The phrase to get, or to come, down to brass tacks appeared in American English and means to concern oneself with the essential characteristics of something. The earliest instances that I have found date from 1863.
I will not, in this post, discuss the origin of to get, or to come, down to brass tacks, which has been the object of much speculation [I have submitted a hypothesis here], but will first present an earlier American-English phrase that I have discovered, to come (right) down to the brass, which meant:
– to get to the point, i.e., to get to the essential element of something being discussed,
– to concern oneself with the essential characteristics of something.
I have also discovered a variant of the latter phrase, to bring [someone, or something] (right) down to the brass, which meant to cause [someone, or something] to reveal their, or its, essential characteristics.
I have not, however, discovered what the brass refers to in those phrases.
The authors of the texts in which those phrases first appeared did not explain them, which indicates that they were already well established. In fact, in the very first text, the author explicitly said that to come (right) down to the brass was already in current use.
Both the earliest instances of to come (right) down to the brass that I have found are from newspapers published in Wisconsin.
The first is from an article titled Legislative Extravagance, published in the Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wisconsin) of Friday 21st April 1854:
The Argus squirms badly over the truthful exposition lately given by the Milwaukee Sentinel of the extravagant expenditures of the late Legislature. It deals largely in denials, as if it expected its baseless assertions would refute facts that can be proved […].
There is one thing we wish the Argus to do. Come right down to the brass — to use an ordinary phrase — and say whether it considers the late legislature particularly eminent for economy and public spirit.
The second-earliest occurrence that I have found is from The Weekly Wisconsin Patriot (Madison, Wisconsin) of Saturday 30th January 1858, which reported that, during a debate at the Senate of Wisconsin on 27th January 1858,
Mr H H Gray said, we have talked all around the question, and he thought it was time to come right down to the brass.
The earliest instance that I have found of to bring [someone, or something] (right) down to the brass is from The Ashland Union (Ashland, Ohio) of Wednesday 12th May 1858:
Another journal […] broadly intimates that we, […] during the American Revolution, were Tories; and concludes by putting to us this plain, but exceedingly embarrassing and “shrinking” question:
“My object is to get at the truth, on which side were you when the first Congress under the present Constitution assembled and passed an Act for laying a duty on Goods, Wares and Merchandises imported into the United States, and approved by George Washington the first President of the United States, July 4, 1789?”
The “object” of this writer is clear. He is determined, as the intelligent reader will observe, to bring us “right down to the brass,” and to shut up every avenue of escape. Being thus driven into a corner, we are compelled to admit that we didn’t vote for that bill as approved by our old friend and respected fellow-citizen, George Washington, &c.
The phrase to come (right) down to the brass was followed by of the thing in an open letter published in the Chicago Daily Press and Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) of Saturday 6th November 1858:
A Word to Messrs. Greeley & Co.
We have no desire to make fresh sores, or irritate old ones, but we owe it to the Republican party—now shown to be the Republican majority—of Illinois, to exchange a word with certain people in the Eastern States who contributed to our practical defeat in the late contest. Let us come down to the “brass” of the thing at once. You, Messrs. Greeley & Co., argued to us in this way: “Douglas is treacherous, as everybody knows. [&c.].”
The phrase appeared in a response that the Madison Daily State Journal (Madison, Wisconsin) of Tuesday 9th August 1859 made to an article published by another newspaper:
Now, Mr. Brown, come down from your stilts, lay aside your assumed dignity and give us the facts […]. Come down to the “brass.”
The following from the Rock River Democrat (Rockford, Illinois) of Tuesday 29th May 1860 contains both to come (right) down to the brass and a variant of to bring [someone, or something] (right) down to the brass:
“Down to the Brass.”—Come right “down to the brass,” and this Squatter Sovereignty is a curious and delicate thing—so delicate that when brought to the brass it is dashed to atoms like the delicate porcelain. Squatter sovereignty is defined by all parties as the right of a people to decide for themselves whether they will have slavery or not. [&c.]
‘Jo Bows’ wrote the following in his column, titled that day Jo Bows on the Presidents, published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio) of Tuesday 5th March 1861:
My Hearers:—From Washington down to Buchanan, and that’s about as low down as you can conveniently get, the Presidents of the United States have had parents. A majority of those parents were poor, but biographers are particular to assure us that they were “honest.” Did you ever read of a man’s descending from parents who were “rich though honest?” Never. And yet the honest rich are quite as much of a rareity [sic] as the honest poor. If Jo Bows came down to the brass he would say they were more so.
A variant of to come (right) down to the brass, to get right down to the brass appeared in the Rock River Democrat (Rockford, Illinois) of Tuesday 31st December 1861:
Letter from Capt. Bird.
St. Louis, Mo., Dec. 21, 1861.
