Sinclair Lewis? Huey Long? Eugene V. Debs? Lonnie Jackson? A. L. Sachar? James Waterman Wise? Robert H. Jackson? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The impulses of nationalism and authoritarianism sometimes combine to produce devastating results. The following saying has been attributed to the prominent writer Sinclair Lewis and the populist politician Huey Long:
When Fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag.
The phrase “and carrying a cross” is often added to this saying. I have not found any solid citations for Lewis or Long. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: QI has located no substantive evidence ascribing this remark to Sinclair Lewis or Huey Long. In addition, the “Sinclair Lewis Society” was unable to find this quotation in the Lewis’s oeuvre. 1 A thematically germane Lewis quotation from 1935 is presented further below. QI has also examined a different, but related, quotation ascribed to Huey Long:
Sure, we’ll have fascism in this country, and we’ll call it anti-fascism
That entry is available here.
In 1917 “The Muncie Sunday Star” of Indiana printed an announcement for a speech that prominent labor activist Eugene V. Debs was planning to deliver. The announcement presented a quotation from Debs which partially matched the saying under examination: 2
Every robber or oppressor in history has wrapped himself in a cloak of patriotism or religion, or both. I am not a patriot as defined in the lexicon of the house of Morgan. I’d not murder my fellow men of my own accord, and why should I do it at the behest of the master class?
During a speech delivered in 1918 Debs made a similar statement: 3
No wonder Jackson said that “Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels.” He had the Wall Street gentry in mind or their prototypes, at least; for in every age it has been the tyrant, who has wrapped himself in the cloak of patriotism, or religion, or both. (Shouts of “Good, good” from the crowd) (applause).
As a digression, QI notes that the Jackson attribution was flawed. Evidence indicates that lexicographer Samuel Johnson coined the adage “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”. A separate QI article about that saying is available here.
In 1922 a partially matching statement printed in a North Carolina newspaper was applied to the Ku Klux Klan. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 4
Governor Allen has made a fine epigram on the K. K. K.—Race prejudice wrapped in the flag and sold for $10.
In 1923 Lonnie Jackson, mayor of Central City, Kentucky and president of District No. 23 of the United Mine Workers of America described the Ku Klux Klan using a matching phrase: 5
“The Ku Klux Klan comes wrapped in the American flag, as it were, advocating the American principles openly, with a Bible in its hand, and the very next day they are passing their neighbors with a mask over their faces. My conception of the fundamental principles of Americanism is that a man should have nothing to be ashamed of.”
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel “It Can’t Happen Here” included the following thematically relevant passage: 6
He was afraid that the world struggle today was not of Communism against Fascism, but of tolerance against the bigotry that was preached equally by Communism and Fascism. But he saw too that in America the struggle was befogged by the fact that the worst Fascists were they who disowned the word “Fascism” and preached enslavement to Capitalism under the style of Constitutional and Traditional Native American Liberty.
In May 1935 Dr. A. L. Sachar of the University of Illinois delivered a speech condemning militarism. He mentioned Friedrich Thyssen, an influential German industrialist who supported Adolph Hitler as he rose to power: 7
Thyssen in Germany, Eugene Schneider in France, Skoda in Czecho-slovakia, Mitsui in Japan, were among the “racketeers” named who posed as patriots, hid themselves behind slogans and wrapped themselves in flags, while they forced the world into armament competition for their own profit.
In 1935 “The Brooklyn Daily Eagle” of New York reported on a speech that included a strong match for the saying under examination: 8
. . . James Waterman Wise is telling an audience that Fascism is coming to America “not in the orthodox European guise, but wrapped in an American Flag.” In a ringing conclusion, Mr. Wise tells the crowd of 500 to beware “the super-Americanism of American Fascists.”
In 1936 the newswire service United Press reported on a speech at the New York State Democratic Convention that included a match for the expression: 9
. . . Robert H. Jackson, assistant United States attorney general and chairman of the convention’s resolutions committee, who flayed the Republican Party for offering “a campaign of Americanism, based on the philosophy of Mr. Hearst, a philosophy which hands you Fascism wrapped in the flag.”
