Quotations about:
    accountability


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Happy the man, of mortals happiest he,
Whose quiet mind from vain desires is free;
Whom neither hopes deceive, nor fears torment,
But lives at peace, within himself content;
In thought, or act, accountable to none
But to himself, and to the gods alone.

George Granville
George Granville (1666-1735) English politician, poet, playwright [1st Baron Lansdowne]
“Epistle to Mrs. Higgons,” l. 79ff (1690)
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Added on 28-Nov-23 | Last updated 28-Nov-23
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The Buck Stops Here sign
Truman’s desk sign

The buck stops here.

Harry S Truman (1884-1972) US President (1945-1953)
(Misattributed)

Not a quote from Truman, but popularized by him through a sign he kept on his White House desk, displaying the message It had been sent to him from the Federal Reformatory at El Reno, Oklahoma in late 1945. On the reverse side it reads, "I'm from Missouri." Truman occasionally referenced the sign and phrase in speeches.

The phrase -- which itself refers to "passing the buck," or handing responsibility off to another -- predates Truman's administration, and may have been coined by Brigadier General A. B. Warfield in 1939 or earlier.

More discussion about this quotation and its origin:
 
Added on 28-Sep-23 | Last updated 28-Sep-23
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ACCOUNTABILITY, n. The mother of caution.

Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914?) American writer and journalist
“Accountability,” The Cynic’s Word Book (1906)
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Included in The Devil's Dictionary (1911).

Originally published in his "Cynic's Word Book" column in the New York American (1904-07-09) and "Cynic's Dictionary" column in the San Francisco Examiner (1904-07-17) as "the mother of remorse and great first cause of penitence."
 
Added on 25-Sep-23 | Last updated 26-Sep-23
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Death cancels our engagements, but it does not affect the consequences of our acts in life.

Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980) American journalist, essayist, author, political activist [b. Callie Russell Porter]
Letter draft to Mary Doherty (1932-10-21)
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In Isabel Bayley, ed., Letters of Katherine Anne Porter, Sec. 2 (1990). Discussing the suicide of her friend, Hart Crane.
 
Added on 2-Jun-23 | Last updated 2-Jun-23
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That’s the problem with a Politician’s life, somebody is always interrupting it with an election.

Will Rogers (1879-1935) American humorist
“Weekly Article” column (unpublished)
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Added on 12-Apr-23 | Last updated 12-Apr-23
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The House will forgive me for quoting five democratic questions that I have developed during my life. If one meets a powerful person — Rupert Murdoch, perhaps, or Joe Stalin or Hitler — one can ask five questions: what power do you have; where did you get it; in whose interests do you exercise it; to whom are you accountable; and, how can we get rid of you? Anyone who cannot answer the last of those questions does not live in a democratic system.

Tony Benn
Tony Benn (1925-2014) British politician, writer, diarist
Speech, House of Commons (16 Nov 1998)
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Benn used this set of questions -- often with different examples -- on multiple occasions.
 
Added on 9-Nov-21 | Last updated 9-Nov-21
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You must make up your mind to act decidedly and take the consequences. No good is ever done in this world by hesitation.

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) English biologist [Thomas Henry Huxley]
Letter to Anton Dohrn (1873-10-17)
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Added on 3-May-21 | Last updated 26-May-23
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When all are guilty, no one is; confessions of collective guilt are the best possible safeguard against the discovery of culprits, and the very magnitude of the crime the best excuse for doing nothing.

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) German-American philosopher, political theorist
“On Violence,” Crises of the Republic (1972)
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Added on 11-Mar-21 | Last updated 11-Mar-21
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Anyway, if you stop tellin’ people it’s all sorted out after they’re dead, they might try sorting it all out while they’re alive.

Terry Pratchett (1948-2015) English author
Good Omens, 6. “Saturday” [Adam] (1990) [with Neil Gaiman]
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Added on 1-Dec-20 | Last updated 22-Dec-23
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For behind the unwillingness to judge lurks the suspicion that no one is a free agent, and hence the doubt that anyone is responsible or could be expected to answer for what he has done. The moment moral issues are raised, even in passing, he who raises them will be confronted with this frightful lack of self-confidence and hence of pride, and also with a kind of mock-modesty that in saying, Who am I to judge? actually means We’re all alike, equally bad, and those who try, or pretend that they try, to remain halfway decent are either saints or hypocrites, and in either case should leave us alone.

