“of the people, by the people, for the people”

i’m still on vacation**, so i’ll keep this short.

i’m a big daniel hannan fan! anybody who dislikes the e.u. is a-okay with me. (^_^) so over my r&r break here, i’ve been reading his latest (really great!) book: Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World.

here’s a passage from the first chapter that had me (nearly) leaping out of my hammock [pgs. 32-33 – links added by me]:

“Think about the most famous apologia for democracy ever uttered. On November 19, 1863, at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, President Abraham Lincoln, weak and lightheaded with an oncoming case of smallpox, made a speech that lasted for just over two minutes, and ended with his hope ‘that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.’

“Those words have been quoted ever since, as the supreme vindication of representative government. Indeed, they are often quoted as proof of American exceptionalism. But the words were not Lincoln’s. Most of his hearers would have recognized their source, as our generation does not. They came from the prologue to what was probably the earliest translation of the Holy Scriptures into the English language: ‘This Bible is for the government of the people, for the people and by the people.’ The author was the theologian John Wycliffe, sometimes called ‘the Morning Star of the Reformation.’ Astonishingly, the words had first appeared in 1384.”

1384?! that is fr*ckin’ amazing!

or it would be, were it true. unfortunately, it seems as though the wycliffe connection might be an urban (or academic maybe?) legend.

eugene volokh posted about this in 2009 (see also here – make sure to click on the “show more” link). read the entire post @the volokh conspiracy for all the details:

“[T]hree sources … say that they’ve read the whole General Prologue and can’t find anything remotely similar to the ‘government of the people …’ quote.”

those three sources refer back to early twentieth century historians checking into the question of whether or not wycliffe wrote this “government of the people” thing in the prologue to his bible, so there have been some doubts about the authenticity of this claim for some time.

i did find this reference interesting:

“‘The phrase “of the people, for the people and by the people” is not original with Lincoln. There is a tradition that the phrase, “The bible shall be for the government of the people, for the people and by the people,” appears in the preface of the Wyclif bible of 1384, or in the Hereford Bible, or in a pamphlet of the period treating that version. See Notes and Queries, Feb. 12, 1916, p. 127.'”

so maybe wycliffe (or someone else?) wrote the phrase in the fourteenth century in a pamphlet and not in the prologue to the bible. -?-

dunno. i’d really like the phrase to be from medieval england! but if it’s not, it’s not. *sigh*

anybody got a copy of the wycliffe bible at home? (^_^)

see also 150 years ago today, Abraham Lincoln praised ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’ – but the words were not his

**not hbd chick

(note: comments do not require an email. wycliffe bible.)



  1. Even if Wycliffe didn’t say these exact words his writings were pretty much on this kind of subject. So much so that he ended up being one of the intellectual triggers for the Hussite reformation in Bohemia.


  2. Hannan’s good, but very wordy! (he should’ve taken a page from the Gettysburg address:)
    “The Gospels and some other books within the New Testament were likely circulated around 1388, before the General Prologue was written. John Wycliffe did not participate in the writing of the General Prologue since he died in 1384 and the General Prologue was not started until about January or February of 1395 and finished before January or February of 1397”
    references at link


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  4. The odds favour the expression having first been said, perhaps approximately, by someone else, if only because someone elses much outnumber Lincoln. I don’t know enough about Lincoln to know whether it’s plausible that he coined it. The phrase lacks terseness, which does point vaguely to a medieval or American origin.

    Some attributions are entirely implausible. Consider the childhood ditty:
    I eat my peas with honey
    I’ve done it all my life
    It makes the peas taste funny
    But it keeps them on my knife.

    I googled to see who wrote it: apparently it was anon. But some loony thought it sounded like Ogden Nash, a tin-eared judgement if ever I met one. I suspect that the “knife” means it’s likelier to be British than American, unless there was a point in American history when people ate with knife and fork instead of fork alone.


  5. Even less likely is that “most of” Lincoln’s hearers would have “recognised its source.” The Authorised Version, The KJV, was far and away the only translation Americans would have been familiar with. The Douay-Rheims would have been a distant second, and only among Roman Catholics.

    The Puritans preferred the Geneva Bible, but that had faded entirely by the mid 19th C.

    As for the quote, NewHampshireman Daniel Webster (okay, he was a jerk in some ways, but still…) apparently said in 1830 : “It is, Sir, the people’s government, made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people. The people of the United States have declared that this Constitution shall be the supreme law.” That’s only 450 years later than the supposed Wycliff. Same diff.


  6. @assistant village idiot – “As for the quote, NewHampshireman Daniel Webster (okay, he was a jerk in some ways, but still…) apparently said in 1830 : ‘It is, Sir, the people’s government, made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people. The people of the United States have declared that this Constitution shall be the supreme law.'”

    ah! interesting! thanks.

    here’s something from a book published in 1906 – “Lincoln at Gettysburg : an address” [pg. 73+]:

    “The phrase ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people’ was not original with Mr. Lincoln. There was considerable comment at the time upon his using it, which went so far that it was insinuated that he was guilty of wilful plagiarism — that he took it from Webster’s reply to Hayne. The matter was thoroughly investigated by Lamon, Nicolay, and others, and it was found that the phrase had been so often used as to have become common property. It appears substantially as Mr. Lincoln used it in Webster’s reply to Hayne, 1830, in a work by James Douglas, in 1825, and in the Rhetorical Reader by James Porter in 1830. The phrase was used by Theodore Parker in an anti-slavery convention at Boston, May, 1850, and substantially the same phrase was used by Joel Parker in the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention in 1853. Long before Mr. Lincoln used the phrase, it was used in other languages. The first appearance of it, so far as it has been possible to ascertain, was in the preface to the old Wickliffe Bible, translated before 1384, the year in which that bright ‘morning star of the Reformation’ died. It is there declared that, ‘this Bible is for the government of the people, by the people, and for the people.'”


