A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from February 08, 2010
“The people get the government they deserve”

Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821) wrote in 1811: “Toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle merite.” ("Every nation has the government it deserves.") De Maistre was credited with the saying in the 19th century, but it became popular in the United States in the 20th century, frequently without credit to De Maistre.

A popular version is “In a democracy, the people get the government they deserve,” with an incorrect credit to Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), author of Democracy in America. Many have questioned the statement, arguing that it “blames the victim” (citizens/voters) for bad regimes that cannot easily be voted out—even in a democracy.


Wikipedia: Joseph de Maistre
Joseph-Marie, comte de Maistre (1 April 1753 – 26 February 1821) was a Savoyard lawyer, diplomat, writer, and philosopher. He was the most influential spokesmen for hierarchical authoritarianism in the period immediately following the French Revolution of 1789. Despite his close personal and intellectual ties to France, Maistre remained throughout his life a loyal subject of the King of Sardinia, whom he served as member of the Savoy Senate (1787–1792), ambassador to Russia (1803–1817), and minister of state to the court in Turin (1817–1821).

Maistre argued for the restoration of hereditary monarchy, which he regarded as a divinely sanctioned institution, and for the indirect authority of the Pope over temporal matters. According to Maistre, only governments founded upon a Christian constitution, implicit in the customs and institutions of all European societies but especially in Catholic European monarchies, could avoid the disorder and bloodshed that followed the implementation of rationalist political programs, such as the 1789 revolution. Maistre was an enthusiastic proponent of the principle of hierarchical authority, which the Revolution sought to destroy; he extolled the monarchy, he exalted the privileges of the papacy, and he glorified God’s providence.

Google Books
The Yale Book of Quotations
Edited by Fred R. Shapiro
New Haven, CT: Yale University Press
2006
Pg. 485:
Joseph de Maistre
French diplomat and writer, 1753-1821
“Toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle merite.”
“Every country has the government it deserves.”
Lettres et Opuscules Inedits vol. I, no. 53 (1851) (letter of 13 Aug. 1811)

Google Books
January 1858, The North American Review, pg. 233:
There is truth in the saying, that ‘nations have the government they deserve.’

Google Books
January 1859, Dublin University Magazine, pg. 100, col. 2:
...for having so allowed liberty to degenerate into licence and anarchy as to go far to justify the saying of De Maistre, that every nation has but the government it deserves.

6 June 1868, Petersburg (VA) Index, pg. 2, col. 2:
De Maistre said, “A people has always the Government it deserves.” This, if repeated now, would be a bitter and cruel libel upon the people of the South.

Google Books
Man--woman: or, The temple, the hearth, the street
By Alexandre Dumas
Translated by George Vandenhoff
Philadelphia, New York
1873
Pg. 89:
He orders a mock thunder for himself, like Caligula, and gives his horse for consul to his subjects, who indeed deserve no better, in virtue of that axiom that nations always have the government they deserve.

Google Books
14 August 1875, The Academy, pg. 164, col. 3:
A French proverb says that the people have always the government they deserve.

Google Books
The History of Canada
Volume 4

By William Kingsford
Toronto, Roswell & Hutchinson
1984
Pg. 36:
In a country possessing free institutions, men obtain the government they deserve.

Google Books
December 1906, The Harvard Graduates’ Magazine, pg. 340:
History shows, Mr. Lodge says, that men usually get the government they deserve.

Google Books
November 1907, The Westminster Review, pg. 535:
A certain aphorism lays it down that a people get the government they deserve.

Google Books
May 1910, The Atlantic Monthly, pg. 650:
If, as Herbert Spencer says, the people get the government they deserve, they probably get the newspapers they deserve also.

Asymmetrical Information
Stephen, Bartlett’s doesn’t seem to have heard of the “people deserve the government” phrase. Best I could find was a French quote, from 1811, “Every country has the government it deserves.” (Does “merite” translate as simply “deserves”? Connotations, anyone?) I found a couple of pages that quote the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations: EVERY COUNTRY HAS THE GOVERNMENT IT DESERVES - “‘Toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle merite.’ “Lettres et Opuscules In�dits,” (1851) vol. I, letter 53 (15 August 1811.) Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821), French writer and diplomat.

Thomas Carlyle wrote in his book Past and Present, “In the long-run every Government is the exact symbol of its People, with their wisdom and unwisdom; we have to say, Like People like Government.” The book came out in 1843, but apparently was a collection of essays. I suppose he could have written this statement earlier, but probably not before 1811, since he was born in 1795.
Posted by: PJ/Maryland on April 17, 2004 03:53 AM

Truth be known
Sunday, January 07, 2007
The controversial quote: “The people get the government they deserve”
Well, I don’t know who actually said this. And no one seems to be sure of the source. You can google the whole sentence and try looking for answer and get over 28000 findings. I looked through less than 50 of them and found some different interesting references.

[1]In a Democracy, the people get the government they deserve - Alexis de Tocqueville

[2]If the citizenry do not hold their officials to standards, then any government gets our of hand. So the question goes beyond taxation, and becomes how can we ever have a sound government, and the answer is by a principled populace. As has been said by Jefferson and Tocqueville, people get the government they deserve.

[3]What worries me though is the following quotation penned by Shakespeare in Julius Caesar: “Cassius suggests that the people get the government they deserve…”. This can be a good thing, if (and it’s a big “if”) the people do their homework and vote based on facts, not on rumor or innuendo.

[4]In a Democracy, The People Get the Government They Deserve. - Hunter S. Thompson

The Volokh Conspiracy
[Ilya Somin, July 29, 2007 at 6:54pm] Trackbacks
Why People Get Much Worse Government than they Deserve:
In reply to my recent post on the shortcomings of Vladimir Putin’s repressive regime in Russia, one commenter suggests that the Russian people are “getting precisely the kind of government they deserve.” This is a very common point of view: that people who live under repressive or corrupt governments are in some sense responsible for their own fate. After all, why don’t they act to improve the regime or replace it with a different one? My purpose in this post is not to attack an individual commenter, but to point out some major flaws in the widespread view underlying the saying that “people get the government they deserve.” The problem is not just that the saying oversimplifies; all sayings do that. The problem is that it is fundamentally misleading. This is one case where liberal strictures against “blaming the victim” should be taken to heart.

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityGovernment/Law/Politics/Military • (0) Comments • Monday, February 08, 2010 • Permalink