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) German-American philosopher, political theorist
“Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship” (1964)
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Added on 29-Oct-20 | Last updated 29-Oct-20
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It is not murder which is forgiven but the killer, his person as it appears in circumstances and intentions. The trouble with the Nazi criminals was precisely that they renounced voluntarily all personal qualities, as if nobody were left to be either punished or forgiven. They protested time and again that they had never done anything out of their own initiative, that they had no intentions whatsoever, good or bad, and that they only obeyed orders.

To put it another way: the greatest evil perpetrated is the evil committed by nobodies, that is, by human beings who refuse to be persons.

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) German-American philosopher, political theorist
“Some Questions of Moral Philosophy,” Lecture (1965-66)
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Reprinted in Responsibility and Judgment (2003).
 
Added on 18-Aug-20 | Last updated 18-Aug-20
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We can believe what we choose. We are answerable for what we choose to believe.

John Henry Newman (1801-1890) English prelate, Catholic Cardinal, theologian
Letter to Mrs. William Froude (27 Jun 1848)
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In C. S. Dessain (ed.), Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman, vol. 12 "Rome to Birmingham" (1961).
 
Added on 30-Jun-20 | Last updated 30-Jun-20
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I have only just a minute,
Only sixty seconds in it.
Forced upon me,
Can’t refuse it,
Didn’t seek it,
Didn’t choose it
But it’s up to me to use it.
I must suffer if I lose it
Give account if I abuse it
Just a tiny little minute
but eternity is in it.

(Other Authors and Sources)
“God’s Minute”

This poem, and variants of it, have a wide trail of misattribution. It was used frequently by Elijah Cummings, US Representative, including during his first floor speech, and is often connected with him. Cummings in turn said it was a favorite of Parren Mitchell, US Representative. It is most correctly attributed in turn to civil right leader Benjamin May, but May claimed it was from an anonymous source. It has also been attributed to Welcome McCullough, history teacher Saugus High School, MA, in the 1940s, though without primary citation that I can find.

The variant used by Cummings:
I only have a minute,
Sixty seconds in it,
Forced upon me,
I did not choose it,
But I know that I must use it,
Give account if I abuse it,
Suffer if I lose it.
Only a tiny little minute,
But eternity is in it.
 
Added on 22-Jan-20 | Last updated 22-Jan-20
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Because a body of men holding themselves accountable to nobody, ought not to be trusted by anybody.

Thomas Paine (1737-1809) American political philosopher and writer
The Rights of Man (1791)
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Added on 14-Jan-20 | Last updated 14-Jan-20
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To you and me
Life is not full; we see
The good days fly
And, ah, how grievously
Their sum doth mount,
Set all to our account;
Why dally we
Who know what life should be?

[Nunc vivit necuter sibi, bonosque
Soles effugere atque abire sentit,
Qui nobis pereunt et inputantur.
Quisquam vivere cum sciat, moratur?]

Marcus Valerius Martial
Martial (AD c.39-c.103) Spanish Roman poet, satirist, epigrammatist [Marcus Valerius Martialis]
Epigrams [Epigrammata], Book 5, epigram 20 (5.20.11-14) (AD 90) [tr. Pott & Wright (1921)]

The phrase pereunt et imputantur (they [the days] pass by, and are put to our account) is often found on sundials.

"To Julius Martialis." (Source (Latin)).

Alternate translations:

Now, to himself, alas! Does neither live,
But sees good suns, of which we are to give
A strict account, set, and march quick away:
Know a man how to live, and does he stay?
[tr. Cowley (1656)]

We behold the good suns shine, and pass away; lost are they for ever, yet, nevertheless, they are counted in our reckoning. Is it possible that anyone who knows how to live delays to live accordingly?
[tr. Amos (1858), ch. 3, #14; identified as ep. 21]

As it is, neither of us lives for himself, but sees his good days flee from him and vanish; days which are ever being lost to us, and set down to our account. Should any one, then, delay to live, when he knows how?
[tr. Bohn's Classical (1859)]

Now neither lives unto himself, alas!
And the good suns we see, that flash and pass
And perish; and the bell that knells them cries,
"Another gone: O when will ye arise?"
[tr. Stevenson (1884)]

Today neither lives for himself, and he feels the good days are flitting and passing away, our days that perish and are cored to our account. Does any man, when he knows how to live, delay?
[tr. Ker (1919)]

