“Democracy is the worst form of Government…”

by Richard Langworth on 26 June 2009


The young orator, 1907.

Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. “It is frequently claimed that Churchill said this (or words to that effect). I have tried to locate the source of that quote, but I have not been able to trace it. Is it genuine, and if so, where and when?” —D.C., Bogotá, Colombia

He said it (House of Commons, 11 November 1947)—but he was quoting an unknown predecessor. From Churchill by Himself, 574:

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…

So, although these are Churchill’s words, he clearly did not originate the famous remark about democracy. William F. Buckley, Jr., commenting on trickery in presidential debates, reminded us of Churchill’s reflection when he wrote in June 2007: “We are made to ask what it is that political democracy gives us. The system is utilitarian. But is it a fit object of faith and hope?” Credit Churchill as publicist for an unsourced aphorism.

Democracy: Churchillisms

But here are some original things (included in Churchill by Himself) that Churchill did say about democracy:

If I had to sum up the immediate future of democratic politics in a single word I should say “insurance.” That is the future—insurance against dangers from abroad, insurance against dangers scarcely less grave and much more near and constant which threaten us here at home in our own island. —Free Trade Hall, Manchester, 23 May 1909

At the bottom of all the tributes paid to democracy is the little man, walking into the little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper—no amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of that point. —House of Commons, 31 October 1944

How is that word “democracy” to be interpreted? My idea of it is that the plain, humble, common man, just the ordinary man who keeps a wife and family, who goes off to fight for his country when it is in trouble, goes to the poll at the appropriate time, and puts his cross on the ballot paper showing the candidate he wishes to be elected to Parliament—that he is the foundation of democracy. And it is also essential to this foundation that this man or woman should do this without fear, and without any form of intimidation or victimization. He marks his ballot paper in strict secrecy, and then elected representatives and together decide what government, or even in times of stress, what form of government they wish to have in their country. If that is democracy, I salute it. I espouse it. I would work for it.” —House of Commons, 8 December 1944

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Richard Langworth May 4, 2017 at 10:13

What are “club laws”? I’d be very chary saying what Churchill would do today about issues he never dreamed of. Whenever someone would say that “perhaps” Sir Winston would do this or that about something, his biographer Sir Martin Gilbert would say, “Perhaps not!”

Campbell Morrow May 4, 2017 at 02:55

In these strange times for UK , it is interesting to note that Churchill would never have held a referendum on EU membership or at least, he would have applied the normal establishment and club laws that permanent change needs a two thirds majority.

Jeff Harper January 8, 2017 at 11:07

This is possibly a Web site where reasoned people swap ideas realizing that few people know everything. I look forward to the reading….

William Smith November 10, 2016 at 13:48

I believe that television show was Slattery’s People. It starred Richard Crenna.

Deb Quick October 9, 2016 at 08:18

Richard Conrod,
I think the TV show that opened with the remark “Democracy is a very bad form of government but all the others are so much worse.” was “The Defenders”, starring E. G. Marshall & Robert Reed.

Richard Langworth September 16, 2016 at 06:43

Sorry, no info. Perhaps a reader will know.

Richard Conrod September 16, 2016 at 06:13

I was googling the statement “Democracy is a very bad form of government but all the others are so much worse.” So I found your blog. When I was a teen I remember the words from a TV show series. In each episode it would do a black screen with the quote in white letters. Do you know what show that was? BTW, when I was in Jr. High & Sr. Hi I read Clarence Carson, Hans Sennholz, Ludwig von Mises, Leonard Reed (esp. “Deeper Than You Think”), John Chamberlin, Frédéric Bastiat, etc.

Richard Langworth August 31, 2016 at 11:08

No problems, no worries, thanks for your observations.

Ian August 31, 2016 at 09:29

If I may… I think that the little interchange between you and Mr. Metcalf is simply a misunderstanding around the phrase “although unknown to them” in the first sentence of your scholar’s explanation.
I believe Mr. Metcalf interpreted “them” to be “the founding fathers” and thought you were saying that the framers of our democracy were unaware of classic philosophy.
In his defense, that is rather awkwardly worded :)

I think what was meant to be said was that the *classic philosophers* were unaware of the improvements made by the US founding fathers. The “them” in that passage refers to the philosophers whose ideas were improved upon and, being long-dead, are not able to verify that the improvements were consistent with the spirit of the original tenets.

I have no idea what compelled me to weigh in here. I’ve never commented on a blog before in my life! I think I just enjoyed this page so much that it made me sad to see any disharmony :)
I hope that you and Mr. Metcalf are not holding any grudges! All the best.

Richard Langworth July 1, 2016 at 07:44

I’m not sure I have to excuse you but I’m a little confused…your point is? My post concerns what Churchill said about Democracy. In answering Amay P. Ong Vaño’s question I quoted a scholar who teaches the classics and the U.S. Constitution. Of course he expressed your view. And I share your regret that many who have followed were not as reflective of the founders’ vision.

David Metcalf June 30, 2016 at 15:31

Excuse me, Mr. Langworth, but most of the founders of the independent states, the Confederation and the Constitution that followed knew quite well the philosophers you had in mind, from classical to the Enlightenment. They carefully noted their observations, criticisms and warnings and acted as pragmatically, persuasively and flexibly as the times and the people would tolerate. If only those who followed, and we who strive to do so even yet, were as informed, reflective and faithful to their vision…

Richard Langworth May 23, 2016 at 07:56

Good question, but a little afield from this post, and my expertise. I asked a scholar who has devoted many years to the subject, who replies: “​The classic philosophers were indeed skeptical, not neutral, as to forms of government. They thought they mattered very much. Of course they thought who manages the government is also important.

“Those who founded the United States made certain improvements in democratic rule that, I argue, are in the spirit of the classical philosophers, although unknown to them. These are the famous ones: representation, separation of powers, federalism, separation of sovereignty, and authority to govern. All are made possible by the institution of representative government, which separates sovereignty, or ultimate governing authority, from the actual work of governing. It also makes possible the separation of powers among branches and up-and-down along levels of government.

​”In the U.S. constitutional system, most government powers are legally, and were in actual operation, reserved to localities. Most government was local, second-most only state, third-most federal. Tocqueville writes that in America most local government was also voluntary government, meaning government services performed by the citizens themselves without compensation. Therefore in the system of government that prevailed in America for about half its history, government was not only of the people and for the people, it was also by the people.”

Uncompensated government services are still performed in certain localities, empowered directly by institutions like the New England town meeting, or unpaid or little-paid state legislators.

Amay P. Ong Vaño May 21, 2016 at 23:21

An ancient Greek philosopher is said to have written that the best form of government is that which serves the people best, not necessarily democracy. If we define or understand democracy as the rule of the people, by the people and for the people, the question arises: How can the people rule? For all practical purposes, the people do not or cannot rule themselves; they should be ruled by a leader or a group of leaders they elect to office to rule or govern them for their own benefit.

Richard Langworth October 20, 2015 at 14:25

Thanks for your note. Please see our new Hillsdale Churchill Project site which is building up fast though only just launched: winstonchurchill.hillsdale.edu

The Churchill Centre website, http://www.winstonchurchill.org/ contains over forty years of content from Finest Hour, which I edited from 1982 to 2014, and David Freeman since 2014.

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