Franklin D. Roosevelt? Abraham Lincoln? Thaddeus Stevens? Benjamin Butler? Philip Cook? Bill Higgins? John Franklin Carter? Justin Herman? Wayne Hays? Alistair Cooke? Cordell Hull? Anonymous? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: A participant in the harsh domain of political power often faces difficult decisions. For example, should one promote a member of one’s party even when one knows that the individual is a scoundrel? Also, should one maintain support for an ally even when the ally is disreputable or barbarous? The following dialog depicts a challenge and response:
“How can you support that scoundrel?”
“He may be a scoundrel, but he’s our scoundrel.”
Over the years many other words have been used to describe the miscreant, e.g., rascal, scalawag, scoundrel, so-and-so, son-of-a-bitch, and bastard. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: The earliest match known to QI appeared in a Wilmington, North Carolina newspaper editorial in 1868. The two participants in the dialog were not identified. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1
We are forcibly reminded by these arguments of the Radicals of the reply of one of their party, in attempting to persuade a rather conscientious member to vote for a certain candidate whose character was none the best. “He is a great rascal,” indignantly proposed the friend. “Ah! but he is our rascal,” was the significant rejoinder.
The citation above appeared in “The Daily Journal” on July 26, 1868, and it was reprinted in “The Wilmington Journal” of North Carolina on July 31, 1868. 2
Many instances conforming to this template have appeared during the ensuing decades. Here is a sampling showing the key line together with a year:
1868: Ah! but he is our rascal.
1875: Of course, of course, but which of ’em is our damned rascal?
1889: Yes, I know, but then he’s our scalawag.
1895: Never mind that; all we want to know is that he is our scoundrel.
1904: Yes, I know, but he is our scoundrel.
1934: After all, Blank isn’t so bad. He’s our So and So!
1934: After all, Blank isn’t so bad. He’s our son-of-a-bitch!
1948: He’s a sonofabitch but he’s ours.
1962: He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.
1969: He was a Grade-A bastard, but at least he was our bastard and not theirs.
QI wishes to acknowledge researchers Bonnie Taylor-Blake and Barry Popik who identified many valuable examples.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1875 “The Springfield Daily Republican” of Massachusetts printed an anecdote in which U.S. congressman Thaddeus Stevens employed a version of the line: 3
It was in the palmy reconstruction days, when the majority were busily seating republican congressmen. Stevens had asked a member of the elections committee about a particular contest, and the member had frankly replied that both the men were damned rascals. “Of course, of course,” said Stevens, “but which of ’em is our damned rascal?”
In 1877 “The Daily Milwaukee News” of Wisconsin printed a piece in which General Benjamin Butler received credit for using an instance: 4
You feel as General Butler did when asked if he did not know a certain politician was a great rascal? “Yes,” answered the General with a knowing wink, “but he is our rascal. ”
In 1880 “The Washington Post” printed a tale with Thaddeus Stevens using an instance: 5
A seat held by a Democrat was contested by a Republican. Mr. Stevens paid not the slightest attention to the merits of the case, but hobbling in from his committee-room, just about the time the vote was to be taken, inquired of a Republican colleague, “Which is our damned rascal?” and being told the name of the contestant, he went it blind and voted, accordingly.
In 1889 “The Decatur Weekly Republican” of Illinois published an anecdote in which statesman Abraham Lincoln employed an instance with the word “scalawag”. Lincoln had died many years earlier in 1865: 6
When a Springfield man, years ago, felt indignant, with regard to some nomination of his party which he regarded as unfit to be made and announced his purpose not to support it, he was remonstrated with by Mr. Lincoln and said in justification that the man was a scalawag. “Yes, I know,” said the great man, “but then he’s our scalawag.” And that argument applies to a hundred cases. The candidate may be an unfit man to fill the offices, “but then he’s our fellow.”
In 1895 “The Concord Times” of North Carolina printed a tale in which an unnamed Populist politician used an instance with the word “scoundrel”: 7
“My party right or wrong.”—this is his grand political motto; under this motto he is urged into the thickest of the fight.
In one of the recent elections a certain Populist leader on casting his vote for a candidate for office, was told that the candidate was a scoundrel. “Never mind that,” said he, “all we want to know is that he is our scoundrel.”
In 1903 “The New York Times” printed a story about General Philip Cook who had served as a congressman and Secretary of State for Georgia. Cook hesitated to vote for a unscrupulous Democrat, but his fellow party members finally convinced him: 8
When the time came for the roll call, however, the old General had turned from the nauseating details and was busy reading. Suddenly the clerk called: “Cook of Georgia!”