In June 1938 a letter to the editor of “Green Bay Press-Gazette” of Wisconsin included an instance of the saying: 10
The spirit of American fascism was on the march that night. Fascism disguised as “Americanism” wrapped in the flag that was born of revolution. (Oh how some people hate to think of that.) It was bank night for the vigilantes cashing in on race hatred.
In September 1938 Professor Halford E. Luccock of the Divinity School of Yale University warned that fascism might be disguised as “Americanism”: 11
When and if fascism comes to America it will not be labeled “made in Germany”; it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism; it will be called, of course, “Americanism”…
The 1939 book “Dixie Demagogues” by Allan A Michie and Frank Ryhlick, contained a chapter about Senator Robert R. Reynolds of North Carolina who was sharply criticized: 12
His words are mouthed from the most spotlighted forum in the country and they fall on the ears of millions. Already, Reynolds receives more visitors, mail, and phone calls than anybody else in the Senate.
Fascism is hard to recognize when it comes wrapped in the American flag.
In May 1939 a letter writer named Ivan Bussart published in “The Kingsport Times” of Kingsport, Tennessee included an elaborate ideational match: 13
The contention of my articles will be that, if and when fascism comes over America, it will be on the Kingsport plan—iron hand encased in a silk glove:
For God and Country!
Freedom and democracy!
Liberty and the constitution!
—catchwords which will thwart the actual and real rights of the citizenry . . .
In 1945 a letter writer named Irving Johns published in the “Cleveland Plain Dealer” of Ohio said the following: 14
The truth is that Henry Wallace and former President Roosevelt have advocated supplementing our political Bill of Rights with an economic charter of rights, so that Fascism will not slip up on us wrapped in the flag and traveling in the name of “free enterprise.”
In 1957 “The New York Times” reprinted an excerpt from an editorial published in a South Carolina newspaper: 15
Somebody back in the Huey Long era commented that if fascism ever came to the United States it would come wrapped in the American flag * * *. President Eisenhower’s “civil rights” bill is fascism in disguise. * * * If power-grabbers succeed * * * the cancer of dictatorship will not be sated until it has covered the whole nation. —The Anderson (S.C.) Independent.
In 1961 “The Evening Star” of Washington D.C. credited Huey Long with an instance of the saying: 16
The late Huey Long once said that fascism would come to this country, but it would appear in another guise. It would come wrapped in the flag claiming to be a savior of democracy.
In 1970 a sermon excerpt printed in the “New York Amsterdam News” attributed the saying to Long: 17
Let us remember when we see the American flag used as a symbol for polarization, as it is today, that Huey Long always prophesied that if fascism came to America, it would come wrapped in the American flag!
In 2005 a letter to the editor of a Poughkeepsie, New York newspaper attributed the saying to Sinclair Lewis and incorrectly cited a book that does not contain the expression: 18
In his book, “It Can’t Happen Here” (1935), Sinclair Lewis wrote, “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying the cross.”
In conclusion, this entry presents a snapshot of current research. In 1917 and 1918 labor leader Eugene V. Debs did speak about oppressors and tyrants who wrapped themselves “in a cloak of patriotism or religion, or both”. In the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan was depicted as a movement that metaphorically cloaked itself with a flag and employed religious symbols. In the 1930s James Waterman Wise and others stated that fascism would deceptively wrap itself in the American flag. The ascriptions to Sinclair Lewis and Huey Long are unsupported.
Image Notes: Portrait of Sinclair Lewis from the U. S. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division accessed via Wikimedia Commons. The fasces, a fascist symbol: author: DIREKTOR; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic.
(Great thanks to David A. Daniel and David H. Rothman whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Rothman pointed to the commentary of the Sinclair Lewis Society. Thanks also to discussants Bonnie Taylor-Blake, Victor Steinbok, and Fred Shapiro. Additional thanks to David Emery of Snopes for his research on this topic. Further thanks to the volunteer editors of Wikiquote.)
