it a rule never to trouble myself about such absurd lies.”

In 1891 a columnist in a Fredericksburg, Virginia newspaper praised a newspaper in Alexandria, Virginia:⁹

The Gazette is decidedly the most charming paper in the South. It never retracts; it never apologizes; it never explains; it pays no attention to what is said of it, but goes right along speaking of events in its own delightful way, regardless of consequences.

Benjamin Jowett died in October 1893, and in December “The Cornhill Magazine” of London published a piece without a byline about him titled “Memories of the Master of Balliol”. Jowett received credit for a version of the saying without the phrase containing “howl”:¹⁰

It is true the Master always felt that nothing succeeded like success, and would say pithily, ‘Never retract, never explain, never apologise’ — nay, would sometimes run risk of being looked upon as of the world worldly in his precepts to those who were just starting on their walk in life.

“Littell’s Living Age” of Boston, Massachusetts reprinted the article from “The Cornhill Magazine” shortly afterward. Oddly, Jowett received credit for a slightly altered version of the saying which used “retreat” instead of “retract”:¹¹

It is true the master always felt that nothing succeeded like success, and would say pithily, “Never retreat, never explain, never apologize” . . .

In 1895 “The Journal of Education” printed an article about Jowett by Lionel Arthur Tollemache as mentioned previously. “The Yorkshire Post” of England reprinted an excerpt which included the full version of the quotation under examination.¹² The remark also appeared in the “Cleveland Plain Dealer” of Ohio:¹³

On another occasion he said to me: “A friend of mine of great practical ability told me that he has laid down for himself three rules of conduct. Never retract. Never explain. Get it done and let them howl.”

In September 1895 “The Practitioner: A Journal of Practical Medicine” in London credited Jowett with a variant:¹⁴

. . . I venture to commend to the more progressive minds the principle on which the late Professor Jowett acted in carrying out his reforms: “Never withdraw; never explain; get the thing done and let them howl!”

Also, in 1895 the Dean of Canterbury Frederic William Farrar published a book about early Christianity titled “Gathering Clouds: A Tale of the Days of St. Chrysostom”. Farrar used the phrase with “howl” to describe the attitude of a historical figure:¹⁵

These last remarks completely upset Serapion’s usual disdainful indifference to what people said. He usually followed the rule, ‘Get the thing done, and let them howl.’

In April 1897 The Quarterly Review” ascribed to Jowett the following adage:¹⁶

Mindful of his own pet maxim, ‘Never fret, never fear, never explain,’ he simply asked for ‘a little ink’ and complied.

In 1903 “The Philistine: A Periodical of Protest” edited by Elbert Hubbard attributed the following to Jowett:¹⁷

Never explain, never retract, never apologize — get the thing done and let them howl!
— Rev. Dr. Benjamin Jowett

Also, in 1903 a partial version of the expression was attributed to British statesman Benjamin Disraeli by the biographer John Morley. Regrettably, Morley did not state when or where the phrase was spoken. Disraeli died in 1881, and QI has not yet found any direct evidence that he used the phrase:¹⁸

As Disraeli himself put it afterwards, Never complain and never explain.

In 1906 an article in “Chambers’s Journal” credited Jowett with a variant:¹⁹

. . . Jowett of the neighbouring Balliol, with his ‘never retract, never apologise, never explain, and let them howl.’

In 1910 a newspaper in Knoxville, Tennessee credited Hubbard with an instance:²⁰

Elbert Hubbard’s “Don’t explain, don’t argue, get the thing done and let them howl,” is all right when there is no other way of getting what you want done.

In 1919 John Arbuthnot Fisher, the former British Admiral of the Fleet, sent a letter to the “The Times” of London which presented his opinion about the secret to a happy life:²¹

This letter is not to argue with your leading article of September 2. (It’s only d-d fools who argue!)

Never contradict
Never explain
Never apologize
(Those are the secrets of a happy life!)

In 1924 “The Calgary Albertan” reported on a speech delivered by Nellie McClung during which she used an instance of the saying:²²

Referring to difficulties arising in life which often cause real trouble, she gave this advice: “Never explain, never apologize. Get the thing done and let them howl.”

In conclusion, Lionel Arthur Tollemache penned the earliest full match in 1895, but Tollemache was quoting Benjamin Jowett who credited an unnamed friend. Thus, the saying was anonymous. QI conjectures that the saying was assembled from preexisting fragments using “howl” and “never”.

Image Note: Public domain illustration of a wolf howling.

Acknowledgements: Great thanks to Michael Johnston and Jonathan Lighter whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks to Stephen Goranson who identified the 1860 letter. Also, thanks to previous researchers Fred Shapiro, Jonathan Lighter, Ralph Keyes, and Nigel Rees.

