Frederick Douglass? Stephen Decatur Miller? Woody Jenkins? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: A prominent public speaker once asserted that the preservation of liberty depended on three boxes:
The ballot box, the jury box, and the cartridge box.
This statement employed metonymy: the “ballot box” referred to input from the populace via the electoral process; the “jury box” referred to oversight via the judicial process; and the cartridge box referred to control via firearms.
This saying has been attributed to the famous anti-slavery orator Frederick Douglass. Also, the Governor of South Carolina Stephen Decatur Miller has received credit. Would you please explore the expression’s provenance?
Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in the “Niles’ Weekly Register” on October 9, 1830. Stephen Decatur Miller had recently delivered a speech in the Sumter district of South Carolina which included the following. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
There are three and only three ways, to reform our congressional legislation. The representative, judicial and belligerent principle alone can be relied on; or as they are more familiarly called, the ballot box, the jury box and the cartouch box. The two first are constitutional, the last revolutionary.
The word “cartouch” is an alternative spelling of “cartouche” which is a cartridge for firearms. Many other commentators have used variants of this expression over the years. Frederick Douglass employed an instance by 1863, and details are given below.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
By 1841 the expression had crossed the Atlantic and appeared in “The Preston Chronicle” of Lancashire, England. An instance together with an acknowledgement to a New York newspaper occurred within a miscellaneous collection of sayings under the title “Varieties”: 2
What boxes govern the world? The cartridge-box, the ballot-box, the jury-box, and the band-box.—New York paper.
The text immediately above also appeared in “The Derby Mercury” of Derby, Derbyshire, England a dozen days later. 3
By 1842 the number of boxes had expanded substantially. A newspaper in Elyria, Ohio humorously mentioned eight different types of boxes: 4
“What Boxes Govern the World?”— The cartridge box, the ballot box, the jury box, the band box, the tobacco box:” he might have added the cigar and pill boxes.—Exchange paper.
Ear boxes seem to be overlooked in the above. Their influence is certainly very striking.
In 1850 “The Family Favorite and Temperance Journal” published this version with an appended remark: 5
Four boxes govern the world:—the cartridge box, the jury box, the ballot box, and the band box. [Ex. And the printer’s box governs these.
In 1857 a newspaper in Coshocton, Ohio mentioned episodes of religious oppression and then referred to three boxes: 6
When the ballot box, cartridge box, and contribution box, blend their powers together, and nought but mischief both to Church and State can come from it.
In June 1863 “The Liberator” newspaper of Boston, Massachusetts reported on a speech delivered by Frederick Douglass: 7
Now, emancipation is coming, and another question appears. What shall be done with the slaves? Where shall we, the colored people, stand? Shall we be wholly free, an equal at the ballot-box, at the jury-box, and at the cartridge-box, with the white man? Our children are not admitted to be apprentices, clerks, journeymen and they grow up without ambition or aspiration. There is much prejudice and injustice against us yet remaining.
In 1865 “Newcastle Courant” of Newcastle upon Tyne, England printed a letter that Frederick Douglass sent to a friend which included the following passage: 8
The best work I can do, therefore, for the freed-people, is to promote the passing of just and equal laws towards them. They must have the cartridge box, the jury box, and the ballot box, to protect them.
In 1867 a newspaper in Tennessee reprinted extracts from a speech made by Douglass in New Jersey which mentioned women’s suffrage: 9
A man’s rights rests in three boxes: the ballot-box, the jury-box and the cartridge-box, and the man who is outside these boxes is in a bad box. Let no man be kept from the ballot-box because of his color. Let no women be kept from the ballot-box because of her sex.
The connection to Miller was not forgotten. A memoir in 1884 titled “Random Recollections of a Long Life” by Edwin J. Scott credited the South Carolinian: 10
Our game-cock Governor, Stephen D. Miller’s celebrated toast was: “The three boxes preservative of liberty—the jury box, the ballot box and the cartridge box.”
In 1976 a speaker at the American Independent Party convention employed a version of the saying: 11
At the opening session of the convention Thursday afternoon, Louisiana State Rep. Woody Jenkins who served on the Democratic National Convention platform committee, told delegates:
“There are four great protections for our liberties: the soap box, the ballot box, the jury box, and the cartridge box. If you lose the last, the first three won’t mean a thing.”
In conclusion, based on current evidence Stephen Decatur Miller should receive credit for the earliest quotation which referenced three boxes in 1830. During the ensuing decades the saying evolved and a variety of boxes were mentioned. Frederick Douglass was one of the prominent figures who employed the saying.
Image Notes: Picture of ballot box from DasWortgewand at Pixabay. Picture of jury box in courtroom from 12019 at Pixabay. Picture of cartridges from MasterTux at Pixabay. Images have been cropped, retouched, and resized.
(Great thanks to Jacqueline Smay whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Also thanks to discussant Laga Ratica who pointed to information about Frederick Douglass. Special thanks to Jay who pointed out that “cartouch” was a variant spelling of “cartouche” which means cartridge.)
- 1830 October 9, Niles’ Weekly Register, Edited by H. Niles, Volume 39, Number 7, Governor Miller of South Carolina (Extracts from speech by Miller at a late celebration in Sumter district, South Carolina), Start Page 117, Quote Page 118, Published by H. Niles & Son, Baltimore, Maryland. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1841 October 9, The Preston Chronicle and Lancashire Advertiser, Varieties, Quote Page 1, Column 5, Preston, Lancashire, England. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1841 October 20, The Derby Mercury, Brevities, Quote Page 4, Column 6, Derby, Derbyshire, England. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1842 February 16, The Independent Treasury (Lorain Republican), (Filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 2, Elyria, Lorain County, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1850 May, The Family Favorite and Temperance Journal, Volume 1, Number 5, Edited by James V. Watson, Untitled short piece, Quote Page 99, Column 1, Adrian, Michigan. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1857 May 27, Coshocton Democrat, Mormondem From Cleveland Plain Dealer, Quote Page 2, Column 4, Coshocton, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1863 June 5, The Liberator, New England Anti-Slavery Convention, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Boston, Massachusetts. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1865 May 26, Newcastle Courant (The Newcastle Weekly Courant), Frederick Douglass on the American Crisis, Quote Page 6, Column 2, Newcastle upon Tyne, England. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1867 October 30, Nashville Union and Dispatch, Fred. Douglass, Quote Page 2, Column 2, Nashville, Tennessee. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1884, Random Recollections of a Long Life: 1806 to 1876 by Edwin J. Scott, Chapter 6: Columbia, 1817 to 1822, Quote Page 28, Charles A. Calvo Jr., Printer, Columbia, South Carolina.(Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1976 August 27, Chicago Tribune, Conservative leaders seek alternative to Maddox at head of 3d-party ticket by Neil Mehler (Political editor), Quote Page 5, Column 3, Chicago, Illinois. (Newspapers_com) ↩