Now neither of us truly lives at all.
Suns rise and set and swell the reckoning. Say,
Does life mean anything? Then live today.
[tr. Francis & Tatum (1924), #230, "To His Cousin"]

Now neither lives his life, but he
Marks precious days that pass and flee.
These days are lost, but their amount
Is surely set to our account.
Knowledge the clue to life can give;
Then wherefore hesitate to live?
[tr. Duff (1929)]

But as things are now, neither one of us
Lives for himself, while ever glorious
Days slip by unlived, never to come
Again, deducted always from that sum
Allotted us. Why then do we not live,
We who know the joys that life can give?
[tr. Marcellino (1968)]

But as it is, we, both and each,
Miss the rich life within our reach,
We watch the good sun speed and set
And the lost day goes down as debt.
Would any man, if he knew how
To live, not do it here and now?
[tr. Michie (1972)]

Now, twin lives are not our own.
Our good suns flee & disappear,
Debited, as they die, to us.
Who hesitates that's learned to live?
[tr. Whigham (1987)]

We toil too much for others. Days
flicker by and then are billed,
one by one, to our accounts. Since we know
how, let's start really living now.
[tr. Matthews (1992)]

We feel our good days slip away and leave us; they are wasted, and put to our account. Does any man, knowing the way to live, defer it?
[tr. Shackleton Bailey (1993)]

Now neither lives
his life. We feel our good days flee,
Numbered and spent. Knowing the way
to live, why should a man delay.
[tr. McLean (2014)]

As it is now, neither of us lives for his own benefit, each of us can feel his best days slipping away and leaving us behind. They're gone, they've been debited from our account. What kind of person knows how to live, but keeps putting it off?
[tr. Nisbet (2015)]

 
Added on 25-May-18 | Last updated 27-Nov-23
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Action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) German Lutheran pastor, theologian, martyr
Letter to Renate and Eberhard Bethge (1944)
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Alt. trans.: "It is not the thought but readiness to take responsibility that is the mainspring of action."
 
Added on 21-Aug-17 | Last updated 21-Aug-17
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In times like the present, men should utter nothing for which they would not willingly be responsible through time and in eternity.

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) American lawyer, politician, US President (1861-65)
Annual Message to Congress (1 Dec 1862)
 
Added on 22-Mar-17 | Last updated 12-Feb-20
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With great power there must also come — great responsibility!

lee-great-power-comes-great-responsibility-wist_info-quote

Stan Lee
Stan Lee (1922-2018) American comic-book writer, publisher, media personality [b. Stanley Martin Lieber]
Amazing Fantasy (Aug 1962)

Used in the original Spider-Man story.
 
Added on 20-Jan-17 | Last updated 20-Jan-17
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This is the affirmation on which democracy rests … [W]e can all be responsible … We become what we do. So does the world we live in, if enough of us do it — whether “it” be good or detestable. This is the burden of freedom: that it is all our fault or our credit.

Herbert Agar (1897-1980) American journalist and historian
“The Perils of Democracy” (1966)
 
Added on 7-Nov-16 | Last updated 7-Nov-16
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A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury.

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) English philosopher and economist
On Liberty, ch. 1 “Introductory” (1859)
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Added on 3-Aug-16 | Last updated 19-Oct-23
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Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.

The Bible (The New Testament) (AD 1st - 2nd C) Christian sacred scripture
Galatians 6:7 (KJV)
 
Added on 25-May-16 | Last updated 25-May-16
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Let the Care of one’s business be committed but to one Person; for otherwise, besides Disagreement which may arise when Account is taken, everyone’s Answer is, That he thought others had done it.

Thomas Fuller (1654-1734) English physician, preacher, aphorist, writer
Introductio ad Prudentiam, #1073 (1725)
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Added on 21-Dec-15 | Last updated 26-Jan-21
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The only things in which we can be said to have any property are our actions. Our thoughts may be bad, yet produce no poison; they may be good, yet produce no fruit. Our riches may be taken away from us by misfortune, our reputation by malice, our spirits by calamity, our health by disease, our friends by death. But our actions must follow us beyond the grave; with respect to them alone, we can not say that we shall carry nothing with us when we die, neither that we shall go naked out of the world.

