Quotations about   tyranny

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Some people idealize force and pull it into the foreground and worship it, instead of keeping it in the background as long as possible. I think they make a mistake, and I think that their opposites, the mystics, err even more when they declare that force does not exist. I believe that it exists, and that one of our jobs is to prevent it from getting out of its box. It gets out sooner or later, and then it destroys us and all the lovely things which we have made. But it is not out all the time, for the fortunate reason that the strong are so stupid.

E. M. Forster (1879-1970) English novelist, essayist, critic, librettist [Edward Morgan Forster]
“What I Believe,” The Nation (16 Jul 1938)
Added on 4-Sep-19 | Last updated 4-Sep-19
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I endorse it. I think it was correct. Contrary to what many have said, it sought to outlaw neither prayer nor belief in god. In a pluralistic society such as ours, who is to determine what prayer shall be spoken and by whom? Legally, constitutionally or otherwise, the state certainly has no such right.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) American clergyman, civil rights leader, orator
Playboy interview (Jan 1965)
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On the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to ban school-led prayer.
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Experience declares that man is the only animal which devours its own kind; for I can apply no milder term to the governments of Europe, and to the general prey of the rich upon the poor.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) American political philosopher, polymath, statesman, US President (1801-09)
Letter to Col. Edward Carrington (16 Jan 1787)
Added on 26-Oct-18 | Last updated 26-Oct-18
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Whenever government assumes to deliver us from the trouble of thinking for ourselves, the only consequences it produces are those of torpor and imbecility.

William Godwin (1756-1836) English journalist, political philosopher, novelist
Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, Vol. 2, bk. 6, ch. 1 (1793)
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Added on 23-Oct-17 | Last updated 23-Oct-17
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The capacity of the human mind for swallowing nonsense and spewing it forth in violent and repressive action has never yet been plumbed.

Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988) American writer
“Concerning Stories Never Written” (Oct 1952)
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[T]here are historic situations in which refusal to defend the inheritance of a civilization, however imperfect, against tyranny and aggression may result in consequences even worse than war.

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) American theologian and clergyman
“Christian Faith and the World Crisis,” Christianity and Crisis (10 Feb 1941)
Added on 12-Jun-17 | Last updated 12-Jun-17
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The more laws and orders are made prominent,
The more thieves and bandits there will be.

Lao-tzu (604?-531? BC) Chinese philosopher, poet [also Lao-tse, Laozi]
Tao-te Ching, ch. 57 [tr. Wing-Tsit Chan]
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The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

Karl Marx (1818-1883) German philosopher, economist, sociologist, historian, journalist
The Communist Manifesto (1848) [with Friedrich Engels]
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Democ’acy gives every man
The right to be his own oppressor.

James Russell Lowell (1819-1891) American diplomat, essayist, poet
The Bigalow Papers, Second Series, “Ef I a song or two could make,” l. 97 (1867)
Added on 13-Mar-17 | Last updated 13-Mar-17
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The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government.

Hugo Black (1886-1971) American politician and jurist, US Supreme Court Justice (1937-71)
New York Times Co. v. United States, 403 U.S. 713 (1971) [Majority Opinion]
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One major and fundamental guarantee of protracted freedom is the unfettered right of the man to write as he sees fit, as his conscience indicates, as his mood dictates, as his cause cries out for. The moment you begin to censor the writer — and history bears this out in the ugliest of fashions — so begins a process of decay in the body politic that ultimately leads to disaster. What begins with a blue pencil — for whatever reason — very often ends in a concentration camp.

It has forever been thus: So long as men write what they think, then all of the other freedoms — all of them — may remain intact. And it is then that writing becomes a weapon of truth, an article of faith, an act of courage.

Rod Serling (1924-1975) American screenwriter, playwright, television producer, narrator
Speech (1975)
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Added on 2-Feb-17 | Last updated 2-Feb-17
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Ignorance is king. Many would not profit by his abdication. Many enrich themselves by means of his dark monarchy. They are his Court, and in his name they defraud and govern, enrich themselves and perpetuate their power. Even literacy they fear, for the written word is another channel of communication that might cause their enemies to become united. Their weapons are keen-honed, and they use them with skill. They will press the battle upon the world when their interests are threatened, and the violence which follows will last until the structure of society as it now exists is leveled to rubble, and a new society emerges. I am sorry: But that is how I see it.

Walter M. Miller Jr. (1923-1996) American science fiction writer
A Canticle for Leibowitz, “Fiat Lux,” ch. 20 (1959)
Added on 25-Jan-17 | Last updated 25-Jan-17
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Comfort and habits let us be ready to forgo, but I am not ready for a creed which does not care how much it destroys the liberty and security of daily life, which uses deliberately the weapons of persecution, destruction and international strife. How can I admire a policy which finds a characteristic expression in spending millions to suborn spies in every family and group at home, and to stir up trouble abroad?

