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.
Who penned the above words? If one were to put one's faith in the reliability of the internet, the obvious answer would be Alexander Tytler. Or Alexander Tyler. Or Arnold Toynbee. Or Lord Thomas Macaulay. Or...
The truth is that despite their frequent use, the above text actually has its origins in two separate and independent quotes, and the author of the first half is, to date, unknown. With regard to the first quoted paragraph, the Library of Congress' Respectfully Quoted writes, "Attributed to ALEXANDER FRASER TYTLER, LORD WOODHOUSELEE. Unverified." The quote, however, appears in no published work of Tytler's. And with regard to the second, the same book says "Author unknown. Attributed to Benjamin Disraeli. Unverified."
Yet despite this factual uncertainty, these quotes are not only frequently attributed to Tytler, but just as frequently employ his antiquity as a means of enhancing their reliability. I myself was misled for years before being informed of their "unverified" status.
Thus, I attempted to trace the origins of these quotes, as best I could. For the first quote, ending in "dictatorship," I have chosen to adopt the title "Why Democracies Fail," or WDF for short, which is perhaps the most common title given the quote. The last sentence of the first paragraph does not appear alongside the earliest instances of the quote. For the second quote, I have chosen to use the title "Fatal Sequence," or FS, which was the name given to it in a 1989 newspaper.
The earliest usage of "Why Democracies Fail" that has been located was printed on page 12A of the Daily Oklahoman on December 9, 1951.
Two centuries ago, a somewhat obscure Scotsman named Tytler made this profound observation: ďA 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." - Elmer T. Peterson
If you read the original version of this article, you'll note that this letter to the editor not only is 8 years earlier than the previously-known first usage of WDF, but it includes an attribution to Tytler that predates the next-known attribution by over a decade. This next known usage was on May 3, 1959, WDF appeared on page 35 of The New York Times Book Review, in the "Queries and Answers" column. The relevant portion of the column, which was first among that day's queries, read as follows:
F.R.K. wants to know where the following paragraph was taken from: "A Democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only last until the citizens discover they can vote themselves largesse out of the public treasury. After that, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that the Democracy always collapses over a loose fiscal policy, to be followed by a dictatorship, and then a monarchy."
However, no answer to this query was provided in the columns of the following weeks, although New York Times readers appeared quite able in citing sources for obscure poems and quotes. Professor Tytler's name was nowhere to be found.
Tytler's name is again absent when the quote was used in a Sep. 27, 1961 speech by John E. Swearingen. Rather, Swearingen attributed the quote to a much more famous historian:
In a quotation attributed to the French author, Alexis de Tocqueville, the dangers of loose fiscal policy were stated as follows: "A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover they can vote themselves largess out of the public treasury."
Tytler's name resurfaces almost 3 years later, from a much more notable speaker. On March 5, 1964, a taped speech of Ronald Reagan was played for the crowd at a Barry Goldwater rally in Manchester, New Hampshire. The quote was printed on the first page of the next day's Manchester Union Leader, under the article title "Roar Approval of Barry." The article states that Reagan attributed the quote to "Fraser Tydler." Reagan used the quote again on June 8, 1965, at a testimonial dinner for Rep. John M. Ashbrook in Granville, Ohio:
"Perhaps what he had in mind was what Prof. Alexander Frazer Tytler has written, that a democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover they can vote themselves largesse out of the public treasury. From that moment on the majority, he said, always vote for the candidate promising the most benefits from the treasury with the result that democracy always collpases over a loose fiscal policy, always to be followed by a dictatorship. Unfortunately, we can't argue with the professor because when he wrote that we were still colonials of Great Britain and he was explaining what had destroyed the Athenian Republic more than 2000 years before."
In addition to reviving Tytler's name, Reagan does two more things. First, he drops any reference to the "monarchy" that previous usages stated follow the dictatorship stage. This omission has become standard in quotations of WDF, which now almost invariably end with the word "dictatorship." Second, Reagan offers the earliest reference to a particular written source for the quote, namely the "Athenian Republic" allegory which today is almost always attached to the quote. In a letter to the editor in the April 10, 1987 Seattle Times, where the writer said the quote was from Alexander Fraser Tytler's book "The Decline and Fall of the Athenian Republic," the earliest mention I have discovered of a source material for the quote. Today this book is the most common cited source for the quote, the title producing some 250 results in Google. Unfortunately, according to both WorldCat and the Library of Congress' catalog, Tytler never wrote a book by that title. The only book with a similar title is The Decline and Fall of Athenian Democracy, printing a lecture given by E.M. Blaiklock on Sep. 21, 1948.
Among the quote's appearances over the next few decades, one of note was in American Notes & Queries in Nov. 1964. "Confirmation and exact wording of the following quotation wanted," wrote S.B. Jeffreys, following the quote with "Am I correct in thinking that this was said in 1790 by Prof. Alexander Tytler, Professor of General History, University of Edinburgh?" No confirmation or exact wording was ever provided.