Dear Dave—[…] It is understood, and we are promised, that we […] are to man the mortar boats (38 in number). Each of these boats, as I am told, carries two mortars, throwing shells weighing 286 pounds. We are expected to man and work these mortars. […] The ability to fire them accurately requires a pretty high education in the pure mathamatics [sic], such as trigonometry. Then just imagine me with one of these boats behind an island some where in the neighborhood of Columbus, endeavoring to throw shells from one of these things amongst an unseen enemy three or four miles distant.—Oh! “Saw my leg off with a tooth brush”!—The thing is too ridiculous for anything but to laugh at—and yet when getting right “down to the brass,” it is a very serious matter—too serious for a laugh.
The phrase to come (right) down to the brass was followed by of it in a transcript of a debate at the Senate of New York, published in the New-York Daily Reformer (Watertown, New York) of Thursday 9th April 1863:
Remarks of Hon. Mr. Truman,
On the Bounty Re-Enlistment Bill,
In Senate, March 19, 1863:
Mr. Truman said:—
We might as well meet this question right here. We have had it thrust upon us time and again during the session, that the Democrats have sent the most men to the war from this State. The fact is, it ain’t so, and I have got the figures to show it […].
[…] I am for evening up this thing. […] A draft will be a fair way to equalize the matter. […]
[…] Last fall, wherever you found, on the corners, or in the streets, or in the bar-rooms, or at a Democratic meeting, a lot of lazy, lounging, whelps, [roars laughter] they were hurrahing for Seymour and the Democratic ticket, and going that ticket because there would be no draft if it was elected […].
[After a diatribe against the Democrats, Mr. Truman resumed his intervention:]
But, Mr. Chairman, to come right down to the brass of it, I am for evening this thing up, every time, and make these noisy, brawling, secession, copperhead whelps, leave the country, join the army, or pay their money to carry on the war. […] The draft will make square work of it, and no dodging.
The Chicago Daily Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) of Wednesday 4th May 1864 published a special correspondence from Indianapolis, Indiana, dated 2nd May 1864, which contained the following—Oliver P. Morton (1823-77), Governor of Indiana (1861-67), combated the Knights of the Golden Circle (K. G. C.), a secret society whose objective was to annex a “golden circle” of slave states:
Last night there was another rousing old meeting, at the same hall [= at Masonic Hall], to help on the work. Gov. Morton (who has returned from Washington) was the principal speaker. He had said but few words when everybody felt that the Governor was more than usually aroused. His speech was indeed a crusher, on Copperheads and all other reptiles with poisonous fangs. To use a homely but terse expression, he “came right down to the brass of it,” and gave these butternut gentlemen to understand that if they dared to raise their hands against the Government, and so carry out the programme of the K. G. C.’s, he would promptly employ these 20,000 men to put them down.
Remark: down to the brass had appeared as part of a phrase of different sense in the Planters’ Banner (Franklin, Louisiana) of Thursday 30th June 1853, about meetings for the purpose of appointing delegates to conventions:
It often happens that meetings of this kind are holden, at which the stereotype phrase “I move, Mr. Chairman, that Mr. — be appointed,” falls thick and fast on the President’s ears until the assessment roll is nearly exhausted, and enough delegates are appointed to crowd a Mississippi steamer “down to the brass.”
What is common to all the earliest occurrences that I have found of to get, or to come, down to brass tacks is that this phrase was first used:
– as to come down to brass tacks,
– in newspapers published in Texas,
– without explanations, that is to say, the phrase was already well established.
The earliest instances that I have found are from an article titled Brass Tacks, published in The Tri-Weekly Telegraph (Houston, Texas) of Wednesday 21st January 1863—the author explicitly indicated that to come down to brass tacks was already in current use:
We have, we believe, shown that the currency is at its present depreciation owing to its redundancy. […] We showed, by the public statistics of the country, that there is over $400,000,000 afloat, while the regular circulation should be less than $100,000,000. We compromised with the theorists in this last and granted that, under present circumstances, we require 50,000,000 more money than in ordinary times. Still we have a redundancy of three for one. […]
We talk of patriotism, but patriotism weighs very little with the people in their private transactions. The model patriot of America was George Washington. When the continental currency became worth 4 for 1, in 1778, he refused to take it from his own step-son, except at its discount. And in renting him the dower estate of Mrs. Washington, he insisted on its being rented at a specie value, payable in the currency at its current discount. […]
No one we apprehend will accuse Washington of a want of patriotism, unless he have some other object than the truth in view. For doing what he did, we, with others, accuse people of selfishness, but we should in justice add that when you come down to “brass tacks” — if we may be allowed the expression — everybody is governed by selfishness, and if the merchant, who refuses to take what is due him at 50 cents on the dollar, is selfish, the debtor who insists on his doing so, is just as selfish.
