Who said it? ‘Better to die on your feet, than live on your knees’

October 22, 2015

A Tweet from Tim Fargo reminded me of a collection of leadership quotes I put together years ago, and of the digging I did on one particular quote urging action rather than capitulation:

That was the quote I got to, but it’s only attributed to to Zapata so far as I know. I started with the quote cited to Franklin Roosevelt’s speech when he got an honorary Doctor of Laws from Oxford in 1941, when Britain badly needed such inspiration to fight on, in a war for freedom in which the U.S. was not yet actively engaged:

We, too, born to freedom, and believing in freedom, are willing to fight to maintain freedom. We, and all others who believe as deeply as we do, would rather die on our feet than live on our knees.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945), upon receiving the degree of Doctor of Civil Law from Oxford University, June 19, 1941; special convocation ceremony held at Harvard University, with FDR’s remarks delivered by secretary to the President, Major General Edwin M. Watson

One of a set of ten postcards printed by the Spanish Red Cross, the subjects shown, favor the republican cause. | Spanish. | Wolfsonian Exhibit: Library Vestibule Complement to: Revolutionary Tides, the Art of the Political Poster, 1914-1989; February 25 - August 24, 2006.

One of a set of ten postcards printed by the Spanish Red Cross, the subjects shown, favor the republican cause. | Spanish. | Wolfsonian Exhibit: Library Vestibule Complement to: Revolutionary Tides, the Art of the Political Poster, 1914-1989; February 25 – August 24, 2006. [Untranslated from Spanish:] Dolores Ibarruri (Pasionaria): Representante de Asturias en el Parlamento de España y figura destacadísima entre las mujeres de la Revolución; Spain Cruz Roja. | Garcia, A. (illustrator.) | Edit. R. Molero (publisher)

When I checked it in the then-current Bartlett’s Quotations I learned it was a common expression during the Spanish Civil War, and attributed to a radio propagandist on the Republican side. It’s likely FDR and his research aides knew that.

It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.

Dolores Ibårruri, “La Pasionaria” (1895-1989), Speech in Paris, September 3, 1936

Checking that one out, I found a reference to Mexico’s revolutionary Zapata, whose work was likely familiar to the Spanish Republicans.

Mejor morir a pie que vivir en rodillas.
Men of the South! It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees!

Emiliano Zapata (c. 1877-1919), attributed

That’s as far as I took it 20 years ago. Can we get a better attribution, or find Zapata’s likely inspiration, if there is one?

Mexico revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, studio portrait perhaps in 1914. Wikipedia image

Mexico revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, studio portrait perhaps in 1914. Wikipedia image

N.B.: Looked for a photo of FDR at Oxford, but quickly discovered he was nowhere near England on June 19, 1941 — hadn’t thought he would be with the Battle of Britain not really over. Found references to Watson’s delivering of the speech at Harvard, but little else. Good people at the FDR Library’s Pare Lorentz Center confirm that FDR was at the White House the entire day. There’s a story there, about the awarding of the degree.

Update 2017: It was not George Washington.

Especially in 2017, would you do us the favor of saying in comments how you got to this article? Thank you.

Save


%d bloggers like this: