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


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.

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

  1. Daniel R Davis says:

    See Aeschylus, “Agamemnon” from “The Oresteia,” line 1383. This is in Robert Fagles’s translation published by Penguin Classics, copyright 1977.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ed Darrell says:

    Got a link to the Irish saying it? Would love to include the reference if you have one.

    Like

  3. Neil Moran says:

    The Irish always said it

    Like

  4. […] in this world is he will die on his feet before he will live on his knees.”  Tough words.  Spanish Civil War. Not George Washington.  I particularly hate it when people make up stuff to put in the mouths of great men.  Washington […]

    Like

  5. […] or even dangerous. The forces arrayed against the Jewish nation are great. But as Emiliano Zapata (maybe) said, better to die on your feet than live on your […]

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  6. Ed Darrell says:

    Source, galherz?

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  7. galherz says:

    Imam Hussain (as) said this in the battle of Karbala, in 680 AD.

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  8. Ed Darrell says:

    BUT, I can find no confirmation Euripides ever put that statement down, Eva. Closest I’ve found looked like a claim it came from “Cyclops,” but it’s not in that text.

    I wonder where Euripides would have said that?

    Like

  9. Ed Darrell says:

    Thanks, Eva! Got a specific writing to link it to?

    Like

  10. Eva Holmberg says:

    Euripides (ca. 480 BC–406 BC) wrote “I would rather die on my feet than live on my knees.”

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Ed Darrell says:

    Might be. I’m content with the original attribution to Zapata, interested it spread to Spain 20 years later, and tickled Roosevelt invoked it.

    Like

  12. chamblee54 says:

    It might be one of those sayings that has been around a while. Its origins might be murky. People trying to get others to die for their cause are not known to be concerned about logic or ethics.

    Like

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