John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) English economist
“A Short View of Russia” (1925)
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It is necessary to stifle the domestic and foreign enemies of the Republic or perish with them. Now, in these circumstances, the first maxim of our politics ought to be to lead the people by means of reason and the enemies of the people by terror … The basis of popular government in time of revolution is both virtue and terror. Terror without virtue is murderous, virtue without terror is powerless. Terror is nothing else than swift, severe, indomitable justice — it flows, then, from virtue.

Maximilien Robespierre (1758-174) French lawyer, politician, revolutionary leader
Speech, National Convention (7 May 1794)
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Added on 16-Jan-17 | Last updated 16-Jan-17
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The tyrant grinds down his slaves and they don’t turn against him, they crush those beneath them.

Emily Brontë (1818-1848) British novelist, poet [pseud. Ellis Bell]
Wuthering Heights, ch. 11 [Heathcliff] (1847)
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Added on 29-Dec-16 | Last updated 29-Dec-16
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The power to tax is the power to rule.

Brooks Atkinson (1894-1984) American drama critic and journalist
Once Around the Sun, “1 March” (1951)

See also John Marshall.
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This hand, to tyrants ever sworn the foe,
For Freedom only deals the deadly blow;
Then sheathes in calm repose the vengeful blade,
For gentle peace in Freedom’s hallowed shade.

John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) US President (1825-29)
Written in an Album (1842)
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It’s said that “power corrupts,” but actually it’s more true that power attracts the corruptible. The sane are usually attracted by other things than power. When they do act, they think of it as service, which has limits. The tyrant, though, seeks mastery, for which he is insatiable, implacable.

David Brin (b. 1950) American scientist and author
The Postman, ch. 14 (1985)

Often paraphrased: "It is said that power corrupts, but actually it's more true that power attracts the corruptible. The sane are usually attracted by other things than power." See Frank Herbert.
Added on 21-Oct-16 | Last updated 21-Oct-16
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The jaws of power are always open to devour, and her arm is always stretched out, if possible, to destroy the freedom of thinking, speaking, and writing.

Adams - jaws of power - wist_info quote

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
“A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law” (1765)
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Added on 27-Jul-16 | Last updated 27-Jul-16
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The time to guard against corruption and tyranny is before they shall have gotten hold of us. It is better to keep the wolf out of the fold than to trust to drawing his teeth and talons after he shall have entered.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) American political philosopher, polymath, statesman, US President (1801-09)
Notes on Virginia (1782)
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Since the general civilization of mankind, I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power, than by violent and sudden usurpations.

Madison - gradual and silent encroachments - wist_info quote

James Madison (1751-1836) American statesman, political theorist, US President (1809-17)
Speech, Virginia Ratifying Convention (6 Jun 1788)
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I am inordinately proud these days of the quill, for it has shown itself, historically, to be the hypodermic which inoculates men and keeps the germ of freedom always in circulation, so that there are individuals in every time in every land who are the carriers, the Typhoid Mary’s, capable of infecting others by mere contact and example. These persons are feared by every tyrant — who shows his fear by burning the books and destroying the individuals.

E.B. White (1899-1985) American author, critic, humorist [Elwyn Brooks White]
“Freedom” (Jul 1940)
Added on 25-Feb-16 | Last updated 5-Jul-16
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Books cannot be killed by fire. People die, but books never die. No man and no force can abolish memory. No man and no force can put thought in a concentration camp forever. No man and no force can take from the world the ideas that embody man’s eternal fight against tyranny of every kind. In this war, we know, books are weapons. And it is a part of your dedication always to make them weapons for man’s freedom.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945) US President (1933-1945)
“Message to American Booksellers Association” (23 Apr 1942)
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Under a tyranny, most friends are a liability. One quarter of them turn “reasonable” and become your enemies, one quarter are afraid to speak, and one quarter are killed and you die with them. But the blessed final quarter keep you alive.

Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951) American novelist, playwright
It Can’t Happen Here (1935)
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Equality, rightly understood, as our founding fathers understood it, leads to liberty and to the emancipation of creative differences. Wrongly understood, as it has been so tragically in our time, it leads first to conformity and then to despotism.

Barry Goldwater (1909-1998) American politician
Speech, accepting the GOP Presidential Nomination, San Francisco (16 Jul 1964)
Added on 19-Nov-15 | Last updated 19-Nov-15
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A well run tyranny is almost as scarce as an efficient democracy.

Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988) American writer
Friday [Dr. Baldwin] (1982)
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Those who seek absolute power, even though they seek it to do what they regard as good, are simply demanding the right to enforce their own version of heaven on earth. And let me remind you, they are the very ones who always create the most hellish tyrannies. Absolute power does corrupt, and those who seek it must be suspect and must be opposed.

