Republican Candidate Mitt Romney tried to invoke the memory of a Revolutionary patriot when he declared in Florida: “In another era of American crisis, Thomas Paine is reported to have said, 'Lead, follow, or get out of the way. Mr. President, you were elected to lead. You chose to follow, and now, it's time for you to get out of the way.”
Fighting words in these times that try men’s souls!—but it would help if the quote were based in reality. Tom Paine, that old trouble-making Deist, never said any such thing. Romney at least said Paine “is reported to have said” it—which is technically correct. If you Google the quote, you’ll find it credited to Paine at many sites, such as BrainyQuote, ThinkExist, and QuoteDB. Tch, tch.
An on-line search of all of Paine’s published works does not reveal these words, or anything approximating them. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations has no such citation. Of course, Paine might have uttered the words in passing to his barber or his bootblack, but such an event is not recorded.
Moreover, the terseness and rude bluntness of the phrase does not have the cadences typical of most eighteenth-century prose, including Paine’s. If he had wished to utter such a thought, Paine would probably have written something like: “I implore you to provide sorely needed generalship against our tyrannous enemies, or to follow steadfastly those brave patriots already in the fore, or, failing either of those alternatives, to remove yourself as an obstacle in the path of progress.”
No one can really pin down the origin of this popular saying. “Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way” is the title of a 1981 biography of media mogul Ted Turner, who “is reported” to have the saying mounted on his desk. Maybe Turner thought of it.
General George S. Patton also “is reported” to have said, "We herd sheep, we drive cattle, we lead people. Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way." The no-nonsense Patton is also noted for such quotes as “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country; he won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”
A deficient leader and an unreliable follower, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou is content to stay out of the way, until he has something to say, which happens more often than is necessary.
Twelve Republicans, God’s gift from heaven,
Trump tripped up, then there were eleven.
Eleven Republicans, with a Presidential yen,
Johnson non-started, then there were ten.
Ten Republicans in the candidate line,
Roemer went nowhere, then there were nine.
Nine Republicans eager to debate,
Pawlenty had plenty, then there were eight.
Eight Republicans tried to rise like leaven,
Cain wasn’t able, then there were seven.
Seven Republicans remained in the mix,
Bachmann fell back, then there were six.
Six Republicans, hoping to stay alive,
Huntsman missed his shot, then there were five.
Five Republicans, playing hard to score,
“Oops!” Perry fumbled, and now there are four.
Four Republicans, which will it be?
Is Santorum next, to leave only three?
Three Republicans, still quite a few,
Paul may move on, leaving only two.
Two Republicans, which one will run?
Gingrich or Romney, there can be only one.
One Republican, when all is said and done.
But Obama’s in the way—so then there’ll be none.