There Are Only Nine Meals Between Mankind and Anarchy

Alfred Henry Lewis? Larry Niven? Jerry Pournelle? Eric Sevareid? George Allan England? Donald Lowrie? John J. Fitzgerald? Hiram Motherwell? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: When the food supplies of a society are disrupted it takes only a few days before extreme behaviors emerge, e.g., chaos, mayhem, and rebellion. An adage states that:

There are only a small number of meals between humanity and anarchy.

Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: This saying is difficult to trace because it can be expressed in many ways. Here is an overview showing selected examples with dates and ascriptions:

1896: The only barrier between us and anarchy is the last nine meals we’ve had. (Alfred Henry Lewis)
1906: There are only nine meals between mankind and anarchy. (Alfred Henry Lewis)
1911: Only nine meals stood between civilization and anarchy. (Anonymous)
1916: Only about seven meals stand between a man and anarchy. (Anonymous)
1932: We are never more than nine meals away from anarchy. (John J. Fitzgerald)
1942: There are only nine meals between man and revolution. (Anonymous)
1946: No one is more than nine meals away from murder. (Theo. G. Lurman Jr.)
1947: Every man is only nine meals away from Communism. (Leland L. Sage)
1974: No man was ever more than about nine meals away from crime or suicide. (Eric Sevareid)
1977: No country is more than three meals away from a revolution. (Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle)
1980: You’re only nine meals away from being a criminal. (Anonymous prison inmate)
1980: Each of us is only nine meals away from stealing. (Robert L. Eddy)

Below are the details for these citations.

In 1896 U.S. journalist and commentator Alfred Henry Lewis published a piece that appeared in the “Owensboro Daily Messenger” of Kentucky,[1]1896 October 16, Owensboro Daily Messenger, Further Facts: In the Case of the Labor Record of Mark Hanna, The Republican Party’s Manager by Alfred Henry Lewis, Quote Page 2, Column 3, … Continue reading “The Irish Standard” of Minnesota,[2] 1896 October 24, The Irish Standard, Murderous Hanna, Quote Page 8, Column 3, Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Newspapers_com) and other newspapers. Lewis employed an instance referring to “nine meals”. Boldface added to excepts by QI:

Those of us who are well fed, well garmented and well ordered, ought not to forget that necessity makes frequently the root of crime. It is well for us to recollect that even in our own law-abiding, not to say virtuous cases, the only barrier between us and anarchy is the last nine meals we’ve had. It may be taken as axiomatic that a starving man is never a good citizen.

Based on the citations above and below QI believes that Alfred Henry Lewis deserves credit for this saying.

In 1906 the editor of “Cosmopolitan Magazine” held a luncheon with three political commentators including Lewis. During the ensuing discussion Lewis employed the saying again:[3] 1906 March, Cosmopolitan Magazine, Volume 40, Number 5, The Day of Discontent, Start Page 603, Quote Page 605, International Magazine Company, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link

Phillips: Our discontent is the dangerous anger that has civilized ideas of what constitutes a square meal

Lewis: There are only nine meals between mankind and anarchy.

In 1911 U.S. science fiction author George Allan England used a version of the expression with the word “civilization”, but he disclaimed credit:[4]1911 June 11, The Commercial Appeal, Section: Illustrated Sunday Magazine, Mission Stiffs and Library Birds: Certain Classes Among the Down-and-Outs by George Allan England, Start Page 8, Quote Page … Continue reading

Who was it said that only nine meals stood between civilization and anarchy? I do not know, but he spoke the living truth.

In 1912 Donald Lowrie published “My Life in Prison” which included an instance with an anonymous attribution:[5] 1912, My Life in Prison by Donald Lowrie, Chapter 32, Quote Page 410, Mitchell Kennerley, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link

. . . some one has aptly remarked that there are only nine meals between mankind and anarchy.

In 1916 “The Standard Union” newspaper of Brooklyn, New York printed a variant with “seven meals” instead of “nine meals”:[6] 1916 August 11, The Standard Union, Through the Periscope: Piling It On, Quote Page 6, Column 4, Brooklyn, New York. (Newspapers_com)

Beef is going higher and fresh eggs are selling for from 40 to 45 cents a dozen, and so it goes. It’s a dangerous game, this continually forcing up the price of food. Only about seven meals stand between a man and anarchy.