Perhaps the quote's current notoriety can be traced to its usage by P.J. O'Rourke in his 1991 book, Parliament of Whores (a book I otherwise highly recommend). Therein, O'Rourke wrote:
The eighteenth-century Scottish historian Alexander Tytler said: A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until a majority of voters discover that they can vote themselves largess out of the public treasury.
In a Usenet post by Tom Buckley on September 6, 1983, the passage was quoted and attributed to "Professor Alexander Fraser Tytler," making that perhaps the earliest posting of the quote on the Internet. Today, a Google search for "A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government" produces over 14,000 results. But a search for "followed by a dictatorship and then a monarchy," as appeared in the 1959 New York Times, produces only about a dozen results, most of which are either quoting this article or one other author.
Frequently, "Why Democracies Fail" is quoted alongside "Fatal Sequence," often as a single passage attributed to Professor Tytler/Tyler. But all indications point to the two having separate origins. Firstly, unlike "WDF," "Fatal Sequence" is attributed to a wide variety of authors. In addition to Tytler/Tyler or Anonymous, I have seen the quote credited to Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881), Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975), Ezra Taft Benson (1899-1994), Davis Paschall (1911-2001), Bernard Weatherill (1920-present) and Robert Muntzel (?-?). Secondly, while I have tracked both quotes back to the mid-20th century, the first instance I have found of them used together was in 1979.
But the person who appears to be the actual author of this passage is none of the men named above. They were not born from the mouth or pen of a political leader or historian or famous author. Rather, they would seem to be the words of Henning Webb Prentis, Jr., President of the Armstrong Cork Company.
In a speech entitled "Industrial Management in a Republic," delivered in the grand ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria at New York during the 250th meeting of the National Conference Board on March 18, 1943, Prentis had this to say about
Paradoxically enough, the release of initiative and enterprise made possible by popular self-government ultimately generates disintegrating forces from within. Again and again after freedom has brought opportunity and some degree of plenty, the competent become selfish, luxury-loving and complacent, the incompetent and the unfortunate grow envious and covetous, and all three groups turn aside from the hard road of freedom to worship the Golden Calf of economic security. The historical cycle seems to be: From bondage to spiritual faith; from spiritual faith to courage; from courage to liberty; from liberty to abundance; from abundance to selfishness; from selfishness to apathy; from apathy to dependency; and from dependency back to bondage once more.
At the stage between apathy and dependency, men always turn in fear to economic and political panaceas. New conditions, it is claimed, require new remedies. Under such circumstances, the competent citizen is certainly not a fool if he insists upon using the compass of history when forced to sail uncharted seas. Usually so-called new remedies are not new at all. Compulsory planned economy, for example, was tried by the Chinese some three milleniums ago, and by the Romans in the early centuries of the Christian era. It was applied in Germany, Italy and Russia long before the present war broke out. Yet it is being seriously advocated today as a solution of our economic problems in the United States. Its proponents confidently assert that government can successfully plan and control all major business activity in the nation, and still not interfere with our political freedom and our hard-won civil and religious liberties. The lessons of history all point in exactly the reverse direction. - Henning W. Prentis, Industrial Management in a Republic, p. 22
Prentis reportedly had stock speeches in which he regularly recycled material, and such is true of this quote. For instance, he delivered the passage again in a speech to the Newcomen Society of England on October 4, 1946 in Montreal (Bulwarks of Freedom, p. 11), albeit with some changes. "The ancient systole and diastole of history has repeated itself in country after country:" he wrote, following this with a sequence that has two more stages than he cited in 1943, and one stage renamed. To wit:
Spiritual Faith to Courage;
Courage to Liberty;
Liberty to Abundance;
Abundance to Selfishness;
Selfishness to Apathy;
Apathy to Dependency;
Dependency to Bondage
|Bondage to Spiritual Faith;|
Spiritual Faith to Courage;
Courage to Freedom;
Freedom to Abundance;
Abundance to Selfishness;
Selfishness to Complacency;
Complacency to Apathy;
Apathy to Fear;
Fear to Dependency;
Dependency to Bondage
The change is significant to Prentis, as seen in his words that follow: "In the United States we stand today at the complacency-apathy stage." Prentis used this cycle in several other speeches he delivered, including one delivered on June 5, 1951.
None of Prentis' uses of the Fatal Sequence that I have read include the Why Democracies Fail passage. Not that Prentis, a clear free-market advocate, didn't express vaguely similar sentiments, though. Later in his 1946 Bulwarks of Freedom speech, Prentis said "The three legs of our tripod of freedom stand or fall together. Destroy constitutional representative self-government, and pure democracy - the unmitigated rule of the current majority - soon degenerates into despotism and tyranny."