  7. Irregardless, Trevelyan’s The Age of Wycliffe is well worth reading. One of the greatest books of English history in my opinion, written as an undergraduate thesis if I am not mistaken! Such talent those English produce.


  8. Also the Unitarian minister Theodore Parks wrote something similar — and we know Lincoln probably read him because his law partner, William Herndon, had a copy lying around in the paper mess that was their office together.


  9. The rest of the address is fine stuff, I agree.

    I think “phrase” is better than “trope” because the latter implies a figurative or metaphorical use – for example, referring to the British Civil Service as “Whitehall” or “Sir Humphrey”. But it’s half century since I left school.


  10. HBD Chick – When I asked you on Twitter if the Peasants Revolt was anything to do with outbreeding, you mentioned not really that it was more from the black death killing off people and wanting $ demands. Well, I looked into the leadership and what they said for redistribution of property, eliminating the hierarchy of English society, etc. Well, they took a lot of their cues from John Wycliffe, who was like a proto-Reformation guy. Even better, there was an element of the elite who supported some Reformation style beliefs and policies the Lollards. If I had to make a timeline sequence I’d say (borrowing from your outbreeding leads to radical reformation idea)…

    Outbreeding for several centuries -> Peasants Revolt/Wat Tyler/John Ball/John Wycliffe/Lollards -> Anti-Lollardy links church and state in Henry IV’s era where ecclesiastical courts could finally punish/kill blasphemers, heightened by Henry V/VI’s support of enforcements creating backlash and pushing Lollards underground -> Actual Reformation and Henry VIII’s obsession with a male heir -> Henry VIII jumping on Protestant bandwagon to dislodge from Papacy (being an island nation mattered because what Navy was the Pope going to send across the Channel)


  11. @sobl – “Well, they took a lot of their cues from John Wycliffe, who was like a proto-Reformation guy.”

    oh, right! thanks. yes, wycliffe was definitely a proto-reformation guy — the “morning star of the reformation” they call(ed) him, apparently!

    @sobl – “Outbreeding for several centuries -> Peasants Revolt/Wat Tyler/John Ball/John Wycliffe/Lollards”

    well, you could be right! i keep trying to avoid seeing connections between mating patterns and…everything…and the little i’ve read about the peasants revolt has suggested that it was related to the post-black death laws about the movements of peasants, but you might be right that there was a connection w/the outbreeding, too.

    on a very fundamental level, i don’t think you could’ve had the large alliances of individual peasants if they hadn’t have been outbred. if england had remained an inbred, clannish society, revolts would be aligned along clan lines. but then that never really works well, because clans are often too busy fighting with each other to ally successfully with one another. so, yeah…mating patterns matter (imho)! (^_^)


  12. Another item I forgot to add, Gutenberg’s printing press allowed the Bible to be in the hands of laymen at far greater rates. Once they could get the word of God in their hands, they thought it made no sense to have a hierarchal regime telling you what to think about the most important subject in the world. Germans for centuries had the protestant-catholic split, and a common insult to the catholics was that they had to have the word of God read to them.

    I also have a hypothesis on the “why the English took to outbreeding so much in the 800s before others”, but I have to do much more reading as well as adjust to the arrival of Daughter of SOBL.


  13. the little i’ve read about the peasants revolt has suggested that it was related to the post-black death laws about the movements of peasants, but you might be right that there was a connection w/the outbreeding, too.

    So the English were already outbreeding some. Along comes the Black Death, and lots of people’s first and second cousins die, *forcing* people to marry further out. Laws restricting movement (to prevent increases in the costs of labor) *also* make it harder to find a spouse, because with so many people dead, more people would have had to travel to further-away villages to find suitable spouses. Increased solidarity through outbreeding, and both economic *and sexual* resentment at laws limiting freedom of movement. Boom!


  14. “because it seems to me to lie at the basis of all our truly original, distinctive and American institutions. It is itself a complex idea, composed of three subordinate and more simple ideas, namely: The idea that all men have unalienable rights; that in respect thereof, all men are created equal; and that government is to be established and sustained for the purpose of giving every man an opportunity for the enjoyment and development of all these unalienable rights. This idea demands, as the proximate organization thereof, a democracy, that is, a government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people; of course, a government after the principles of eternal justice, the unchanging law of God; for shortness’ sake, I will call it the idea of Freedom.”

    -Theodore Parker, “Speech at the New England Anti-Slavery Convention”, delivered on 29 April 1850.

    He also uses the phrase in a few other speeches, like his 1858 sermon “The Effect of Slavery on the People.”

    So is it a religiously inspired quotation? Absolutely. But in 1300s? Maybe not.


  15. Has anyone looked at Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, (wiki)… often simply called Bartlett’s, is an American reference work that is the longest-lived and most widely distributed collection of quotations. The book was first issued in 1855 and is currently in its eighteenth edition, published in 2012. Look at First Printing of 1855, and following editions, to see Bartlett attributed to Wycliffe the quote “The Bible is for the government of the people, by the people and for the people.” At what point did the quote get shortened and attributed to “Honest” Abe Lincoln?


  16. I understood Wycliffe to say “I want to make the bible the common property of all.”
    And in the introduction to his bible translation said, “The Bible will be of people, by people, and for the people. 1200’s


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