In 1932 “The Morning Call” of Paterson, New Jersey printed remarks made by John J. Fitzgerald who was the secretary of the Paterson Chamber of Commerce:[7] 1932 January 22, The Morning Call, John J. Fitzgerald Addresses Rotary, Start Page 1, Quote Page 30, Column 2, Paterson, New Jersey. (Newspapers_com)

“How nicely civilization has become balanced is shown by the easily perceived fact that we are never more than nine meals away from anarchy. Throw an impenetrable wall around this metropolitan zone of ten million persons, prevent the people from receiving a supply of food and water for three days, and our vaunted civilization goes on the scrap heap.”

In 1942 Hiram Motherwell used an instance with the word “revolution” within an article in “Harper’s Magazine”. Motherwell used quotation marks signaling that the adage was already in circulation:[8]1942 December, Harper’s Magazine, Volume 186, Number 1111, Hunger, Hatred, and Postwar Europe: Some Ugly Realities for Hopeful Peace-Planners by Hiram Motherwell, Start Page 30, Quote Page 35, … Continue reading

The hungry millions cannot become consumers until they can get jobs as producers, and industry cannot employ them as producers until there are consumers. Meanwhile “there are only nine meals between man and revolution.”

In 1943 “The Pittsburgh Press” printed an advertisement for “Newsweek” magazine containing the following text:[9] 1943 April 27, The Pittsburgh Press, The Real Peace Conference (Advertisement for Newsweek Magazine), Quote Page 5, Column 1, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)

There is a saying that only nine meals stand between man and revolution. In Alaska they say, “One day without food and a man will complain … two days without food and he will steal … three days and he will murder!”

In 1946 the “New York Herald Tribune” published a letter from a reader who employed an instance with the word “murder”:[10] 1946 January 2, New York Herald Tribune, Letter: Strikes Puzzle Farmers by Theo. G. Lurman Jr. (Darlington, Maryland), Quote Page 18, Column 7, New York. (ProQuest)

We are in for an awful glut, and we may have to work out some sort of foreign food stamp plan. It may stop anarchy in Europe because the urge to survive is the most basic urge of all, and no one is more than nine meals away from murder.

In 1947 “The Courier” of Waterloo, Iowa reported on a speech delivered by Leland L. Sage who used an instance with the word “communism”:[11] 1947 May 23, The Courier, 150 Hear Dr. Sage Explain Communism, Quote Page 10, Column 1, Waterloo, Iowa. (Newspapers_com)

“Every man is only nine meals away from Communism,” asserted Dr. Leland L. Sage of the department, of social sciences at Iowa State Teachers college, Cedar Falls, as he spoke at a public forum here Thursday evening.

“Random House Webster’s Quotationary” contained an entry attributing a variant to journalist Eric Sevareid in 1974:[12] 2001, Random House Webster’s Quotationary, Editor Leonard Roy Frank, Topic: Hunger, Quote Page 376, Random House, New York. (Paperback edition; Verified with hardcopy)

No man was ever more than about nine meals away from crime or suicide.
ERIC SEVAREID (1912-1992). “A New Kind of Leadership,” speech before the Conference on Vision Care, Washington, D.C. 26 April 1974

In 1977 the prize-winning science fiction duo Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle published the apocalyptic novel “Lucifer’s Hammer” which contained the following instance with “two meals”:[13] 1977 Copyright, Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, Chapter: February: Two, Quote Page 51, Fawcett Crest, New York. (Verified with scans)

“Whole nation depends on technology. Stop the wheels for two days and you’d have riots. No place is more than two meals from a revolution. Think of Los Angeles or New York with no electricity.

Niven and Pournelle’s novel also included an instance with “three meals”:[14] 1977 Copyright, Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, Chapter: The Stronghold: One, Quote Page 373, Fawcett Crest, New York. (Verified with scans)

“I forgot who said it,” Jellison said. “It’s true enough. No country is more than three meals away from a revolution.”