Charles Caleb "C. C." Colton (1780-1832) English cleric, writer, aphorist
Lacon: Or, Many Things in Few Words, Vol. 1, § 52 (1820)
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Added on 11-May-15 | Last updated 7-Dec-23
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Security is not a license for people in authority to hide tactics they would never openly admit to using.

John G. Hemry (b. 1956) American naval officer, author [pseud. Jack Campbell]
The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Invincible (2012)
 
Added on 23-Jul-14 | Last updated 23-Jul-14
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As we must account for every idle Word, so must we likewise for every idle Silence.

Thomas Fuller (1654-1734) English physician, preacher, aphorist, writer
Introductio ad Prudentiam, # 575 (1725)
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Added on 26-Jun-14 | Last updated 7-Feb-24
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There are conditions of blindness so voluntary that they become complicity.

Bourget - There are conditions of blindness so voluntary that they become complicity - wist.info quote

Paul Bourget (1852-1935) French critic, poet, novelist
Cosmopolis, ch. 5 (1892) [tr. Arnot (1905)]
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Alternate translation:

There is such a thing as voluntary blindness which is little better than collusion.
[tr. Moffett (1898)]
 
Added on 2-Oct-13 | Last updated 24-Mar-22
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The individual is not accountable to society for his actions in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself. Advice, instruction, persuasion, and avoidance by other people, if thought necessary by them for their own good, are the only measures by which society can justifiably express its dislike or disapprobation of his conduct.

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) English philosopher and economist
On Liberty, ch. 5 “Applications” (1859)
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Added on 25-Aug-10 | Last updated 19-Oct-23
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sandman 60 p14ROSE: I didn’t say it was my fault. I said it was my responsibility. I know the difference.

Neil Gaiman (b. 1960) British author, screenwriter, fabulist
Sandman, Book 9. The Kindly Ones, # 60 “The Kindly Ones: 4” (1994-06)
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Added on 23-Mar-10 | Last updated 21-Mar-24
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I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way against holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.

John Dalberg, Lord Acton (1834-1902) British historian
Letter to Bp. Mandell Creighton (3 Apr 1887)
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Often paraphrased, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

There is an alternate, probably spurious version of this quote, for which I have been unable to find an actual citation (except where it is mis-cited to this letter to Bp. Creighton): "And remember, where you have a concentration of power in a few hands, all too frequently men with the mentality of gangsters get control. History has proven that. All power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely." As the word "gangster" has only been traced back to 1886, and that in the US, its use by Acton (esp. in a modern sense) seems unlikely.
 
Added on 16-Oct-07 | Last updated 30-Apr-20
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There is only one basic human right, the right to do as you damn well please. And with it comes the only basic human duty, the duty to take the consequences.

P. J. O'Rourke (b. 1947) American humorist, editor
“The Liberty Manifesto,” speech, Cato Institute, Washington, DC (1993-05-06)
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Reprinted in Age and Guile Beat Youth, Innocence, and a Bad Haircut (1995).
 
Added on 1-Feb-04 | Last updated 26-May-23
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CORPORATION, n. An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.

Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914?) American writer and journalist
“Corporation,” The Cynic’s Word Book (1906)
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Included in The Devil's Dictionary (1911).
 
Added on 1-Feb-04 | Last updated 25-Sep-23
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It is not only for what we do that we are held responsible, but also for what we do not do.

Molière (1622-1673) French playwright, actor [stage name for Jean-Baptiste Poquelin]
(Attributed)

Alt. trans.: "It is not what we do, but also what we do not do, for which we are accountable."
 
Added on 1-Feb-04 | Last updated 24-Aug-15
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The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly as necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile. To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or any one else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about any one else.

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) American politician, statesman, conservationist, writer, US President (1901-1909)
“Sedition, A Free Press, and Personal Rule,” Kansas City Star (7 May 1918)
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Reprinted in "Lincoln and Free Speech," The Great Adventure (1926).
 
Added on 1-Feb-04 | Last updated 20-Dec-19
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In fine, I repeat that you must lay aside all prejudice on both sides, and neither believe nor reject any thing because any other person, or description of persons have rejected or believed it. Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven, and you are answerable not for the rightness but uprightness of the decision.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) American political philosopher, polymath, statesman, US President (1801-09)
Letter to Peter Carr (10 Aug 1787)
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On urging him to read and determine for himself the divinity or non-divinity of Christ.
 
Added on 1-Feb-04 | Last updated 24-Jul-22
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