Barry Goldwater (1909-1998) American politician
Speech, accepting the GOP Presidential Nomination, San Francisco (16 Jul 1964)
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See Acton.
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If an autocracy does not rest on the army, which leads to the chaos of praetorianism, it must rely on ‘panem et circenses.’ Hence it has some of the worst faults of democracy, without its advantages.

William Ralph Inge (1860-1954) English prelate [Dean Inge]
“Our Present Discontents,” Outspoken Essays: First Series (1919)
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POLLY PEACHUM: The law is simply and solely made for the exploitation of those who do not understand it or of those who, for naked need, cannot obey it.

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) German poet, playwright, director, dramaturgist
Die Dreigroschenoper [The Three-Penny Opera], Act 3, sc. 1 (1928)

Alt. trans.: "The law was made for one thing alone, for the exploitation of those who don't understand it, or are prevented by naked misery from obeying it."
Added on 1-Oct-15 | Last updated 1-Oct-15
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Whatever crushes individuality is despotism, by whatever name it may be called and whether it professes to be enforcing the will of God or the injunctions of men.

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) English philosopher and economist
On Liberty, ch. 3 (1859)
Added on 22-Sep-15 | Last updated 22-Sep-15
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Find out just what any people will quietly submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.

Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) American abolitionist, orator, writer
Speech on West India Emancipation (4 Aug 1857)
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No tendency is quite so strong in human nature as the desire to lay down rules of conduct for other people.

William Howard Taft (1857-1930) US President (1909-13) and Chief Justice (1921-1930)
Ladies Home Journal (May 1919)

Regarding the temperance movement. Quoted in Robert J. Schoenberg, Mr. Capone (1992).
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I believe any man who takes the liberty of another into his keeping is bound to become a tyrant, and that any man who yields up his liberty, in however slight the measure, is bound to become a slave.

H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) American writer and journalist [Henry Lewis Mencken]
“Why Liberty?” Chicago Tribune (30 Jan 1927)
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Every successful revolution puts on in time the robes of the tyrant it has deposed.

Barbara W. Tuchman (1912-1989) American historian and author
Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-1945, ch. 8 (1972)
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Added on 9-Jun-15 | Last updated 9-Jun-15
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I am more and more convinced that man is a dangerous creature; and that power, whether vested in many or a few, is ever grasping, and, like the grave, cries, “Give, give!” The great fish swallow up the small; and he who is most strenuous for the rights of the people, when vested with power, is as eager after the prerogatives of government. You tell me of degrees of perfection to which human nature is capable of arriving, and I believe it, but at the same time lament that our admiration should arise from the scarcity of the instances.

Abigail Adams (1744-1818) American correspondent, First Lady (1797-1801)
Letter to John Adams (27 Nov 1775)
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The Bill of Rights was designed trustfully to prohibit forever two of the favorite crimes of all known governments: the seizure of private property without adequate compensation and the invasion of the citizen’s liberty without justifiable cause and due process.

H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) American writer and journalist [Henry Lewis Mencken]
“On Government,” Prejudices: Fourth Series (1924)
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The welfare of the people in particular has always been the alibi of tyrants, and it provides the further advantage of giving the servants of tyranny a good conscience. It would be easy, however, to destroy that good conscience by shouting to them: if you want the happiness of the people, let them speak out and tell what kind of happiness they want and what kind they don’t want! But, in truth, the very ones who make use of such alibis know they are lies; they leave to their intellectuals on duty the chore of believing in them and of proving that religion, patriotism, and justice need for their survival the sacrifice of freedom.

Albert Camus (1913-1960) Algerian-French novelist, essayist, playwright
“Homage to an Exile” (1955)

Published as an essay in Actuelles III, originally a speech (7 Dec 1955) at a banquet in honor of President Eduardo Santos, editor of El Tiempo, driven out of Columbia by a dictatorship". Reprinted in Resistance, Rebellion, and Death (1960).
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So long as men worship the Caesars and Napoleons, Caesars and Napoleons will duly rise and make them miserable.

Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) English novelist, essayist and critic
Ends and Means (1937)
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The rack, or question, to extort a confession from criminals, is a practice of a different nature; […] an engine of the state, not of law.

William Blackstone (1723-1780) British jurist, judge, politician
Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book 4 “Of Public Wrongs,” ch. 25 “Arraignment” (1769)
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Un-American activity cannot be prevented or routed out by employing un-American methods; to preserve freedom we must use the tools that freedom provides.