In 1980 a book chapter by Charles Colson reported the remarks of a prison inmate:[15]1980, Crime and the Responsible Community, Edited by John Stott and Nick Miller, Chapter 1: Towards an Understanding of the Origins of Crime by Charles Colson, Quote Page 37, Hodder and Stoughton, … Continue reading

I will never forget, for example, what an inmate said to me one day: ‘You don’t think you could ever be here, do you?’ The community volunteer next to me shook his head. The inmate said, ‘Just remember, you’re only nine meals away from being a criminal. When you see your child’s stomach bloating, remember you could be here where I am.’

Also, in 1980 a book by Robert L. Eddy featuring material for minister’s sermons included the following:[16] 1980, Minister’s Saturday Night by Robert L. Eddy, Topic: The City, Quote Page 34, The Pilgrim Press, New York. (Verified with scans)

In a big city, sin is always convenient. To watch others eat is to be driven to crime. Even today each of us is only nine meals away from stealing.

In conclusion, Alfred Henry Lewis should receive credit for this saying based on the 1896 and 1906 citations. Many variants have proliferated during the ensuing decades.

Image Notes: Illustration of seven ingredients for meals from geralt at Pixabay. Image has been resized.

(Great thanks to Peter Liepmann and Piotr Plebaniak whose inquiry and comment led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to researcher Barry Popik who located the important citations in 1896 and 1906.)

References

References
1 1896 October 16, Owensboro Daily Messenger, Further Facts: In the Case of the Labor Record of Mark Hanna, The Republican Party’s Manager by Alfred Henry Lewis, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Owensboro, Kentucky. (Newspapers_com)
2 1896 October 24, The Irish Standard, Murderous Hanna, Quote Page 8, Column 3, Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Newspapers_com)
3 1906 March, Cosmopolitan Magazine, Volume 40, Number 5, The Day of Discontent, Start Page 603, Quote Page 605, International Magazine Company, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link
4 1911 June 11, The Commercial Appeal, Section: Illustrated Sunday Magazine, Mission Stiffs and Library Birds: Certain Classes Among the Down-and-Outs by George Allan England, Start Page 8, Quote Page 9, Column 3, Memphis, Tennessee. (Newspapers_com)
5 1912, My Life in Prison by Donald Lowrie, Chapter 32, Quote Page 410, Mitchell Kennerley, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link
6 1916 August 11, The Standard Union, Through the Periscope: Piling It On, Quote Page 6, Column 4, Brooklyn, New York. (Newspapers_com)
7 1932 January 22, The Morning Call, John J. Fitzgerald Addresses Rotary, Start Page 1, Quote Page 30, Column 2, Paterson, New Jersey. (Newspapers_com)
8 1942 December, Harper’s Magazine, Volume 186, Number 1111, Hunger, Hatred, and Postwar Europe: Some Ugly Realities for Hopeful Peace-Planners by Hiram Motherwell, Start Page 30, Quote Page 35, Column 2, Harper & Brothers, New York. (ProQuest)
9 1943 April 27, The Pittsburgh Press, The Real Peace Conference (Advertisement for Newsweek Magazine), Quote Page 5, Column 1, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
10 1946 January 2, New York Herald Tribune, Letter: Strikes Puzzle Farmers by Theo. G. Lurman Jr. (Darlington, Maryland), Quote Page 18, Column 7, New York. (ProQuest)
11 1947 May 23, The Courier, 150 Hear Dr. Sage Explain Communism, Quote Page 10, Column 1, Waterloo, Iowa. (Newspapers_com)
12 2001, Random House Webster’s Quotationary, Editor Leonard Roy Frank, Topic: Hunger, Quote Page 376, Random House, New York. (Paperback edition; Verified with hardcopy)
13 1977 Copyright, Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, Chapter: February: Two, Quote Page 51, Fawcett Crest, New York. (Verified with scans)
14 1977 Copyright, Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, Chapter: The Stronghold: One, Quote Page 373, Fawcett Crest, New York. (Verified with scans)
15 1980, Crime and the Responsible Community, Edited by John Stott and Nick Miller, Chapter 1: Towards an Understanding of the Origins of Crime by Charles Colson, Quote Page 37, Hodder and Stoughton, London. (Verified with scans)
16 1980, Minister’s Saturday Night by Robert L. Eddy, Topic: The City, Quote Page 34, The Pilgrim Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
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