Patriotism is the Last Refuge of a Scoundrel

Samuel Johnson? James Boswell? Samuel Maunder? Henry F. Mason? Bernard J. Sheil? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A politician whose popularity is dropping may attempt to recapture acceptance by disingenuously embracing jingoistic patriotism. Here are three versions of a germane saying:

  • Pretended patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels.
  • Patriotism is the first refuge of a scoundrel.
  • Patriotism is the scoundrel’s last refuge.

Would you please help me to identify an accurate version of this saying together with the identity of its creator?

Quote Investigator: Lexicographer Samuel Johnson was a celebrated eighteenth-century man of letters. Close friend and diarist James Boswell recorded Johnson’s life with exhaustive precision in a multi-volume biography. An entry dated April 7, 1775 mentioned a discussion on the topic (spelled “topick”) of patriotism during which Johnson articulated the saying. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Patriotism having become one of our topicks, Johnson suddenly uttered, in a strong determined tone, an apothegm, at which many will start: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” But let it be considered, that he did not mean a real and generous love of our country, but that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak for self-interest. I maintained, that certainly all patriots were not scoundrels. Being urged (not by Johnson,) to name one exception, I mentioned an eminent person, whom we all greatly admired.

JOHNSON. “Sir, I do not say that he is not honest; but we have no reason to conclude from his political conduct that he is honest.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1826 “The Gentleman’s Magazine” of London ascribed a slightly altered pluralized version of the saying to Johnson: 2

“Patriotism,” says Johnson, “is the last refuge of Scoundrels,” and we believe, that very many of our violent political declaimers are the greatest rogues out of prison which the nation contains; but not even a gang of banditti can subsist, without men of higher character as leaders.

In 1838 “The Biographical Treasury: A Dictionary of Universal Biography” by Samuel Maunder employed a close variant saying as a page header: 3

PRETENDED PATRIOTISM IS THE LAST REFUGE OF A SCOUNDREL.

In 1902 the “Transactions of the Kansas State Historical Society” printed a speech delivered July 4, 1901 by Henry F. Mason which included the saying together with a variant: 4

We have met on a day dedicated forever to celebrating and inculcating patriotism. What is patriotism? Not, surely, as Doctor Johnson said, the last refuge of a scoundrel; nor, as a later imitator has amended, the first refuge of a scoundrel. These satirical remarks have obviously been made with reference to a spurious and insincere emotion, a mere pretense.

In 1955 the book “See It Now” published remarks from Catholic Bishop Bernard J. Sheil of Chicago, Illinois which included a rephrased instance of the saying: 5

It has been said that patriotism is the scoundrel’s last refuge. In this day and age anti-Communism is sometimes the scoundrel’s first defense.

In conclusion, biographer James Boswell credited Samuel Johnson with the adage within a diary entry dated April 7, 1775. Different versions have evolved during the ensuing decades and centuries.

(Great thanks to the anonymous friend of QI who was already familiar with this expression and its correct ascription. The person asked QI to explore some variants and create an article. Special thanks to Carl Rosin who remarked that labor activist Eugene V. Debs had misattributed this quotation within separate article on the QI website.)

Notes:

  1. 1791, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.: Comprehending an Account of His Studies and Numerous Works, Author: James Boswell, Volume 2 of 2, Diary Date: April 7, 1775, Start Page 477, Quote Page 478, Printed by Henry Baldwin for Charles Dilly, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1826 September, The Gentleman’s Magazine, (Book Review of “The Life and Correspondence of Major Cartwright”, Edited by his Niece F.D. Cartwright), Start Page 241, Quote Page 242, Column 1, Printed by John Nichols and Son and Sold by John Harris, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1838, The Biographical Treasury: A Dictionary of Universal Biography by Samuel Maunder, Quote Page 714, Longman, Orme, Brown, Green, Longmans, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1902, Transactions of the Kansas State Historical Society: 1901-1902, Volume 7, Edited by Geo. W. Martin, Secretary, From Quivira To Kansas, (An address by Henry F. Mason of Garden City, delivered at the laying of the corner stone at Pike’s Pawnee village, July 4, 1901), Start Page 268, Quote Page 273, W. Y. Morgan, State Printer, Topeka, Kansas. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1955, See It Now, Edited by Edward R. Murrow and Fred W. Friendly, (Remarks by Bishop Bernard J. Sheil of Chicago), Start Page 186, Quote Page 187, Column 2, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified with scans)