'A rising tide lifts all boats' is a saying that has become more and more common in recent decades and is often used in economic and political contexts:

  • The aphorism "a rising tide lifts all boats" is associated with the idea that improvements in the general economy will benefit all participants in that economy. The phrase is commonly attributed to John F Kennedy who used it in a 1963 speech to combat criticisms that a dam project he was inaugurating was a pork barrel project.


  • according to Kennedy's speechwriter Ted Sorensen the phrase was not one of his or the president’s own fashioning. It was in his first year working for Kennedy (during JFK’s tenure in the Senate), when Mr. Sorensen was trying to tackle economic problems in New England, that he happened upon the phrase.

  • He writes that he noticed that “the regional chamber of commerce, the New England Council, had a thoughtful slogan: ‘A rising tide lifts all the boats.’ ” From then on, JFK would borrow the slogan often. Sorensen highlights this as an example of quotes mistakenly attributed to President Kennedy.

Whether or not JFK learned it from the New England Council, the saying appears to have an older origin , probably linked to the fishermen stories of that part of the East Coast.

Does anyone have more on this issue?

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    You may wish to explore the writings of the statistician/economist Simon Kuznets, whose ideas are associated with the notion that, in advanced stages, an economy will simply continue to grow and to distribute wealth ever more equally. The idea is nowadays much discredited among academics, especially given the growth in inequality of the last two decades. I have just started reading Thomas Piketty's Capital. So I will let you know if I find out more.
    – WS2
    Commented Feb 25, 2015 at 17:07
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    Interestingly, an exact Chinese phrase "水漲船高" first appeared in The Gallant Maid "兒女英雄傳", a novel by Wen Kang, Manchu-born Qing dynasty writer. (This is not to suggest that that is the origin of the English phrase. I tend to think that was simply a common observation and coincidently adopted in both East and West)
    – user200503
    Commented Oct 12, 2016 at 3:46

3 Answers 3


Results from a Google Books search strongly suggest that the expression originated (in print) in religious publications. At least in my search results, publications of the missionary wing of the Methodist Episcopal Church account for the first five matches, spread across a period of seven years. The earliest of these sources (from January 1910) credits the saying to a Commissioner McFarland, who may be the author of the third article cited below.

From "Never Paralleled in New York," in The [New York] Christian Advocate (January 20, 1910):

Many ministers have heartily indorsed the [Laymen's Missionary] Movement and will support it with their indispensable influence. With their cooperation failure is impossible, and it is the universal post-convention report from the other cities that all local causes have been helped on by the new impulse of the Movement whose watchword is "For the Other Man." As Commissioner McFarland said at the Astor dinner, The rising tide lifts every boat!

From "Japanese Church in Wonsan, Korea," in The [Nashville, Tennessee] Missionary Voice (May 1911):

Now the building of the church in Wonsan [Korea], of course, was not entirely, or maybe even mainly, responsible for the building of the great church at home. But at least it did not hinder, and who doubts that the enlargement of heart that came to them through that unselfish thing, the spiritual swing developed in that enterprise abroad, hastened and helped on the larger thing they would do at home? "The rising tide lifts all boats," and "the light that shines farthest shines brightest at home."

From Henry B. F. McFarland, "The Man by Man Rise of a Race of Men," in Association Men (January 1915):

The rising tide lifts all the boats upon it. All parts of the colored [Young Men's Christian] Association movement have shared in the new progress. Great corporations employing negro workmen—like the Newport News Ship Building Company, which has already started work, with its four thousand negro employees—see the advantage of such Associations.

From "Woman's Home Missionary Society," in Minutes of the One Hundred and Seventeenth Session of the New York Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church held in First Church, Peekskill, N.Y. March 22, 1916 (1916):

Wherever there is an active, interested, wide-awake Woman's Missionary Organization there will be found a broadened vision, an increasing zeal along all lines, and a permeating spirit of the Christ-love that is most helpful. "The rising tide lifts all boats."

From Hugh Burleson, "The Progress of the Kingdom," in The Spirit of the Missions (May 1916):

The editor of THE SPIRIT OF THE MISSIONS is certain that he speaks not only for himself but for every official connected with any missionary enterprise when he declares that he would not, if he could, divert a single dollar from the relief of Europe. On the contrary, he rejoices when gifts for the war sufferers increase, not only because of his passionate desire that this awful suffering may be relieved, but also because he knows that "a rising tide lifts all the boats," and that every good cause should profit by the sympathy which this crying need awakens in the hearts of men and women who too long have been concerned chiefly about their own comfort and gratification.

From "A Hint from Harvard," in Harvard Alumni Bulletin (December 11, 1919):

There must be hundreds of Harvard men who on reading that [story] will directly double their subscriptions; the tale is so darned humane! I am not a Harvard man as you know, but the Top Sergeant and his wife make me double my paltry ten dollars. The psychology of the outsiders with colleges of their own to serve is quite correct. A rising tide lifts all the boats!

And finally, the cover of American Gas Monthly (March 1920) consists of the following quotation and subtitle:

"The Rising Tide Lifts All the Boats."

When the tide of public opinion swells through recognition of service well performed, all our boats will be lifted.

Basically what we have here is a slogan so successful that in a single decade it went from being a watchword—indeed almost a catchphrase—of a vigorous Christian missionary movement to becoming an inspirational proverb for members of the American Gas Association to contemplate.

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    Excellent!! I hadn't thougt about a possible religious origin...!!
    – user66974
    Commented Feb 26, 2015 at 9:44
  • 4
    And yet the most famous rising tide in Biblical literature lifted only one boat.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Feb 26, 2015 at 9:54
  • One 'essential' boat :).
    – user66974
    Commented Feb 26, 2015 at 9:55
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    Certainly, though, the saying originated as a folk saying, no doubt in some coastal area.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jun 3, 2016 at 12:16

C. H. Spurgeon used it quite a lot in expositions and in sermons! About prayer and the church and seasons of man to God. referencing Ezekiel 36:37 and also PS 74 are the two I know of and there are a lot more.
see The Blue Letter Bible
Prayer—The Forerunner of Mercy by C. H. Spurgeon
at www.blueletterbible.org › spurgeon_charles › sermons

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    I can't find the references: do you have the direct urls?
    – Greybeard
    Commented Jul 12, 2020 at 23:43
  • I can't find the references either. Please add the actual quote , date, and attributed link. Commented Feb 19, 2021 at 15:31

"We are the Port of Virginia", a 46-page glossy-covered newspaper insert inside the Daily Press October 5, 2008 issue, had a full color inside back cover with the quote "The Rising Tide Lifts All Boats" attributed to Sean Lemass 1899-1971. Back page info: The Port of Virginia Virginia Port Authority 600 World Trade Center, Norfolk VA 23510 Phone 757.683.8000 800.446.8098 www.vaports.com (c)2008 Virginia Port Authority

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    Hello, Judy. Unless Lemass uttered this before he was 11, there is at least one earlier example. Commented Feb 19, 2021 at 15:34

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