[1] 1895 May, The Journal of Education: Supplement, Recollections of Jowett: A Fragment by L. A. Tollemache (Lionel A. Tollemache), Start Page 299, Quote Page 302, Column 2, Published by William Rice at The Office the Journal, London. (Google Books Full View) link

[2] 1897, The Life and Letters of Benjamin Jowett, Edited by Evelyn Abbott and Lewis Campbell, Volume 1 of 2, Chapter 6: University and Civil Service Reform 1846–1854, Quote Page 185, John Murray, London. (Google Books Full View) link

[3] 1897, The Life and Letters of Benjamin Jowett, M.A., Master of Balliol College, Oxford by Evelyn Abbott, Volume 1 of 2, Second Edition, Chapter IX: Friends and Pupils 1854–1860, To the Tennyson Children (Hallam and Lionel), Date: February 1860, Start Page 288, Quote Page 289, John Murray, London. (Google Books Full View) link

[4] 1864, Dramatis Personae by Robert Browning, Poem: Mr. Sludge, “The Medium”, Start Page 181, Quote Page 236, Ticknor and Fields, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link

[5] 1869 March 9, New-York Tribune, Foreign News: The Rejection of the Alabama Convention, Quote Page 1, Column 4, New York, New York. (GenealogyBank)

[6] 1871 October 26, The Southern Reporter, Mr Trevelyan, M.P., and the United Kingdom Alliance, Quote Page 4, Column 5, Selkirkshire, Scotland. (British Newspaper Archive)

[7] 1897, The Life and Letters of Benjamin Jowett, M.A., Master of Balliol College, Oxford, by Evelyn Abbott and Lewis Campbell, Volume 2 of Volume 2, Third Edition, Chapter 3: The College at Bristol, The Revised Plato, Note: 1873 to 1876 is the date range given in the book, Quote Page 78, John Murray, London. (Google Books full view) link

[8] 1889 December 17, The St. Louis Republic, Chit-Chat, Quote Page 4, Column 7, St. Louis, Missouri. (GenealogyBank)

[9] 1891 May 22, The Free Lance, It is a Daisy, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Fredericksburg, Virginia. (Newspapers_com)

[10] 1893 December, The Cornhill Magazine, Memories of the Master of Balliol, Start Page 586, Quote Page 597, Smith, Elder, & Co., London. (Google Books full view) link

[11] 1893 December 30, Littell’s Living Age, Memories of the Master of Balliol (from The Cornhill Magazine), Start Page 816, Quote Page 823, Littell and Co., Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link

[12] 1895 April 30, The Yorkshire Post, Notes on Current Topics, Quote Page 4, Column 6, West Yorkshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)

[13] 1895 June 16, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Stories of Jowett, Section 2, Quote Page 7, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)

[14] 1895 September, The Practitioner: A Journal of Practical Medicine, The Month, Start Page 209, Quote Page 210, Cassell and Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link

[15] 1895, Gathering Clouds: A Tale of the Days of St. Chrysostom by Frederic William Farrar (Dean of Canterbury), Chapter 21: Anxieties and Troubles, Friends and Foes, Quote Page 160, Longmans, Green, and Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link

[16] 1897 April, The Quarterly Review, Volume 185, Number 370, Review of: The Life and Letters of Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol College, Edited by Lewis Campbell and Evelyn Abbott, Quote Page 341, John Murray, London. (Google Books Full View) link

[17] 1903 March, The Philistine: A Periodical of Protest, Edited by Elbert Hubbard, Volume 16, Number 4, Quote on cover page, Published by The Society of the Philistines, The Roycrofters, East Aurora, New York. (Google Books Full View) link

[18] 1903, The Life of William Ewart Gladstone by John Morley, Quote Pages 122 and 123, Macmillan and Company, London. (Internet Archive) link

[19] 1906 December 29, Chambers’s Journal, Historians I Have Known by T. H. S. Escott, Start Page 71, Quote Page 74, W. & R. Chambers, London. (Google Books Full View) link

[20] 1910 October 17, The Journal and Tribune, Daily Chit-Chat by Ruth Cameron, Quote Page 7, Column 1, Knoxville, Tennessee.(Newspapers_com)

[21] 1919 September 5, The Times, Letter to Editor of The Times, Letter title: Rome Burns While Nero Fiddles, Letter from: Lord Fisher (John Arbuthnot Fisher), Quote Page 11, Column 5, London, England. (Gale The Times Digital Archive)

[22] 1924 December 9, The Calgary Albertan, Nellie McClung Keeps Audience in Gales of Laughter, Quote Page 6, Column 3, Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Newspapers_com)

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