The earliest anonymous attribution of the "Fatal Sequence" I have found was in an October 27, 1950 speech delivered by Eugene E. Wilson at a special United Nations Convocation at Hillyer College in Hartford, Connecticut, but Wilson expresses disagreement with the quote's sentiments. An anonymous attribution tends to suggest an author who was not particularly notable, which is true of Prentis.
The earliest false attribution I have found for this cycle is from Senator Strom Thurmond, in a speech to the Aberdeen Chamber of Commerce in Aberdeen, South Dakota, on January 9 1965, wherein he attributed the quote to "the studies of R. G. LeTourneau." In addition, Thurmond also makes the earliest use of the "average age" sentence which has since become a common partner to both WDF and FS. On November 9, 1967, J.K. Stern gave a speech that used the "average age" line again in conjunction with FS, but he attributed the combined quote to Arnold Toynbee.
In April 1979, the queries column of American Notes & Queries included the earliest combined form of all these quotes (WDF + average age + FS), with the submitting librarian saying that it was attributed to Alexander Fraser Tytler, but they had been unable to verify that. No verification was ever provided in following issues.
In his 1983 book It's Your Choice, Warren T. Hackett quoted Arnold Toynbee as saying the following:
"The release of initiative and enterprise made possible by self-government ultimately generates disintegrating forces from within. Again and again, after freedom brings opportunity and some degree of plenty, the competent become selfish, luxury-loving and complacent; the incompetent and unfortunate grow envious and covetous; and all three groups turn aside from the hard road of freedom to worship the golden calf of economic security. The historical cycle seems to be: from bondage to spiritual faith; from spiritual faith to courage; from courage to liberty; from liberty to abundance; from abundance to selfishness; from selfishness to apathy; from apathy to dependency; and from dependency back to bondage once more."
Interestingly, Hackett apparently said that Toynbee was elaborating on the statement of "Alexander Tyler." This is the earliest instance I have found of that misspelling, which has since become so commonplace that I suspect attributions to "Tyler" rival those to "Tytler." Yet most of this is word-for-word the same as the language used by Henning W. Prentis in 1943, who made no reference to Tytler or Toynbee.
On December 28, 1987, a letter in the Wall Street Journal quoted the whole passage, and said it was from a lecture by "a history professor by the name of Sir Alex Fraser Tytler (1714-1778)." Thus a source material is finally provided, but as Tytler's actual birth and death years were 1747 and 1813, the reliability of the letter-writer may be reasonably doubted.
Today, a Google search for "from bondage to spiritual faith" produces over 12,000 results. Well over half of those appear in conjunction with the "Why Democracies Fail" quote.
Who, then, is the author of these quotes? Even after all of my research, I am afraid I still cannot say for certain. But perhaps some conclusions may be drawn.
Each quote can be traced back at least as far as the mid-20th century, but the quotes cannot be found to have appeared together until the 1970s. Attributions of WDF to Tytler can be found as early as 1951, the quote has been the subject of authorship inquiries in The New York Times and American Notes & Queries, both of which are notoriously good at verifying authorship of works, but neither of which could provide an author for these quotes.
Some readers may wonder why I chose to quote variations so frequently, and to go into such detail when a shorter examination would do. I had three reasons for this. First, I did a lot of research, and I didn't want to cut too much of my work. Second, I wanted to put any doubts about my thoroughness to rest. And third, through my quoting and detailing, I hoped to illustrate exactly how quotes can evolve with time. New words are added, old ones disappear, and attributions and contexts change. That's not typical of a quote that has a definitive and reliable source; it's much more common with proverbs.
These facts lead me to suspect that these quotes were probably coined by separate individuals in the first half of the twentieth century, and I'm comfortable in concluding that Henning W. Prentis, Jr. is the author of the Fatal Sequence, unless further earlier evidence comes forward. In the original version of this article, when the evidence was inconclusive as to the author of either quote, I wrote that the authors of each half were most likely not famous persons or respected scholars, but rather just private political thinkers who got their words in print, and whose words then happened to strike a chord in others. The identification of Mr. Prentis as the author of FS bolsters this interpretation; the Fatal Sequence was not coined by a political figure or noted historian, but rather the president of a cork company. The passage of time merely encouraged quoters to attach an author's name that strengthened the authority behind the words.
And that is where the vice of misattribution lies. Perhaps the words speak the truth of democratic governments; or perhaps they do not. But either way, attributing the words to a scholar who never spoke them is to lend to them an authority and reliability that they do not deserve. Quotations should not be given fictitious attributions merely to lend credence to the messages they impart. To do so is to favor persuasiveness over accuracy, and to sacrifice truth for the sake of image.
* This article was originally written and posted online in 2003/2004. The original version can be read here. The above version is an edited version of the piece with new source material, and was posted online on January 25, 2009. I would like to thank Ken Hirsch, Fred Shapiro, and Ernie Schreiber for their assistance in researching these quotes.
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