Update History: On March 21, 2018 citations dated 1917 and 1918 were added. On June 14, 2020 the comment and link regarding Samuel Johnson’s patriotism adage was added to the article. Acknowledgement to Carl Rosin.
- Website: Sinclair Lewis Society, Article title: Here’s our most asked question, Date on website: 2012 Copyright, Website description: “The Sinclair Lewis Society was formed to encourage study of, critical attention to, and general interest in the work, career, and legacy of Sinclair Lewis”. (Accessed english.illinoisstate.edu on July 27, 2017) link ↩
- 1917 March 25, The Muncie Sunday Star (The Star Press), Advertisement: DEBS At Wysor Grand This Afternoon, March 25, 2:30 O’Clock, Some of Mr. Deb’s Sayings, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Muncie, Indiana. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1918, Supreme Court of the United States, October Term, 1918, No. 714, Eugene V. Debs, Plantiff in Error vs. The United States of America, (Testimony of Edward R. Sterling who attended a speech delivered by Eugene V. Debs on June 16, 1918 at Nimisila park, Canton and took notes in shorthand), Start Page 193, Quote Page 199, Printers Judd & Detweiler, Washington D.C. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1922 December 21, The Goldsboro Daily Argus, (Filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 4, Goldsboro, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1923 August 31, The Garment Worker: Official Journal of the United Garment Workers of America, Volume 22, Number 45, Ku Klux Klan Menace to Union Labor, Says Mayor of Kentucky City, Byline: International Labor News Service, Quote Page 3, Column 1, United Garment Workers of America, New York. (HathiTrust) link ↩
- 1935, It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis, Chapter 36, Web Edition hosted by The University of Adelaide Library, University of Adelaide, South Australia. (Precise edition information for text source not specified)(This book is public domain in Australia) ↩
- 1935 May 20, The Winnipeg Evening Tribune, Dr. A. L. Sachar Says Jews Are Facing Crisis, Quote Page 2, Column 4, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1935 November 19, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, The Night Reporter by Maxwell Hamilton, Quote Page 4, Column 3,Brooklyn, New York. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1936 September 29, The Pittsburgh Press, Wagner Speech Flays ‘Haters’ of Roosevelt, by United Press News Service, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers.com) ↩
- 1938 June 15, Green Bay Press-Gazette, Letter title: Hague, Letter to: Editor of Press-Gazette, Letter from: An American, Quote Page 6, Column 4, Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1938 September 12, New York Times, Disguised Fascism Seen as a Menace, Quote Page 15, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1939 Copyright, Dixie Demagogues by Allan A Michie and Frank Ryhlick, Chapter 11: Tarheel Fuehrer: Senator Robert R. Reynolds of North Carolina, Start Page 221, Quote Page 241, The Vanguard Press, New York. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩
- 1939 May 31, The Kingsport Times, Open Letter to the City Manager of Kingsport, Tennessee, Letter to: F. L. Cloud, Letter from: Ivan Bussart, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Kingsport, Tennessee. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1945 June 3, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Letter to the Editor, From: Irving Johns, Quote Page 15A, Column 3, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1957 July 21, The New York Times, The Civil Rights Bill: A Roundup of Southern Editorial Opinion, Quote Page E5, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1961 April 04, The Evening Star, Uncovering a Danger Spot in U.S. by Ralph McGill, Quote Page A13, Column 3, Washington D.C. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1970 November 21, New York Amsterdam News, The Community Church: Sermon Brief, “What is Happening to America?” by Rev. Dr. Donald S. Harrington, Quote Page 33, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 2005 June 18, Poughkeepsie Journal, Section: Letters to the Editor, Letter title: Fascism sneaks in, calls itself freedom, Letter from: Allelu Kurten, Quote Page 4A, Column 2, Poughkeepsie, New York. (Newspapers_com) ↩