If the present currency (“brass tacks” again) is worth but two for one to buy gold, food, clothing, houses, lands, negroes, sheep and cattle, it is in other words worth but 50 cents on the dollar, and will itself be bought, sold, used to pay debts with or loaned out at that rate. We do not say what ought to be done, and what patriotism would seem to require. We are simply speaking of what is and will be until human nature becomes altogether another thing from what it now is. Who but a financial fool or a gamester or speculator (patriotism is out of the question) would borrow currency now to be repaid a year hence in legal tender? What then? Why (down to brass tacks) borrow at the current exchange and pay again at the exchange current at the time of payment.
We urge the merchants to take the money through motives of patriotism and fund it. We urge the planters to fund it likewise. We urge everybody to show their patriotism practically in stead of trying to get everybody else to do it for their individual aggrandizement. We ask the people generally to come down to “brass tacks.” If they will theorize, act on their theories, and if they will not act on their own theories, let them not lay themselves open to the charge of hypocrisy and dishonest greed, by demanding of others what they will not grant themselves.
The second-earliest occurrence of the phrase that I have found is from Letter from New Orleans, dated 27th October 1865, published in The Tri-Weekly Telegraph (Houston, Texas) of Wednesday 8th November 1865—General Joseph S. Fullerton had just replaced the Reverend Thomas W. Conway as assistant commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau in Louisiana, in order to reverse Conway’s policies, which were favourable to the emancipated slaves:
Gen. Fullerton […] has commenced a system of administration that must exercise Conway’s nerves terribly, as it certainly has stupefied his followers, and the freedmen generally. Gen. F., in the first place, has restored so much property to the old owners, that we begin to fear he’ll bankrupt his Bureau. Then he gives out that the government can’t and won’t support negro orphans, and that they are to be apprenticed out to good and responsible parties. Then he very plainly tells the freedmen that liberty don’t mean laziness and license, and living at the expense of the government: they must work, and work hard; that they are not to have their former master’s land divided out among them; that Uncle Sam will not give them food, clothing, lands, muels [sic], horses, pigs, chickens, nor farming implements. They must earn all these by labor; honest, steady labor. They must make contracts for labor, and those contracts they must keep. He urges them to return to their old plantations and to make contracts with their former masters, who are their best friends. He tells them they are “on trial,” and that to come out of the trial with credit they must be honest, industrious, frugal, and faithful to their engagements.
Great is the wonder, stupefaction and indignation this document has produced among the Conwayites. But they’ll have to get over it and “come down to brass tacks.”
The third-earliest instance of the phrase that I have found is from Flake’s Daily Galveston Bulletin (Galveston, Texas) of Thursday 27th December 1866:
[Context: The American politician Benjamin Franklin Wade (1800-78), Senator from Ohio (1851-69), was an advocate of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which granted citizenship to all persons born or naturalised in the United States—including former slaves—and guaranteed all citizens “equal protection of the laws”; the states of the defeated Confederacy were forced to ratify this amendment in order to regain representation in Congress.]
Coming down to Brass Tacks.
We have on several occasions alluded to the avowal by Senator Wade, that the Constitutional amendment was a finality. These are the words of the debate:
“Mr. Sumner—The Senator says I voted for the constitutional amendment. I did vote for the constitutional amendment; but I should like to ask the Senator whether he considers himself bound now to admit one of these rebel States if it refuses the suffrage to freedmen. I should like to ask my friend to answer that.
“Mr. Wade—No, I do not.
“Mr. Sumner—I knew he did not.
“Mr. Wade—I do not know that I understand the Senator. Let me say that I should consider myself bound by the constitutional amendment if the Southern States complied with it within a reasonable time, and the reasonable time, in my judgement, is nearly elapsed. By a reasonable time I mean as soon as their Legislatures can consider it.”
This is just the view we have taken of the matter from the beginning. We have not doubted but that the party in power would sometime withdraw their proposition, and if we would not reconstruct ourselves, proceed to do it for us. In the language of the retired clergyman, “the sands of life are nearly run.” [note 1] We can yet accept the amendment and can yet avoid negro suffrage, but as the old hymn says, we must “come without delay.” [note 2]
Flake’s Daily Galveston Bulletin reprinted this article on Wednesday 2nd January 1867. Consequently, the following paragraph appeared in
– The Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts) of Thursday 10th January 1867,
– the Sunbury American (Sunbury, Pennsylvania) of Saturday 12th January 1867,
– the Harrisburg Daily Telegraph (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania) of Monday 28th January 1867:
The Galveston Bulletin says that Texas must “come down to brass tacks” and accept the constitutional amendment, unless the people wish Congress to proceed with reconstruction.
Later in 1867, the phrase occurs in:
– the New York Commercial Advertiser (New York City, N.Y.) of Friday 17th May, quoting the Houston Telegraph (Houston, Texas);
– Flake’s Daily Galveston Bulletin (Galveston, Texas) of Tuesday 15th October;
– the Dallas Herald (Dallas, Texas) of Saturday 2nd November, quoting Flake’s Daily Galveston Bulletin.