Quoting other people is not really my thing, for a number of reasons. Certain collections of words get attributed to specific people, and a lot of those quotes go back so far they could not have been recorded anywhere but on paper. Just because someone happened to write some catchy phrase down or utter it in front of others doesn’t mean they actually came up with it; that simply means it got attributed to them. Politicians, in particular, are notorious for speaking other people’s words as if they were their own, and very few speechwriters stand up in the middle of these addresses to claim the applause that actually belongs to them.
Despite all this, there are a few quotes that have stuck with me over the years. The lips that uttered the words are not nearly as important to me as the message itself, and all my favorites are short and sweet phrases that stick in my mind while giving it a little food for thought. In my opinion, a good quote says enough to get me thinking without trying to tell me how to think; that would explain why the source is unnoteworthy to me, but I still understand the importance of attribution. That’s why I seldom quote others; it means I have to get the words and the source exactly right, in a mind that is far more fascinated with ideas than facts.
Case in point: the quote I wanted to start this post with really affected me the first time I heard it. That moment marks the first time I saw democracy as a potentially bad thing, and the saying has been rolling around in my head ever since. Then I decided to go against my own rules and use it here, only to be reminded of why I don’t do that. Instead of quoting from memory and attributing it to the person I thought said it, I checked the information on the internet. And guess what? I was wrong! All this time I thought one of my favorite sayings came from one of my least favorite presidents, but it turns out it didn’t. Also, I apparently only heard half of what was said; the other half puts a new spin on it, and goes into territory that was not attached to this quote in my mind before.
First of all, I’d like to share the quote and who I thought said it; then we’ll move on to how I was wrong, and how the rest of what was said has me looking at this quote in a whole new light as I write this post. Someone once told me Abraham Lincoln said the following, and the phrase stuck in my brain while making it go to work on the concept it contained:
“Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.”
Those words put a spotlight on an aspect of democracy I hadn’t examined before, and I had to give old Honest Abe grudging credit for turning this jewel around in his hands and spotting the fatal flaw. My brain got after the hidden math, and I realized that a democracy could be less than fair for more than half the population if its leaders spun every issue to have three sides instead of two. Even if an issue had only two sides, it could lead to one million people being marginalized simply because one million and one voted that they should be; and that’s a democratic vote. A democracy relies on every individual having a certain level of compassion for every other individual and sometimes putting the needs of society itself above their own desires.
Even the most patriotic American would not exactly describe our population using those words. But those people know we don’t live in a democracy, even though an alarming percentage of each generation continues to think we do for some reason. This is a republic, and votes are not counted in a republic the way they are in a democracy. In fact, the whole setup is different. A democracy is a simple machine that moves forward on the concept that majority rules, and it naturally smashes minorities in its path as it goes. A republic is designed to protect those minorities from the majority; or at least, this one was.
Which leads us back to the quote.
First of all, it wasn’t Abraham Lincoln that said it. Although he did piece together quite a few popular sayings, this one wasn’t his. You can only imagine my relief since I’m not a huge fan of the guy. We all know Abraham Lincoln was racist and that he formed the federal government under the guise of freeing slaves, but it is the way he is remembered that really gets under my skin. This guy thought he should be in charge of everybody, while he still indulged in childish tantrums that his wife shielded others from; but so many people think he was a great guy. All the descriptions I’ve heard of him paint Lincoln as an arrogant narcissist and the direction he sent the country in was very different than what the founding fathers had intended.
But that doesn’t matter because Lincoln isn’t the one who said it! I can rejoice in knowing one of the few good quotes that got lodged in my brain didn’t originate in that one.
This one actually comes from Benjamin Franklin, who has a story all his own. Rather than get into that here, let’s make sure the whole quote gets cited. Although the first half of it was all I heard initially, I got the second half when I looked it up. Surely he said it all together for a reason, even if it makes me see it from a different angle than I’ve been looking all these years. Two wolves and a lamb voting on what to eat for lunch didn’t seem fair to me at all, and I could see how democracy playing out in endless scenarios could result in various horrific endings; but I didn’t go on to imagine what might need to take its place, beyond the aim of protecting the minority from the majority.
Ben Franklin did, though; and here’s what he had to say on it:
“Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote!”
Whoa. Well, the last thing I want to do is talk gun control here. That is a very nuanced discussion with many sides to it, and the loud proclamations I hear coming from the two most vocal directions don’t make sense by themselves. While some people say outlawing guns would mean only the criminals would have them, people like Benjamin Franklin would be quick to point out a different angle altogether. If guns are illegal, the only people that can have them are the people who make the laws. To someone like him, giving the guns to the government and taking them away from the people means a swift slide into tyranny.
That’s how laws work, after all; the people who make them seldom have to abide by them. They can also write the laws so only they benefit, or so they at least reap the richest rewards. They even get to vote on what their salaries should be, and when they should increase; in fact, many of the laws that go into effect are voted on by politicians rather than citizens. Once you look at it from their point of view, the next mind-bending tidbit of information starts to make a strange kind of sense. After all…
We’ll talk about that next week, in a post by that name. I hope you have a great week in the meantime, and that you had fun with this one.
Thanks for reading!
All the best,