Dwight David Eisenhower (1890-1969) American general, US President (1953-61)
The White House Years: Mandate for Change: 1953-1956: A Personal Account (1963)
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That all history shows the necessity, in order to the preservation of liberty, of every subjects having a watchful eye on the conduct of Kings, Ministers, and Parliament, and of every subjects being not only secured, but encouraged in alarming his fellow subjects on occasion of every attempt upon public liberty.

James Burgh (1714-1775) British politician and writer
Political Disquisitions, Book 1 “Of Government, briefly,” ch. 9 “Of the Liberty of Speech and Writing on Political Subjects” (1774)
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But, such is the perverse disposition of man, the most unruly of all animals, that this most useful institution has been generally debauched into an engine of oppression and tyranny over those, whom it was expressly and solely established to defend. And to such a degree has this evil prevailed, that in almost every age and country, the government has been the principal grievance of the people, as appears too dreadfully manifest, from the bloody and deformed pages of history. For what is general history, but a view of the abuses of power committed by those, who have got it into their hands, to the subjugation, and destruction of the human species, to the ruin of the general peace and happiness, and turning the Almighty’s fair and good world into a butchery of its inhabitants, for the gratification of the unbounded ambition of a few, who, in overthrowing the felicity of their fellow-creatures, have confounded their own?

James Burgh (1714-1775) British politician and writer
Political Disquisitions, Book 1 “Of Government, briefly,” ch. 1 (1774)
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If I had to choose, I should detest the tyranny of one man less than that of many. A despot always has his good moments; an assembly of despots never.

Voltaire (1694-1778) French writer [pseud. of Francois-Marie Arouet]
Philosophical Dictionary, “Tyranny” (1764) [tr. Gay (1962)]
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Power always Sincerely, conscientiously, de très bon foi, believes itself Right. Power always thinks it has a great Soul and vast Views, beyond the Comprehension of the Weak; and that it is doing God Service when it is violating all his Laws.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to Thomas Jefferson (2 Feb 1816)
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de très bon foi = "very candidly"
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If there is no willingness to use force to defend civil society, it’s civil society that goes away, not force.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden (b. 1956) American editor, writer, essayist
Making Light, “Commonplaces”
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The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.

Thucydides (c. 460-400 BC) Greek historian
History of the Peloponnesian War, Book 5, ch. 89 [tr. Crawley and Wick (1982)]
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While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules.

Francis I (b. 1936) Argentinian Catholic Pope (2013- ) [b. Jorge Mario Bergoglio]
Evangelii Gaudium, sec. 56 (24 Nov 2013)
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Added on 30-Jul-14 | Last updated 30-Jul-14
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G’KAR: No dictator, no invader, can hold an imprisoned population by the force of arms forever. There is no greater power in the universe than the need for freedom. Against that power, governments, and tyrants, and armies can not stand.

J. Michael (Joe) Straczynski (b. 1954) American screenwriter, producer, author [a/k/a "JMS"]
Babylon 5, 2×20 “The Long, Twilight Struggle” (1995)
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Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist. That, of all rights, is the dread of tyrants. It is the right which they first of all strike down. They know its power.

Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) American abolitionist, orator, writer
“A Plea for Freedom of Speech in Boston,” speech (9 Dec 1860)
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Mankind are apt to be strongly prejudiced in favor of whatever is countenanced by antiquity, enforced by authority, and recommended by custom. The pleasure of acquiescing in the decision of others is by most men so preferred to the toil and hazard of inquiry, and so few are either able or disposed to examine for themselves, that the voice of law will generally be taken for the dictates of justice.

Robert Hall (1764-1831) English Baptist minister
“Fragment on Village Preaching,” sec. 2
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Added on 22-Apr-14 | Last updated 22-Apr-14
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It is bad to be oppressed by a minority, but it is worse to be oppressed by a majority. For there is a reserve of latent power in the masses which, if it is called into play, the minority can seldom resist.

John Dalberg, Lord Acton (1834-1902) British historian
“The History of Freedom in Antiquity,” Speech, Bridgenorth Institute (28 Feb 1877)
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If the people cannot govern themselves, they must be governed by somebody.

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) British playwright and critic
Annajanska (1919)
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CAESAR: Let me have men about me that are fat;
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o’ nights:
Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much; such men are dangerous.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) English dramatist and poet
Julius Caesar, Act 1, sc. 2, l. 192 (1599)

See Plutarch.
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Take the most radical revolutionist and place him upon the all-Russian throne or give him dictatorial power, for which so many of our green revolutionists daydream, and within a year he will have become worse than the Emperor himself.

Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876) Russian anarchist, political theorist
Science and the Urgent Revolutionary Task (1870)
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Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) American political philosopher, polymath, statesman, US President (1801-09)
Declaration of Independence (4 Jul 1776)

As modified and approved by the Continental Congress.
Added on 13-Aug-13 | Last updated 20-Jun-16
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