The quote “If men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows” has been attributed to Henry Ward Beecher, as demonstrated by its appearance on such sites as goodreads. This attribution is not just a phenomena of the Internet age. It can be seen as far back as the 19th century and as far away as Australia in N.A. Cobb’s “The Common Crow” which appeared in the September 1896 edition of the Agricultural Gazette of N. S. Wales –
So did Beecher write this pithy summation of man’s intelligence? Or better, a paean to the “watcher from the top of spruces,” corvus brachyrhynchos?
The definitive answer is still ” Oh ya. Well, maybe.”
Someone named only “Beecher” certainly wrote something published in the January 1871 edition of the People’s Literary Companion that has the appearance of the Ur quote from which all others have devolved.
“Take off the wings, and put him in breeches, and crows make fair average men. Give men wings, and reduce their smartness a little, and many of them would be almost good enough to be crows.”
For ease of reading, I have transcribed it –
“THE CROW. – Aside from the special question of profit and loss, we have a warm side toward the crow, he is so much like ourselves. He is lazy, and that is human ; he is cunning, and that is human. He takes advantage of those weaker than himself, and that is man-like. He is sly, and hides for tomorrow what he can’t eat today, showing a real human providence. He learns tricks much faster than he does useful things, showing a true boy-nature. He thinks his own color the best, and loves to hear his own voice, which are eminent traits of humanity. He will never work, when he can get another to work for him-a genuine human trait. He eats whatever he can lay his claws upon, and is less mischievous with a belly full than when hungry, and that is a man. He is at war with all things except his own kind, and with them when he has nothing else to do. No wonder men despise crows. They are too much like men. Take off his wings, and put him in breeches, and crows make average men. Give men wings, and reduce their smartness a little, and many of them would be almost good enough to call crows. – Beecher.“
Is this Beecher our Henry Ward Beecher? An earlier, religious themed article, “Working Together,” with the by-line of H. W. Beecher appears in the November 1st, 1870 edition of a People’s Literary Companion, which does seem like the Beecher, and would lend weight to the 1871 article being by H. W. Beecher also.
I do find puzzling the opening line of the 1871 piece – “aside from the special question of profit and loss …” it feels as if this corvidian riff by Beecher is part of different conversation and the People’s Literary Companion has excerpted it from some other source. Maybe with the (hopefully) more accurate version of Beecher’s quote about crows, someone can use OCR in Beecher’s writing and determine if this does come from an earlier source.
Why the variations in the quotes? Maybe that even though the printing press was invented over 400 years before Beecher wrote, much of the world still lived in an oral tradition? Someone read the People’s Literary Companion and amused by the crow as mirror to man, tells another person, who also shares. It would only take a few retellings before it would have changed. And with no easy way to find the original source, it lived on and morphed with only Beecher’s name remembered, till someone finds the bones and starts to flesh it out again with eloquence “if men had wings and bore black feathers” … much like how Sir Walter Scott took the “recitation of an old woman of Alva” conveyed to him in a letter from Francis Kirkpatrick Sharpe and created The Twa Corbies. Wild and romantic and beautiful it is, but one senses the older source in Alan Cunningham’s version of 1825.
Or maybe there is a simpler explanation as to why no one was able to quote Beecher correctly, hinted at by Beecher himself … “the crow, he is so much like ourselves. He is lazy, and that is human …”
UPDATE: July 17, 2020
A fellow librarian (we will call him “Brad”) was able to use the above passage from the People’s Literary Companion to locate this same article in a May 1, 1870 publication titled Our Dumb Animals. This article definitely states the passage is written by Henry Ward Beecher.
“WE SPEAK FOR THOSE WHO CANNOT SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES.”
Thank you for the sleuthing, “Brad.”
Allardyce, Alexander, ed. Letters from and to Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe, Esq. [Two volumes]. Edinburgh: William Blackwood & Sons, 1888. There are four mentions of The Twa Corbies. See Vol. 1, p. 136 for the above quote.
Beecher. “The Crow.” People’s Literary Companion. 1 January, 1871: p . 2. Available from American Antiquarian Society Historical Periodicals Collection: Series 5, [1866-1912]. Ask about at your local library.
Beecher, Henry Ward. [HENRY WARD BEECHER speaks of the Crow as follows]. Our Dumb Animals. 1 May, 1870: p. 106. Available from American Antiquarian Society Historical Periodicals Collection: Series 5, [1866-1912]. Ask about at your local library..
Beecher, H. W. “Working for Others.” People’s Literary Companion.” 1 November, 1870: p. 6. Available from American Antiquarian Society Historical Periodicals Collection: Series 5, [1866-1912]. Ask about at your local library.
Cobb, N. A. “The Common Crow.” [Miscellaneous Publication No. 103]. Agricultural Gazette of N. S. Wales. September, 1896. [Sydney: Charles Potter, Government Printer]. Available from Hathi Trust.
“It is better to fall amongst crows than amongst flatterers ; for the former wait until we are dead, and the latter eat us alive” – Antisthenes–