The old General dropped his book and rose in a dazed and bewildered manner. Then he remembered the sacrifice that was expected of him; but he had forgotten the name of the Democratic contestant.
The clerk again called: “Cook of Georgia.”
Turning to one of his Democratic colleagues, the General inquired in a whisper that could be heard in every corner of the hall: “John, which is our damned rascal?”
In 1904 “The Sunday Call Magazine” of San Francisco, California newspaper ascribed an instance to Californian politician Bill Higgins: 9
“But, Mr. Higgins,” said one of the committee, “the man is a scoundrel.” “Yes, I know,” rejoined the boss, “but he is our scoundrel and has got to be taken care of.”
In 1934 the “Washington Post” published about a piece about President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his new administration which included a version of the anecdote, but the tale was set in the past, and the participants were unidentified. In the following passage, “Blank” was an unnamed politician, and “So and So” was a replacement for an expletive: 10
Driving home from the meeting, two politicians were comparing notes. Both had opposed the successful candidate. One said to the other, “Damn it all! We should never have let them put Blank over. He’s a So and So!” The other man sighed and said nothing for a long time. Then he cheered up. “After all,” he observed. “Blank isn’t so bad. He’s our So and So!”
The piece in the “Washington Post” was an excerpt from a 1934 book titled “The New Dealers” by The Unofficial Observer. The author was later revealed to be journalist John Franklin Carter. The book text used the expletive that had been censored in the newspaper: 11
One said to the other, “Damn it all! we should never have let them put Blank over. He’s a son-of-a-bitch!” The other man sighed and said nothing for a long time. Then he cheered up. “After all,” he observed, “Blank isn’t so bad. He’s our son-of-a-bitch!”
In 1942 The Daily Missoulian of Montana printed an instance with “so-and-so” and called the remark an old gag: 12
Starbeams revives an old gag–one we thought strictly Montana—when it says: “Darlan may be a so-and-so, but he’s our so-and-so, isn’t he?”
In 1948 “Time” magazine relayed a story that was circulating in Washington about Franklin D. Roosevelt who had died in 1945. Reportedly, Roosevelt used the line while referring to Anastasio Somoza who visited the U.S. after an election: 13
To prime President Roosevelt for the visit, Sumner Welles sent him a long solemn memorandum about Somoza and Nicaragua. According to a story told around Washington, Roosevelt read the memo right through, wisecracked: “As a Nicaraguan might say, he’s a sonofabitch but he’s ours.”
In 1962 a baseball book titled “A Flag for San Francisco” by Charles Einstein included a version of the saying. The referent was not a person; it was the sports stadium Candlestick Park: 14
“We have a saying,” M. Justin Herman, the executive director of San Francisco’s Redevelopment Agency, explained to a visiting Chilean journalist who inquired about Candlestick Park. “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”
In 1963 an Associated Press article ascribed the line to a native of Georgia which was then part of the Soviet Union. The comment was directed at Joseph Stalin: 15
Denounced and denigrated all over the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin lives on in the hearts of his fellow Georgians.
“He may have been a rascal,” said one dark-eyed, mustached native, “but he was our rascal.”
In 1968 journalist Alistair Cooke attributed an instance to Franklin D. Roosevelt, but the referent was a mayor and not the leader of a country: 16
. . . Franklin Roosevelt’s remark about a big city mayor, a gruesome character but a Democrat, from whom Roosevelt expected a landslide of votes in a crucial election. A squeamish member of the Roosevelt team was afraid that mayor was too crafty to depend on, and anyway he was, the man said, ‘a son of a bitch’. ‘Yes,’ said Roosevelt, flashing his most endearing smile, ‘but he’s our son of a bitch.’
In February 1969 the counter-cultural newspaper “Helix” of Seattle, Washington published an article attributing the saying to Franklin D. Roosevelt, but the referent was Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic: 17
He once said, speaking of the butcherous Trujillo, ‘He may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he’s our son-of-a-bitch.’
In September 1969 U.S. Congressman Wayne Hays employed the saying, and the referent was Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia: 18
Hays said he advocated giving foreign aid to Tito and he “was a Grade-A bastard, but at least he was our bastard and not theirs and helped keep the Russians off balance.”
In 1979 commentator Christopher Hitchens attributed an instance to politician Cordell Hull: 19
Indeed, the old line. “He may be a son of a bitch but he’s our son of a bitch,” was coined for Somoza by Cordell Hull in order to allay Roosevelt’s misgivings.
