Our Daily Bleg: What Quotes Do You Want Me to Trace?
Our resident quote bleggar Fred Shapiro, editor of The Yale Book of Quotations, is back with another request. If you have a bleg of your own — it needn’t have anything to do with quotations — send it along here.
Reader Jeff Ritter poses the following question:
So I have been using this quote that supposedly came from Alexander Fraser Tytler, Lord Woodhouselee, since I received it in an email back in the early 1990’s:
“A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship.
The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations has been 200 years. Great nations rise and fall. The people go from bondage to spiritual truth, to great courage, from courage to liberty, from liberty to abundance, from abundance to selfishness, from selfishness to complacency, from complacency to apathy, from apathy to dependence, from dependence back again to bondage.”
To me, it just says something about the paths that democracies take throughout history, and that it is tough to learn from the past.
Once again, this quote is making the viral email circle, and this time I decided to do some research on the quote. I came to find out that it is attributed to Tytler but it’s unverified. The website The Truth About Tytler by Loren Collins seems to be the most exhaustive analysis of the quote or quotes.
Now for my bleg: does anyone know who or whom made the above quote or quotes, and in what context?
In The Yale Book of Quotations, for which I tried to trace all famous quotations to their accurate origins, the earliest version I found for this passage was in the New York Times Book Review, May 3, 1959 (the same occurrence cited by the Loren Collins website), and the earliest attribution to Alexander Fraser Tytler I found was in Martin Dies, The Martin Dies Story (1963).
However, doing some fresh research now, I find the following earlier evidence:
Two centuries ago, a somewhat obscure Scotsman named Tytler made this profound observation: “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury. After that, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits with the result the democracy collapses because of the loose fiscal policy ensuing, always to be followed by a dictatorship, then a monarchy.”
Daily Oklahoman, December 9, 1951
Now, here’s my bleg for this week, directed at readers’ curiosity rather than my own. Do any readers have any quotations whose origins they would like me to attempt to trace?