Origin of the “Death & Taxes” Quote | History of the Famous Quotation

“Nothing is certain except death and taxes.” We’ve all heard the quote, (or, misquote?) and it’s cemented a place in our history and popular culture. While most people attribute the origin of the quote to Ben Franklin (or even wrongly so to Mark Twain) it was quoted decades earlier. Here’s the history of the famous, “death and taxes” quote.

Ben Franklin usually gets credit for the “death & taxes” quote

death taxes quote history

The most famous usage of the quote comes from Benjamin Franklin, who touted the phrase after the signing of the Constitution of the United States. In this case, it is commonly written as “Nothing is certain but death and taxes,” but the full quote from Ben reads like this:

“Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” 

The source is a letter that was written from Franklin to French scientist Jean-Baptiste Leroy in 1789. The original quote as actually written in French, and was spoken by Ben at age 83. This was a time when Ben was old but still mentally sharp, and probably doing a lot of thinking about his own mortality. Ironically, Franklin died the following year.

The earliest variant of “death and taxes” quotation

Christopher Bullock, an English actor and dramatist, was also credited with the saying. His version, which was recited during The Cobler of Preston in 1716, was quoted as:

 “Tis impossible to be sure of anything but Death and Taxes.”

Because of the dates, some have speculated that Franklin’s quote came directly from the words of Bullock as a reference to knowing his work, while others think it was a misquote.

The Yale Book of Quotations, the book also responsible for Bullock’s quotation, also cites playwright Edward Ward who, in 1724, paraphrased the “death and taxes” quote in his work The Dancing Devils.

Ben Franklin will always be credited with coining the famous quotation

In hindsight, historians believe that Franklin was the latter- ultimately showing that many politicians take from history, or others, and accredit responsibility for it. But, in the end, the quote was pulled from a letter to a friend – so who actually misquoted ‘death and taxes”?

History has proven that Franklin’s “death and taxes” quote came well after those who wrote it before him, and instills in us that, during this time of year, (regardless of the quote’s origin) it’s one of the most honest statements to arise from a political event.

death taxes quote origin

Quote Meaning

While some quotes lend themselves to interpretation, the meaning of the death and taxes quote is pretty straight-forward. There are certain things in life that are unavoidable, including dying and having to pay taxes.

The idiom means that you can be the richest man on Earth, but you still can’t escape the eventual certainty of dying and taxation.

Billionaires like Larry Ellison have spent millions of dollars funding research to extend human life in an attempt to cheat their own death. In fact, Larry has been quoted as saying, “death makes me angry.” 

Maybe so, but I advise you to pay your taxes and accept your mortality, Larry! Even Bill and Ted can’t escape death and taxes:

grim reaper bill ted

Even Bill and Ted are not spared from the certainty of death and taxes

“You might be a king or a little street sweeper, but sooner or later you dance with the reaper,” – The Grim Reaper (rapping), Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey 1991

Other quotes about death and taxes

“The difference between death and taxes is death doesn’t get worse every time Congress meets.” — Will Rogers

“Apart from death and taxes, the one thing that’s certain in this life is that I’ll never be a fashion icon.” – Bruce Dickinson

“They say death and taxes are the only things that are inevitable. The truth is, you can not pay your taxes. I’ve done it, and there’s consequences, but it can be done. Death you’re not going to get out of, and you kind of got to deal with it.” – Steve Earle

“No matter what heights you achieve, even if you’re Brad Pitt, the slide is coming, sure as death and taxes.” – James Caan

In conclusion…

True. Well, even though death and taxation are certain, maybe we can put a silver lining on the matter. Mark Twain once said:

“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”

That’s positive, right? And maybe we can’t make you stop hating taxes, but we can save you a few bucks. Check out our exclusive coupon codes for TurboTax & H&R Block software to save up to 50%!

*Related: How Taxes (Not Slavery) Caused the Civil War

About kevin

Hi, I'm Kevin McCormick. I graduated from Rutgers U., and now live in Philadelphia with my wife, three kids, and a dog. I enjoy blogging in my free time, especially about finance and the history of taxation. Thanks for stopping by Mighty Taxes!

3 thoughts on “Origin of the “Death & Taxes” Quote | History of the Famous Quotation

  1. Maxine

    Can you elaborate more on the meaning of the quote please? I’d like an explanation of exactly what it means.

  2. Corporations avoid taxes

    Companies like Apple and GE pretty much avoid taxes. Too bad actual humans can’t though.

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