In 1990 an instance using the word “dictator” was attributed to Lyndon B. Johnson who was U.S. President between 1963 and 1969: 20
As we view the long succession of rightist dictators who have fallen–Batista, Trujillo, Somoza, Marcos, etc.—it becomes increasingly clear that the rightist solution is no solution, despite Lyndon Johnson’s cynical admonition, “He may be a dictator, but at least he’s our dictator.”
In conclusion, this family of statements has been evolving for more than 150 years. The earliest dialog in 1868 used the word “rascal”, and the participants were both anonymous U.S. politicians. Further, the person being criticized was anonymous. By 1875 Thaddeus Stevens received credit for the key line. By 1877 Benjamin Butler received credit. The vocabulary has shifted over time, and the saying has been assigned to a series of people.
The evidence supporting ascriptions to U.S. Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt was weak. The first attribution to F.D.R was based on a posthumous rumor. Also, three distinct citations assert that Roosevelt was referring to Anastasio Somoza, Rafael Trujillo, or a big-city mayor.
(Great thanks to Carlos Gómez Abajo and Peter G. Epps whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks also to researchers Bonnie Taylor-Blake, Barry Popik, Nigel Rees, and Fred R. Shapiro for their efforts on this topic. Thanks to Stephen Goranson who suggested including the variant with the word dictator.)
Update History: On February 26, 2021 the 1990 citation was added.
- 1868 July 26, The Daily Journal, “Our Rebels”, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Wilmington, North Carolina. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1868 July 31, The Wilmington Journal, “Our Rebels”, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Wilmington, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1875 May 26, The Springfield Daily Republican, An English Experiment, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Springfield, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1877 December 1, The Daily Milwaukee News, (Untitled editorial), Quote Page 2, Column 1, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1880 November 9, The Washington Post, The Short Congressional Session, Quote Page 2, Column 4,Washington D.C. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1889 April 11, The Decatur Weekly Republican, (Untitled article), Quote Page 12, Column 1, Decatur, Illinois. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1895 May 23, The Concord Times, The Third Party, and Party Spirit (Letter to the editor from J.M.W of University of Tennessee),Quote Page 3, Column 4, Concord, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1903 June 14, New York Times, Section: New York Times Magazine Supplement, The Man in the Street, Quote Page SM1 and SM2, Column 4, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1904 February 7, The Sunday Call Magazine, Recollections and Reflections of Thomas Fitch, Stampeding a Convention, Quote Page 15, Column 1, San Francisco, California. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1934 February 12, Washington Post, The New Dealers: The Low Down on the Higher Ups by The Unofficial Observer (John Franklin Carter), Start Page 1, Quote Page 3, Column 2, Washington D.C. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1934, The New Dealers by The Unofficial Observer (John Franklin Carter), Chapter 1: Chief Croupier, Quote Page 27, The Literary Guild, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1942 December 15, The Daily Missoulian, The Only Thing “for Free”, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Missoula, Montana. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1948 November 15, Time, Nicaragua: I’m the Champ, Times Inc., New York. (Accessed content.time.com on February 23, 2021) ↩
- 1962, A Flag for San Francisco by Charles Einstein, Chapter 1: Those Cute Cable Cars, Quote Page 21, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1963 March 8, The Emporia Gazette, Stalin Lives on in the Hearts of Georgians by Eddy Gilmore (Associated Press), Quote Page 6, Column 1, Emporia, Kansas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1981 Reprint (1968 Copyright), Talk About America: 1951-1968 by Alistair Cooke, Chapter 37: John McLaren’s Folly, Quote Page 241, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1969 February 28, Helix, Volume 6, Issue 9, The Death of a Prince by Stan Iverson, Quote Page 8, Column 1, Seattle, Washington. (JSTOR: Reveal Digital) link ↩
- 1969 September 27, The Daily Reporter, Hays Would End Viet War Quickly by Norm Singleton (Times Reporter), Quote Page 13, Column 2, Dover, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1979 July 11, Edmonton Journal, Nicaragua: the U.S. dilemma by Christopher Hitchens, Quote Page A4, Column 3, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1990 March, Parameters: US Army War College Quarterly, Volume 20, Number 1, Abetting Democratic Revolution in the Third World by Alexander P. Shine, Start Page 38, Footnote 7, Quote Page 47, Published by US Department of Army, US GPO, Washington D.C. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